The past 13 months have been hectic for Jamie McDonald, better known as the "Bear" in Bear's Smokehouse. Since July 2014, he and his wife, Cheryl, have expanded the Kansas City-style barbecue operation twice, opening its first free-standing location on Hartford's Arch Street and then moving the original Windsor restaurant from within the Bart's Drive-In space to a 5,500-square-foot venue in the former Dale Drug Store on Poquonock Avenue. He's even found the time to collaborate with Hartford's fine-dining chefs, lending his smoking expertise to "The Cook and the Bear" weekly pop-up nights with Tyler Anderson at Millwright's in Simsbury.
And this Labor Day weekend, he will partner with Riverfront Recapture for the inaugural Bear's Smokehouse New England Barbecue Championships on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 5 and 6, showcasing the barbecue expertise of more than a dozen professional cook teams battling for a total of $20,000 in prize money and a qualifying berth to a prestigious food competition in November.
The two-day event begins Saturday night in Riverside Park at 6 p.m., where competing cook teams put up their smoked meats for the "People's Choice" title. Ticket holders will be treated to all-you-can-eat 'cue, Connecticut craft beer tastings (with more beer available for purchase) and live music by the Balkun Brothers. Guests will judge the contestants and vote for their favorite team; the People's Choice winner will earn a trophy and $4,000 in prize money, says Charles Myers, Riverfront Recapture's director of programs and events.
VIP ticket holders get early access to Saturday's event at 5 p.m. in the Riverfront Boathouse, with hors d'oeuvres, specialty bourbon tastings, Onyx Moonshine sampling and cocktails, and music by guitarist Daniel Salazar, McDonald said. Food Network personality Simon Majumdar will make a special guest appearance for a meet-and-greet, as will Danielle Bennett, a renowned and highly ranked Canadian pitmaster known as "Diva Q."
Sunday brings a Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned State Championship at Riverside Park, requiring teams to cook four meats (chicken, pork ribs, pork butt and brisket) according to the organization's strict standards. Winners will earn prize money and the opportunity to compete in the World Food Championships in Kissimmee, Fla., in November, with a prize purse of $300,000. (Sunday's private event is for teams only, with no admission, food for sale or activities.)
"The plume of smoke coming out of Riverside Park for two days should draw people right off the highway," Myers says. "It's just an incredible smell."
"The competition itself should be very, very good," McDonald says. "We've got some high-quality teams in there." He says he understands that it's "an investment" for the teams to travel to a weekend championship with cooking equipment and hopes to make it a smooth experience for them.
"As long as this goes well for them, they'll come back next year and spread the word that it was a good contest. It'll be able to grow next year."
Riverfront Recapture expects about 1,000 guests for Saturday's People's Choice event, Myers says (tickets are available at the door). As part of the nearly yearlong planning process, he and other organizers spent months learning about the intense barbecue culture, attending other competitions to become versed in the regulations and criteria of the strict judging process.
"We learned that you get full very fast," he says of all the meat sampling. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proclaimed the Labor Day event to be a Connecticut state championship, another requirement for such sanctioned competitions.
Proceeds from the event will benefit Riverfront Recapture's efforts to provide public parks with free recreational activities, events and youth programs. McDonald says that partnering with the organization was a good fit because of its experience hosting large outdoor events.
"From an infrastructure standpoint, I'm very confident that it'll go smoothly."
Bear's Expanding Brand
McDonald is continuing to build the Bear's brand, with a near-completed commissary kitchen in South Windsor at 454 Ellington Road that will be used to cook sides and sauces — and might eventually become a "Bear's express" location with a limited takeout menu, he said. In June, he announced that he'd be taking over a 6,500-square-foot space on Hartford's Front Street, which will have seating for nearly 200, a full bar and a stage for live bands. He'd originally aimed for a Labor Day opening, he said, but he now hopes that it'll be built out by the end of October.
The Front Street restaurant will be just a quick walk from Bear's current Arch Street location — which will remain open as an event venue.
"We get enough interest right now, but in order for us to rent it out, we have to close and that costs a lot of money," he says. "And that's not in most people's budgets to do that. We'll be able to offer it at a much more affordable rate."
He's also currently scouting for a potential third location in the Manchester area, he says.
"Jamie and Cheryl, they're the rock stars," Myers says. "That's what we do at Riverfront. We try to identify people who are filled with enthusiasm … find those people who have that passion and pair them with our event planning and management. It's a good formula to produce a very good experience for people. We're seeing record attendance at all of our activities and events this year."
Event tickets, available online and at the door, are $60 for general admission; $95 for VIP access. riverfront.org.