The formation of Operation BBQ Relief, the only nationwide barbecue charity, began with a phone call. On Monday, May 23, 2011, the day after the massive tornados in Joplin, Missouri, Stan Hays called his barbecue buddy Jeff Stith. Hays, who was walking to his office at the Farmers Insurance building near Kansas City, just two hours
south north of Joplin, told Stith, “I think we should go down there.” Stith agreed. Within a matter of hours, Stith had organized some barbecue friends, secured a food donation from Sam’s Club, and started a Facebook page for the organization they named Operation BBQ Relief (OBR).
By Tuesday, Hays, Stith, and their barbecue brethren set up a spot in Joplin, which was limping along without water or electricity in the aftermath of the tornado. “Who better to be able set up in a parking lot and turn out some good food than a group of barbecue guys?” They cooked that way routinely in weekend competitions. After all, they only needed wood for fuel.
They had planned on a three or four-day effort in Joplin, but eleven days later, OBR had served more than 120,000 meals. Three years later they’ve deployed to disasters around Texas—including the explosion in West, Texas, last year and the tornado in Royse City the year before—and all around the country. They’ve served more than half a million meals to victims of disasters.
OBR Co-Founder Will Cleaver on Anderson Cooper from Moore, Oklahoma
And they’ve done all this while maintaining day jobs. “Everybody who works for Operation BBQ Relief—even the board members—does so on a volunteer basis,” Hays told me. The organization does have its limitations, and leaders know that they can’t feed everyone affected by one particular disaster. But, as Hays explains, “We’re a stop-gap between the disaster happening, and the local civic and church organizations getting back on their feet, or the Red Cross or Salvation Army stepping in. It takes time for them to mobilize.” They also can’t respond to every disaster, and Hays stresses that they prefer to see the community take care of itself whenever possible. “It helps the healing process.”
When they do deploy, they start by finding a home base in the community. That might be a church, a VFW hall, or in some cases a Farmers Insurance office. “The first supporter, and a continued supporter has been Farmers Insurance,” Hays said. While Hays still does a lot of the work organizing each deployment, he doesn’t go to every location himself. OBR is only as effective as its volunteer network, and they have over 3,000 volunteers in 46 states that can be called upon at any time. Along with NBBQA and the HPBA, Ole Hickory is an official partner who delivers trailer-mounted rotisserie smokers that each hold about 800 pounds of meat at one time.
Just this past weekend, OBR mobilized for another trip to Texas, their twenty-fourth deployment. This time it was to aid with the humanitarian crisis in South Texas. Along with the Mercury One charity and its founder Glenn Beck, OBR served thousands of meals this past Saturday. Heading up this latest effort for OBR was Bryan McLarty of Southlake-based Big Fish BBQ. McLarty was one of the original OBR members serving barbecue in Joplin, and also led the group’s efforts in West, Royse City, and Moore, Oklahoma. He loaded up his rig early last Wednesday morning and drove to the border.
McLarty, who was OBR volunteer of the year in 2013, cooked with a few other Texans. Irving’s Mark Barron and Alan Shuttleworth from Keller also made the trip. In South Texas, they rendezvoused with Jake Barrera who lives in McAllen. Together they served breakfast tacos and barbecue to the stranded immigrant children at the Iglesia del Pueblo in Mission. The final tally? More than 3,600 breakfast tacos, 1,200 chopped beef sandwiches, 900 chicken fajitas, and 250 pounds of sausage.
McLarty said the demand throughout the day was greater than he expected. “The line was kind of overwhelming. It was over a hundred yards long, and didn’t seem to end.” He and Hays both stressed that OBR didn’t go to the border for any political purpose. They were just there to help some people in need. “We can’t change your situation, but hopefully we can change your day,” said McLarty.
OBR accepts donations, and there’s more information on how to become a volunteer here, but what they need most is a committed partner to provide food for these disasters. Hays noted that Sam’s Club, Tyson, and Cargill have all been generous in the past, but with each new disaster, OBR must spend time on the phone purchasing raw materials, then seeking a retroactive donation or discount for the food they’ve just purchased. “If US Foods or Sysco came on board…that’s what we’re looking for. If I could go to one person instead of fifteen, it would make our efforts a lot easier.”