Read Time: 7 Minutes

​How barbecue became a lifesaver

In addition to providing nourishing food, Operation BBQ Relief gives hope, friendship, and compassion to displaced residents and emergency personnel during times of natural and other disasters.

On March 20, 2019, volunteer members of the nonprofit Operation BBQ Relief organization headed to Nebraska and Illinois communities that had been severely impacted by spring floods. Providing barbecue meals for displaced residents and emergency personnel was one small way to temporarily soothe the harsh realities of their immense cleanup challenge.

Considered a small-scale deployment, "OBR" volunteers filled two semi-trucks to the brim with ingredients and equipment. During summer 2018, volunteer teams also assisted in the Carolinas following massive damage from Tropical Storm Florence.

“Barbecue reminds people of good times and that there are good times to come,” says David Marks, OBR’s Chief Marketing Officer.

In addition to providing nourishing food, hope, friendship, and compassion supplied by volunteers was a welcome balm at the worst time in these people’s lives.

Operation BBQ Relief began after an F-5 tornado caused $2.8 billion in damages to the Joplin, Missouri area in May 2011, killing more than 160 people. Will Cleaver knew the city well. It was the place to enjoy "fancy" dates while he attended Pittsburg State University in nearby Pittsburg, Kansas.

Volunteer prepares freshly smoked pulled pork to ensure the one hot meal that matters is received. Volunteer prepares freshly smoked pulled pork to ensure the one hot meal that matters is received. (Photo: Jeremy Lock)

Barbecue teams from eight states — including Cleaver’s — mobilized to help. They served 120,000 meals to displaced Joplin families, first responders, and other emergency personnel over a 13-day period. After that experience, Cleaver and current OBR CEO, Stan Hays, co-founded the organization.

Since 2011, OBR volunteers have served 3+ million meals following more than 50 disasters in dozens of states.

“We found a gap that exists from the time a disaster happens until the time that large sustaining groups can get their supply chain and equipment in,” Hays says. “We felt we were uniquely qualified to fill the gap and that — plus the emotional charge you get from helping people — helped shape our decision.”

OBR volunteers combine their barbecue cooking and catering skills with well-honed expertise in mobilizing teams to disaster areas. The organization’s executive team discusses each new disaster situation to determine the need for mass feeding.

The team then pushes out events through its OBR Volunteer App, which volunteers download and use to register. Social media posts and emails inform partners and sponsors about OBR’s intent to deploy, which may include purchasing food or moving it to the disaster location.

About half of OBR’s equipment occupies a Peculiar, Missouri warehouse and fenced yard. That includes two semi trucks and trailers, nonperishable goods, and other necessities. Volunteers that can’t travel but live in this area get last-minute things ready here.

“We then start getting core team members [organized] to set up and run a deployment and get equipment to the area while working on finding the right location set up,” Hays says.

“[We arrive], set up our equipment, and start producing food for those in need and the community. This [may] all happen in a matter of hours depending on location and severity.”

group of volunteers pose with sign after feeding people Volunteers from Freeport, Illinois gather to celebrate the 3,681 hot meals served. (Photo: Operation BBQ Relief)

A retired FedEx driver has driven semis for the organization for about two years, and a professional backup driver helps whenever he can. Corporate partner, Airlink Flights, helps get free driver flights to disaster areas. If neither driver is available, OBR pays drivers from a trucking company sponsor to help.

Volunteers, including BBQ teams, average three days on a deployment and may participate twice if they live close by. Many volunteers take vacation days to participate, but business owners or retired people may have more time available.

Most teams only use their own grills for smaller disasters. If teams do use their own equipment, OBR offers to reimburse their expenses. When big disasters occur, most of the cookers used are high-capacity smokers that OBR and several core members have, with fuel provided.

OBR typically creates a seven-day menu for each site, which may repeat depending on the length of deployment.

“We have a Head Pitmaster and Culinary Director Nick Woolfolk, who works with a team to put [the menu] together,” Hays says. “A lot of the food is donated, but what is not, we will purchase.”

These relief efforts have an enormous amount of moving parts. People trained to be “site leads,” and run each deployment often work 12-hour days. “We try to rotate them out and bring in fresh core team leads each shift, or change up their duties to ensure they get rest,” Hays says.

OBR pays for hotels or VRBOs for key team members working those long days for a week, while many barbecue teams sleep in their own trailers or campers. Two air-conditioned bunk trailers sleep about 14 people. Sometimes OBR also sets up a tent with air-conditioning and cots for people to sleep on.

Having sufficient financial and other support is important to OBR. Generous corporate sponsors include Seaboard Foods and Prairie Fresh, with two dozen additional corporate sponsors. On April 12, the organization’s first fundraising cookbook became available for pre-order, too.

In 2017, Hays reluctantly accepted designation among CNN’s Top 10 Heroes because of how it might benefit the organization.

“…What we do is not about me but about [8,000 volunteers]…who give their hearts, their time, and [often] their own money to help people,” he says. “I didn’t want the story to be about me, but about our volunteers. Additionally, there are other co-founders, and I felt that it wasn’t just me.”

After much discussion, Hays agreed.

“We have spent the last two-and-a-half years outside of disasters feeding those in communities that needed a good hot meal. When you look at what we do in disasters in filling that [food] gap, it is less than 75 days a year, so we still have 290 other days we can help communities, engage, and bring on more volunteers and train and educate them.”

leader addresses group of volunteers outside Stan Hays does a morning meeting with volunteers in Wilmington, NC in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. (Photo: Jeremy Lock)

OBR recently launched their Always Serving Project, joining forces with the National Organization of Voluntary Organizations. "ASP" provides non-disaster meals to help fight hunger across the nation, as well as feeding first responders and military and veteran communities.

Most ASP programs will be scheduled throughout the year, allowing OBR to track and share results. Volunteers may teach people about grilling and smoking their food, too.

“In each [situation] over the next year, we will learn more and see how we are doing,” Hays says. “We have already seen a positive response from our volunteers and new volunteers starting to sign up.”

ASP creates a much larger opportunity for OBR to receive grants because these predictable and measurable programs are on the calendar and clearly visible to foundations. In addition, more companies are interested in partnering with the organization because of its expansion into the non-disaster programs.

Although disasters are not predictable, ASP efforts can be. “But, with that being said, if there was a tragedy in the U.S. around military or first responders, we would look at mobilizing to help,” Hays says. “This is a natural progression and our board agreed with the vision and how it will help sustain our growth.”

headshot of writer Lisa Waterman Gray

Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer and photographer in Overland Park, Kan. and the Kansas City metropolitan area. Her byline has appeared in Chow Town/the Kansas City Star, Dreamscapes Travel and Lifestyle Magazine (Canadian), five AAA magazines, Midwest Living, Missouri Life, KANSAS!, Feast Magazine, and others. Lisa’s online stories have also posted at CivilEats.com, FoodTank.com, USAToday.com/10Best, OffbeatTravel.com, BusandMotorcoachNews.com, and WanderWithWonder.com. She is also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the Soul, Messages from Heaven and Other Miracles (January 2019) and author of the 400-page statewide travel book, An Explorer’s Guide: Kansas (June 2011, The Countryman Press/W.W. Norton & Company).

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