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.”
Welch lives in the Homestead High School part of town. Hart operates from the Northrop area. Hart also used to live southwest, on what’s now part of the Lutheran Hospital complex. The two Fort Wayne friends have worked and watched as the business has grown.
“Oh, he’s a hoot,” Welch said. “He’s quite the character. “We started out with a tent and then we moved to a livestock trailer that we converted and now have a full-blown concessions trailer.”
“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 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.
“They were a local group that came in and were doing it as a hobby,” Chappuis said of the Fort Wayne entry. “Now he competes very well with the national guys. Timmy’s does too.”
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.” That was 22 years ago. “When we started our kids were in diapers and now they’re in college and they’re able to help out, too,” he said.
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.
Chappuis said the festival invites several local schools to arrange for student help taking tickets, selling soft drinks and keeping the park clean. “We’ll write checks for about $10,000 to local schools for pitching in to help us make it happen,” he said.
Ribfest is more than ribs, of course. Visit bbqribfest.com for information, including an entertainment lineup.
After the festival, Hart and Welch will continue their recent practice of cooking hot dogs for kids on summer nights.
“We actually do catering events here and there and we’ve done catering jobs across the country,” Hart said. “We fly to Miami to do a certain job every February. This is kind of a family thing. I drag my family into helping me out when I can.”
“Our church, Level 13, and our sister church, Impact out in New Haven, they do a lot,” Welch said. “They have movies in the park in the summer and we got out there and give hot dogs away and feed the kids.”
“There are a few things we’ve picked up doing lately, a lot of church functions, and we do it to give back to the community,” Hart said. “Impact Church in New Haven has a glow-in-the-dark Easter egg hunt and we give hot dogs away to everybody at my church for Easter.”
Hart added that he’d like to blend more selling with giving as Low ‘N’ Slow moves forward.
Welch said it has been suggested that the grillers take on relief work in the wake of tornadoes or flooding or hurricanes. “We’d love to get involved in that,” he said. “Our full-time jobs get in the way of our hobby.”