For his 41st birthday on Sept. 10, Jamie McDonald of Bear's Smokehouse requested just one gift: donations to Operation BBQ Relief.
The nonprofit organization, which mobilizes teams of volunteers to cook and serve barbecue meals to people in disaster-stricken areas, was already on the ground providing sustenance and comfort to victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Hurricane Irma, which lashed the Caribbean and left fatalities and catastrophic damage in its wake, was heading toward Florida.
McDonald exceeded the $5,000 fundraising goal that he promised to match dollar for dollar — garnering nearly $6,200 — but his efforts weren't complete.
"I saw Irma was going to hit; I have family who lives in south Florida, and friends," he said. "I said, 'If you guys need us, we'll jump in the truck and head on down'."
On the morning after his birthday, he and his son, Collyn, 20, headed south to Florida in his 5-ton military truck, with a Cookshack FEC500 smoker on the back. He towed another Cookshack FEC700 behind it, thanks to some technical assistance from the Connecticut National Guard. With his equipment alone, he brought the capacity to smoke 5,000 pounds of meat per day.
McDonald, a Kansas City native, first became involved with Operation BBQ Relief two years ago. The organization began in 2011, in response to a need for relief efforts after an EF5 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, according to its website. With the help of volunteers from competition BBQ teams from 8 states, the organization served more than 120,000 meals in 13 days, delivering directly to people in impacted areas.
In the six years since, Operation BBQ Relief has deployed to disasters across the nation, responding to tornadoes in the Midwest, wildfires in Colorado and Tennessee, flooding in Louisiana and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. McDonald deployed to West Virginia in July 2016, serving 12,000 meals to flood victims, and serves as the Connecticut lead for the organization, ready to assemble and coordinate volunteers if the Nutmeg State were to face such a situation.
The McDonalds' trip to Florida took about three days with traffic, Jamie said. After arriving in the community of Estero on Wednesday, he and his son have been working with volunteers at Germain Arena, joining barbecue crews from as far away as Idaho to cook and distribute thousands of pounds of food for people in need. Operation BBQ Relief receives donations of meats, vegetables, propane fuel and packaging materials through corporate sponsors, and also relies on private monetary donations to support their goals.
Teams have been working 14-hour days outdoors in humid South Florida heat that tops 90 degrees, McDonald said, preparing, smoking and packaging thousands of meals for hurricane victims, police officers and other emergency responders, and linemen working to help restore power. Other organizations have been working with Operation BBQ Relief to airlift meals to Key West.
McDonald says he estimates the organization has served about 50,000 meals so far in Florida. On Sunday morning, he pulled and chopped 3,000 pounds of pork butt.
"If anything, we're serving food that's comparable to what we'd serve at the restaurant," he said. "We're smoking it the same way, it's hot, we've cooked it that day. I think that's what surprises people. When you see that smile on their face, and you see a whole family sit down and they're enjoying their first hot meal in a while, it's just great."
McDonald and Collyn plan to head home in the next day or two, as new volunteer crews come in to relieve them after five days of work.
He's happy to be able to share the experience with his son, who works full-time overseeing the smokers at the three Bear's locations in Hartford, South Windsor and Windsor.
"He knows as much as the rest of these guys in terms of smoking meat, food safety; he's a really good one to have along," he says. "I think it's also good to show him this part of the business, too. The day-to-day grind is one thing, but then when you get to do stuff like this — we're lucky enough to be in a position where we can help and give back, it's nice."
Barbecue's comfort factor helps in tough times, he says. "Even if it's just 30 minutes that a family can sit down and enjoy a meal together while they're going through this, it's at least a little bit of a respite for them."
Operation BBQ Relief, a 501.c.3 disaster relief organization, is accepting monetary donations and volunteer inquiries through its website. Visit operationbbqrelief.org for more information.