Dave Hart and Mike Welch have been friends for the longest time. They’ve been co-workers at their day jobs, too.

On their off hours, they sometimes like to fire up a grill and make free hot dogs for kids. They cater events. Sometimes they like to set up shop at a community festival, show off their skills and sell some ribs to help pay for that Low ’N’ Slow catering trailer.

Every June, they like to pack up the trailer, turn up the flame and take on “the big boys” at BBQ RibFest at Headwaters Park in Fort Wayne. They accept that challenge for the 10th time this week, joining the local and national barbecue stars Thursday through Sunday.

“I’m kind of the owner and Mike has been my moral support and helped me,” Hart said. “It’s more like my business and hobby but he has been by my side from Day 1, through thick and thin.”

“Mike has helped me get all this started and he’s been a friend of mine and we’ve worked together for years,” Hart said. “We were at work one day and my big boss asked if we could do a company picnic for all the workers and Mike was a supervisor and we just started cooking together. From there we figured out that we knew what we were doing, and started cooking.”

Then came more requests and eventually competitions. “I heard about a barbecue competition down at Kokomo from a friend of mine and we went down there and won it,” Hart said.

Then came the first Fort Wayne ribs challenge and then another and another. “It’s hard to believe that we started out with a little tent, and I don’t think we sold four cases of ribs that year,” said Hart, explaining that each case contains 18 slabs of ribs. “It’s now probably 25 to 30 cases,” he added.

Then came the recognition.

Low ’N’ Slow won the People’s Choice award for ribs in 2016. They’ve won the Best Brisket award bestowed by the judges. “I’d like to try winning (the ribs category) once,” Hart said. “But we’re competing with some big names. We’re going more high-tech. But it’s tough when you’re competing with the guys who travel and do this for a living.”

Those other crews let their food and their names do the bragging for them. This year’s “Rib Masters” include Carolina Rib King, Jack on the Bone International Rib Team, Desperado’s BBQ and more. They will be slow-cooking and fast-selling for four days.

BBQ Ribfest founder and co-director Mark Chappuis said those big names certainly draw their crowds. So do regional favorites such as Timmy’s in Garrett and Hart’s Low ‘N’ Slow.

Timmy’s, in fact, claimed the People’s Choice Award in 2017.

Chappuis said he and his wife, Cindy, started BBQ Ribfest as “a little, family-run operation.” he said. That was 22 years ago.

Festival hours are: Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m.-midnight and Sunday from 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Dads are admitted free on Sunday. “It’s become a great tradition for a lot of families on Father’s Day,” Chappuis said. “It’s very cool to see all the dads and their families, and then Dad doesn’t have to worry about setting up the grill for a change.”

Regular admission is $6 for ages 13 or older, $5 for seniors, $4 for students, military, fire and police, $3 all day Sunday, and free until 5:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.

Ribfest is more than ribs, of course. Visit bbqrib fest.com for information, including an entertainment lineup.

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