Stiff competition at last year's Barbecue on the River resulted in two teams, Regulators BBQ and West Kentucky Moonswiners, tying for the top prize and leaving both teams wondering what they need to do to edge out their friendly rivals during this year's festival, Sept. 22 to 24 in downtown Paducah.
As the big winners were announced last year, Regulators captain Will Gilbert and Moonswiners captain Blair Rudd said they both felt as their chances were good for being named Grand Champion, but neither expected they would both earn the title.
"It was going through my head, you know, 'Maybe. Maybe this year,'" Gilbert said. "Then they said there was a tie, and my heart beat a little faster. They announced our name first, and I really didn't hear anything else. As I made my way up to the front, I saw Blair had been called as well."
This wasn't the first time Gilbert and Rudd had met. The two had attended elementary and middle school together in Carlisle County and they've maintained their friendship throughout their time competing against each other.
"When we got together after in a big celebration, Blair said I could hold onto the trophy because he had already gotten one before, and there was just a whole lot of laughing," Gilbert said. "The night before, when we were preparing, he told me I could go ahead and take home this trophy, he'd get one later."
"It was just a happy period of time, there," Rudd added. "I was proud of him for his first win. I'm not going to say we are tired of winning, by no means at all, but they were super excited and we were excited for them."
The most important aspect of the event, both men said, are the charities they partner with, each receiving a portion of proceeds from food sales.
Paducah's Regulators raised thousands of dollars for Cassidy's Cause last year, a charity that provides equine therapy for patients on the autism spectrum. Last year was the first year they chose this cause, and they will be supporting it again this year.
"We went to check out the charity and saw that it was a really, really neat thing," Gilbert said. "Now there's a personal aspect to it for us. One of my cooking partners has a child that is on the spectrum and she started going out there after we found out about the charity, and she's shown great improvement in social skills from it."
The Moonswiners of Cunningham are continuing to support the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
"We're all there for the common goal of helping out a charity that so desperately needs it," Rudd said.
The competitive part is still important to each team, but the contest is far from cut throat. In fact, both men say all competitors treat each other like family during the event, doing anything they can to lend a hand to each other.
"It's not all about winning when we get down there," Rudd said. "All of the cookers, on their own accord, will lend other teams items if they need something."
That camaraderie extends outside of the competition, as well.
"What people don't realize is that during our time away from Barbecue on the River, we are all still barbecuing," Gilbert said. "We do different fundraisers and sometimes we borrow each other's pits and sometimes we will help out during some of the larger fundraisers ... When we say we are family, we aren't joking."
While they may treat their fellow barbecuers like family, after all, it's still a competition and the notoriety of bringing home an award from the nationally-known event equals a boom in business for the trophy holder. Both men share the same strategy in doing so, even if their strategies are much the same -- consistency.
"We're not going to change too much about what we do," Gilbert said. "Blair is adamant about his strategy, and I take this from him and his multiple wins, consistency is key, and we've been fairly consistent with our products."
Rudd has one final thing to say to this year's competitors.
Rudd said: "Look out, because we're coming for you again."