Milliions of meals served by Missouri-based organization
The old empty mall parking lot isn’t a quiet place today. A long line of cars stretches across the pavement, waiting to reach the tents up ahead where a group of volunteers have been grilling since daybreak. The smell of smoked meat fills the air as the Florida sun rises higher over the wreckage caused by the recent hurricane. People are devastated, overwhelmed and hungry, but their story is far from over. They’re about to discover the power of compassion and barbecue.
“What started everything was the Joplin tornado,” says Stan Hays, CEO and founder of Operation BBQ Relief. “I’d spent years participating in barbecue competitions and rallied the guys I competed with to take our cookers there and cook for the community. By day three, we realized there was a huge gap and we were uniquely qualified to fill it.”
Joplin was where the greater importance of their mission was made clear to Stan.
“A little old lady cried over the sandwich I’d given her,” Stan recalls. “She told me it wasn’t about the food, but for showing her the community wasn’t forgotten and people can still come together to show love and humanity.”
A week after they returned, they filed the paperwork and Operation BBQ Relief (OBR) soon became an official disaster relief organization.
OBR started serving meals to those affected by natural disasters. They set up smokers in empty parking lots and handed out food until it ran out. The need quickly grew and so did the number of employees, as well as volunteers.
“We have about 25 full-time employees now and six part time,” Stan says, adding volunteers range from competitive pitmasters to stay-at-home moms to church groups. “We have a culinary team who oversees everything and a lot of retired folks who have been cooking longer than we have.”
Since May 2011, the organization has deployed to over 100 different disasters across 30 states and served more than 10 million meals. The OBR headquarters are in Peculiar, but they also have warehouses, offices and freezer storage dispersed throughout the country, including locations in Tennessee, Virginia and Florida. “Right now, I probably have 350,000 to 400,000 servings of protein and over 150,000 No. 10 cans of vegetables,” Stan adds.
OBR typically begins serving food within 48 hours of a disaster happening, usually by the first night they arrive in town. “We served our first sandwiches about 30 hours after Hurricane Ian hit. That first day in Florida, we did around 200 to 300 meals,” Stan says. “By day seven, we were serving over 50,000 meals in a day.”
Before arriving on site, OBR often has locals scout potential locations to serve as basecamp. With several travel trailers, refrigeration trucks, inventory tents, bunkhouse and bath trailers the gear can take up to three football fields worth of space, Stan says.
“We don’t have a huge menu, but we’re making everything fresh daily,” he says. They usually offer large cuts of meat, such as boneless turkey breasts, pork loins or brisket. Every meal includes two hot sides of vegetables and often a fruit cup, granola bar or bag of chips.
“We’ll even throw in terriyaki rice bowls or heavy protein beans and rice to mix things up,” he adds.
Once the food is cooked and ready to be served, the OBR team hands the boxed meals off to local volunteers. In Florida, they even hired food trucks that were out of business because of the disaster to take their food and set up in various parking lots.
With a 40-by-100-foot tent lined with smokers on one side and skillets on the other, Stan’s team has certainly learned the art of cooking large quantities quickly, creating around 1,000 servings of vegetables per hour.
They also serve meals for first responders. “If you’re coming to help the community, we’re going to feed you,” Stan says. “Whether you’re a tree trimmer, the local police or someone cleaning out houses, if there’s no food out there, we’re going to make sure you have something to eat.” In Joplin, he recalls volunteers waking up in the middle of the night to serve the U.S. Marshals when they finished their shifts. “It was important to take care of them because they were taking care of us.”
While OBR doesn’t deploy to every disaster, they’re always preparing and evaluating to determine if they can help.
“We often look at the communities’ ability to take care of themselves and see if there’s enough resources already in place or if they’ll need assistance in that first week,” Stan says. “In the case of something like Hurricane Ian where we know it’s going to be devastating, we don’t wait for the state or county to call us. We’re mobilizing well beforehand. They’re busy worrying about the safety of the people, so we focus on the food side.”
Why barbecue? “I think it’s one of the quintessential comfort foods,” Stan says. “I don’t know if there’s a food more celebrated than barbecue. And it’s easy to feed a lot of people with it. Think about it, you don’t see pasta guys handing out chunks of lasagna,” he says with a laugh.
Stan says for volunteers and employees alike, the mission is the same with every deployment. Even if you don’t know how to cook, Stan says there are several positions available to help fill the void.
“You just need a heart to give,” he says. “It’s all about that one meal that matters. We might just provide it 50,000 times that day.”
To learn more, visit www.obr.org or download OBR’s Volunteers app.
Kaiser is a freelance writer from Hartville.