By Paul Lane
The Tonawanda News
CITY OF TONAWANDA — Now six years into his smoke-saturated labor of love, Honcho Gregory has only fueled the fire toward his culinary goals for the Twin Cities.
The organizer of the Smokin Eagles International BBQ Festival appears well on his way to his dreams of making the Tonawandas the barbecue capital of the northern United States.
The festival continues to gain attention. It was recently recognized by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a New York state championship barbecue event. The Kansas City and New England barbecue societies have sanctioned event during the three-day festival, as well.
Gregory appreciated the support. Last year saw an attendance downturn due to inclement weather, but he expects to easily surpass the roughly 28,000 people who attended the festival in 2011.
“This will probably double our size,” he said.
That would be a big step for the festival, which began in 2008 at The Summit in Wheatfield. Gregory started the festival thinking it would be along the lines of the Taste of Buffalo, except devoted solely to barbecue. The event moved to Gateway Harbor in 2010 and has happily delighted canal-goers with savory barbecue smoke ever since.
But Gregory doesn’t want the festivals growth to outpace its capacity. He maintains a strict cap on the number of vendors who can take part.
“We’re happy where it’s at,” he said. “If it goes too big too fast, it’ll grow out of control.”
There’s also been growth barbecue’s popularity as a food genre in the past few years locally — something Gregory thinks is due at least in small part to Smoking Eagles. Barbecue mainstays like Suzy-Q’s Bar-B-Que Shack in the Town of Tonawanda, One-Eyed Jack’s in Lockport and the Brickyard Pub and BBQ in the Village of Lewiston are among the top draws in their communities among diners. And Buffalo will welcome one of the Northeast’s foremost barbecue chains in October. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que is set to move into the Entertainment District, and developer Mark Croce feels the restaurant can become the biggest draw in the city and one of the highest-grossing restaurants in all of Western New York.
Good barbecue can be a great tourism draw, Gregory said. That’s what he’s counting on with the festival.
“It’s great for the commerce in the city,” he said. “People, on the way home, they say, ‘Oh, there’s that place we heard of.’ And they come back the next weekend.”
The three-day festival features live music, a people’s choice award and an improv cook-off wherein cooks will have to make the best dish possible with a batch of ingredients they’re provided. The festival will also feature what Gregory calls perhaps the last available firemen’s chowder in Western New York and dessert competitions. proceeds will benefit the Variety Club Telethon.
All the while, Gregory hopes to strike just the right balance of big-time barbecue flavor and small-town home cooking. His efforts have grown to the point where Smokin Eagles is now teaching courses at Niagara University on the barbecue basics, and private classes are also available.
Not bad for a region whose barbecue IQ was once at a Forrest Gumpian level.
“When we started, barbecue was known as chicken with sauce around here,” he said. “Now we have more barbecue teams here than in the eastern half of the state.”
With the expected turnout, Gregory said additional festival volunteers are needed. Call 695-3755 for more information.
Contact Paul Lane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
• WHAT: Sixth annual Smokin Eagles International BBQ Festival
• WHEN: Friday through Aug. 11
• WHERE: Gateway Harbor, North Tonawanda
• MORE INFORMATION: Call 695-3755 or visit sebbq.com