Long before televised culinary battles such as “Iron Chef” and “Hell’s Kitchen” became popular, there was the Kansas City Barbecue Society. KCBS started holding sanctioned competitive events in 1985 and now sponsors more than 450 annual events across the globe.
The goal of the KCBS’s 19,000 members is to see who can produce the tastiest smoked meat in the world. And in 2013, pitmaster Luke Darnell, his wife Kim Darnell, and his best friend Leigh Anne Terry threw their hat into the ring with Old Virginia Smoke, a competitive barbeque team based out of Bristow, VA, 40 miles outside of Washington, DC.
In the three seasons since, Old Virginia Smoke has won Grand Championships as well as a second place finish for side dishes at the 2014 World Series of Barbecue. It also won the National Pork Championship at the 2015 Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle.
Like credit unions, this small-but-mighty startup has held its own against larger, better-funded competitors while remaining true to its values. Here, Old Virginia Smoke shares four business tips to help credit unions serve up exactly what their members are hungry for.
No. 1: It Takes Good Partners To Build A Good Brand
Old Virginia Smoke brought its own rubs and sauces to its first competition in May 2013. These were the same ingredients the team’s friends had raved about, providing the initial encouragement for the team to enter the competitive landscape. However, in competition, the hand-ground spices and homemade sauces yielded no rewards.
A fellow competitor who tasted OVS’s brisket rub said it had too much jalapeno and horseradish. He then handed them a bottle of Cow Lick brisket rub. That mysterious advisor was none other than award-winning cook Chris Capell, the creator of Cow Lick and the owner of Dizzy Pig, the seasoning’s parent company.
There are four basic barbecue styles in the United States: Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City, and Texas. However, regional differences can increase that number to as many as 21, according to Thrillist.com.
Old Virginia Smoke continued using its original cooking timeline and processes but started using Cow Lick for flavor. Two competitions later, OVS won an award for its brisket.
From there, Old Virginia Smoke ended the 2014 season among the top 50 brisket teams in the country — out of more than 2,000 competitors — and is on track to repeat that in 2015.
And for the past two years, Dizzy Pig has been the official rub sponsor for the team.
The Credit Union Lesson
Don’t be afraid to call in reinforcements, particularly when breaking ground in an unfamiliar direction.
Whatever strengths an organization has — lending, technology, marketing, etc. — it also has weaknesses. A specialized consultant or vendor that focuses on sub-segments of the big picture can identify shortcomings and help the credit union correct them. Likewise, peer credit unions are often willing to share their personal battles and what worked best for them.
No. 2: Know How To Share Without Losing Flair
Being part of a shared community and still maintaining a competitive edge are not mutually exclusive ideas for most KCBS competitors — even with thousands of dollars in prize money at stake. In fact, competitors arrive on-site early to participate in social events ranging from quiet potluck dinners to raging parties.
But the night before the cook-off, teams put those social events on hold and retreat to their territories to light fires, trim meat, prep cookers, and more. Competition etiquette discourages uninvited guests at a team’s camp, and those who ignore the unwritten rule are often accused of trying to steal tips, ingredients, and processes.
The next day, teams turn in their competition chicken at noon, pork ribs at 12:30 p.m., pork shoulder at 1 p.m., and beef brisket at 1:30 p.m. Then, once the last dish is out the door, the social switch flips again, with cooks trading meats and giving one another constructive feedback. Although everyone hopes their team wins a prize or two, competitors celebrate their friends' victories as well.
KCBS judges use a nine-point scale — “nine” is excellent; “two” is inedible — to grade submissions on appearance, texture, and taste. Judges can also give a disqualifiying score of "one" when cooks use improper materials or the wrong cut of meat.
The Credit Union Lesson
Healthy competitiveness can coexist alongside cooperative values. After all, if individual institutions didn’t strive to raise the bar, the industry would become complacent and stagnant.
An example of a healthy balance between cooperative and competitive is evident in the nation’s multi-owned credit union service organizations (CUSOs). These collaborations allow multiple institutions to address common concerns and shared opportunities while maintaining their independence and individual market priorities.
No. 3: There’s No Such Thing As Down Time
KCBS hosts sanctioned events throughout the year, but as the weather gets colder in the mid-Atlantic area, many competitors store their gear and wait for the next season.
That’s not the case for Old Virginia Smoke. OVS spends the winter maintaining equipment, wooing potential sponsors, testing new products, and attending classes taught by championship barbecue professionals.
“We do at least one competition-style cook each month of the off-season,” says pitmaster Luke Darnell. “It’s easy to get into a rut and become complacent, so this is an opportunity to try out different ingredients and techniques.”
Experimenting is important because what the judges like changes from year to year and place to place.
“The judges may love our brisket in Maryland, but then they’ll hate it in New York,” Darnell says.
To stay ahead of these changes, Old Virginia Smoke occasionally hosts certified judges for mock competitions. The team cooks under the same rules and time restrictions they’d face in a regular competition, and the judges score the food in the same way, too.
Unlike a competition, however, the team and judges thoroughly debrief afterward.
“We started doing this at the start of every season,” says team member Kim Darnell. “Now teams up and down the East Coast are doing it, too.”
The Credit Union Lesson
Inertia is the enemy of progress, and every successful organization can fall victim to the natural desire to simply rest on its laurels.
Regulator exams are built-in wake-up calls that identify shortfalls, but proactive credit unions also seek out feedback from different channels and different sources — including social media, member surveys, demographic- and community-based focus groups, industry workshops, and more. When balanced against institutional goals and values, these opinions provide a valuable push for progress.
No. 4: Give Credit Where Credit Is Due
In 2013, after a summer of cooking under tents in unpredictable weather, Old Virginia Smoke knew it needed to invest in a competition barbecue trailer. However, the team had already sunk a fair amount of personal capital into purchasing cookers and other supplies, and its members could not contribute or borrow the funds necessary for the trailer. Instead, OVS turned to crowdsourcing. It created the first-ever Kickstarter campaign dedicated to buying such an item and asked supporters to “join the team” for the 2014 season via small financial contributions.
The campaign raised more than $5,000. In return, OVS thanked supporters with stickers and T-shirts. It also publicized supporters’ names in social media and at competitions. Old Virginia Smoke even created video tours of the new cook trailer and updated supporters after every competition.
This Kickstarter campaign and subsequent communications formed the basis of a strong OVS social media presence that continues to grow today.
The Credit Union Lesson
Consumers are tapping social media and peer funding to both solicit and provide financial support, but they’re only supporting causes they believe in.
Credit unions also support various philanthropic and community causes, so consider giving members some direct control over how and where the institution gives back. Put recipient organizations up for member vote or let members themselves present the check or other support to beneficiaries. It’s their money, so be sure make them part of the team.
Note From The Author (Pictured Above, Center)
By day, I’m a mild-mannered human resources professional at Callahan & Associates. But three years ago, two friends and I formed a competition barbecue team. Calling ourselves “Old Virginia Smoke,” we compete in the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) circuit and are ranked among the top 50 teams in the nation out of a field of more than 2,300. Learn more about us at www.oldvirginiasmoke.com and find us on Facebook at facebook.com/OldVirginiaSmoke.