For most people, when spring comes around and the weather warms up, usually around Memorial Day, that means it is time to take the cover off the grill, clean it up and prepare it for barbecue season. Then, as the fall weather cools the air, everything is gathered up and put away until the start of next year's grilling season.
It's an annual custom that is completely foreign to Bob Trudnak, marketing manager for the BBQ Guru and one-half of the championship winning BBQ Guru Cook-Off team.
"A couple years ago, we had that huge snowstorm that dropped about 30 inches of snow," said Trudnak. "Everybody was shoveling their driveways, I shoveled my way to my smoker and put some ribs in it. I ended up feeding a bunch of the neighbors."
Trudnak's love of grilling helped turn his team into one of the top barbeque competitors in the country. Together with co-worker Kenny Baker, they have slow-cooked their way to this weekend's championship round of the Sam's Club National BBQ Tour.
"[Bob] is the seasonings and recipe guy," said Baker, who is originally from the Washington, D.C. area and joined the BBQ Guru five years ago. "I handle the fire and the pit. We play to our strengths and it really works for us."
Trudnak and Baker will arrive in Bentonville, Ark., today and start cooking as early as Friday, in time to start producing food to the judges by noon Saturday. The competition consists of four different categories: chicken, ribs, pork and brisket.
"The larger cuts, like the brisket and pork butt, can be slow cooked for as much as 20 hours," said Trudnak. "So, you want to give yourself enough time to get everything prepared for the judges. Once the judging starts, you have to come back with the next dish every half hour."
The BBQ Guru team spends about six months out of the year on the competition circuit, entering about two cook-offs a month, mostly in the tri-state area. A combination of winning a state championship at the New Holland Summer Fest competition in August and a little bit of luck earned Trudnak and Baker a shot at what is considered the big daddy of barbeque contests, the Jack Daniels World Championship Barbecue Invitational in Lynchburg, Tenn., on Oct. 27.
"Some places have multiple state championship competitions," said Trudnak. "Every team that wins a state championship gets their name placed in a hat. If their name is picked, they get to go to Lynchburg. Pennsylvania has five state champs, so we were picked out of that group. But Vermont, for example, only has one state championship. If you win that, you automatically go to the Jack Daniels Invitational."
This will be the second appearance at the inivitational for the BBQ Guru. Their first shot at the ultimate title came in 2010, where they fell just two points shy and had to settle for second place behind a team called QUAU, friendly rivals with Trudnak and Baker.
"We're judged on three criteria," said Trudnak. "Appearance, taste and tenderness. The judges are basically looking for things to critique. The best you can do is build the right flavors and give them barbecue they can't complain about. There have been times that we lost by three thousandths of a point, and other times we won by 31 points."
Trudnak began competing in the barbecue circuit in 2004 as a fun way to market the products created by the BBQ Guru. The company was spun off from Therm-Omega-Tech, Inc., a manufacturer that supplies temperature control valves to commercial markets such as the railroad industry. It was founded in 1982 by the late Fred Pirkle, a prolific inventor who came up with a way to accurately regulate the heat in a grill.
The BBQ Guru was formed to market the first digital temperature control fans, which can supplement any grill, commercial or private. The device is placed against one of the grill vents, with the desired temperature set on the control panel. If the internal thermometer detects that the coals have cooled down too much, a small fan automatically activates and raises the temperature.
It's a useful tool to assist with what Trudnak considers the most important aspect of grilling, above the rubs, seasoning, sauces and meats.
"It's all about timing and keeping the temperature consistent throughout the whole cook," said Trudnak. "You can't keep opening the hood to check on the meat. Let it sit for the right amount of time, or you're not going to have good product at the end."