Get To Know Eric Forrester, The Ironman KCBS Competition, and Mason Dixon BBQ Supply
Eric Forrester, owner of Mason Dixon BBQ Supply in both Frederick, MD and the flagship store in Greencastle, PA has been in the barbecue game for well over a decade and has one of the most unique contests in the nation. He’s a wealth of knowledge of competition barbecue in the Mid-Atlantic and has always been a big supporter of MABA and a business member of the association for a long time. We wanted to get-to-know Eric a little better and find out more about his start in barbecue, his businesses, but mostly his KCBS competition, the Ironman. He was kind enough to answer all of our questions and I think you’ll agree, it was quite interesting and as Eric is, quite entertaining!
Tell us a little about your history in barbecue and how you came to be the owner of two barbecue businesses in the Mid-Atlantic.
I was born at a young age and everything after that was blur until I got my glasses at age 7….(Ha, thanks Groucho Marx!) At 14, my first job was in the restaurant business and that continued through and after college. I was recruited by General Mills (they owned Red Lobster back then) to become part of a 5-person team to open new restaurants along the Eastern seaboard. I opened 12 restaurants in 3 years and closed and re-opened another 4 stores.
When the GM stopped opening stores, I was assigned to the Red Lobster in Hagerstown, MD and I decided to go back to school for my masters degree and “escape” the restaurant lifestyle. I catered for a couple of years and after getting my masters, I got into manufacturing and eventually owned a part of a company that made construction equipment. I sold my share in 2001 and became the COO of Blue Ridge Mountain Cookery – BRMC made high-end catering grills for the military, restaurants, rental, and universities. My “foodie” side kicked in and I started getting into competition barbecue on custom smokers that we built and a Jedmaster Smoker. We competed in 10 competitions from 2004-2006 under the name Smoked Encounters of the 3rd Swine. Primarily in MIM (MBN) comps; our best finish was RGC at the National Capital BBQ Comp in DC. In 2007, I left BRMC and started my own company – CELF Services, LLC., doing sub-contract metal finishing work for military applications.
In 2009, things were moving along pretty wall and I was looking for more to do and to maybe get back in the food business. I had decided to purchase a bar/restaurant in Shippensburg, PA; so after my wife stepped on my head (in a good way), I decided not to go into the bar business, but to open a BBQ Supply Store instead – she was good with this! I was friends with the guys at Meadow Creek and was selling their units to the military through a GSA Contract already, so I modeled my store after their store in New Holland. That was it – Mason-Dixon BBQ Supply was born! I still have/kept CELF Services and thought Mason-Dixon would be a write off for me for a few years, but we have done well and it has never worked out that way!
After getting beat up by Maryland customers for a few years, I opened the store in Frederick in 2014 and have considered opening a 3rd location in Winchester, VA…we’ll see.
When was the first Ironman event here at Mason Dixon?
The first official event we did was in 2012 – The Go Naked BBQ Show(down) – a ribs & chicken Backyard Event that forbade the use of any electronics to prep, cook, or finish with. No pellet cookers, no Guru controls, no electric knives, no stay-in thermos, etc. We kept it as Go Naked for 2 years and then added THE IRONMAN component and turned it into a 4 meat competition in 2013.
Eventually I wanted to grow this into a full-blown KCBS Comp. I had run several other competitions – Smoketoberfest (3 yrs) and the Memorial Day Pignic – and wanted to get sanctioning, but ran into issues with KCBS. Our format was fun, hard, and the teams seemed to like the challenge, but KCBS said we couldn’t force teams to limit their meat…that’s when I had an epiphany (or stroke, who knows) that we could be KCBS sanctioned if the teams voluntarily agreed to the limitations. So that’s what we did and went KCBS in 2014. This is officially our 4th year as a KCBS competition as THE IRONMAN.
Talk about the special rules association with the Ironman format?
1. No electric devices to be used in the prep, cooking, or presenting of competition meats – no Guru/Stoker/Flame Boss controls, no Pellet Cookers, no electric rotisseries, no electric knives, no stay-in thermometers. Just you, your pit, and meat. (Maverick/Thermopen/stick-in thermos are OK – food safety!).
2. Limited meats! If you call yourself a Pitmaster, you should be able to cook! In most comps you can cook as much meat as you want…but at THE IRONMAN, you can only cook (1) brisket, (1) pork butt, (1) rack o’ ribs, (7) pieces of chicken (1 to taste). There is even a “challenge group” now that puts all (7) pieces of chicken in! (Editor’s note – I have it on good authority that the winning chicken box in 2016 contained all 7 pieces!)
What made you decide to do a contest in this non-traditional way?
As with all good ideas, this was hatched in a bar and drinks were involved. Some of you might remember Tim McMaster (Porter Mac’s Rockin’ Q) and Dave Nash (Pot Belly BBQ)…well, we were all drinking (not sure how that happened) and started talking about the Pitmaster TV show and how one of the competitors on there couldn’t operate the Egg without the Guru…some of you might remember that…ugh. See, I still feel the same way about it. Don’t get me wrong, electronic controls are marvels of science, but you should know how to operate your Pit without one – especially if you call yourself a Pitmaster on national TV. Anyway, one thing led to another and Go Naked BBQ was born.
Two years later we were trying to make it even more challenging and Mark Flanigan suggested limiting the meat. I thought this was a great idea, so we did it and THE IRONMAN was born – incorporating the “no electric” clause as well! We have toyed with the idea of having teams bring their meat in and putting it in coolers, then having a blind draw where the teams “draw” for meat coolers, but I think this will put KCBS over the top and will threaten our sanctioning. This would, however, make the field more level when it comes to meats being cooked, i.e. – one team can afford the expensive Wagyu brisket and another team can’t…but again, I don’t think we can get this through KCBS.
This has been a very popular contest over the years, why do you think so many teams like it so much?
Well…like any good comp, it has a lot to do with the organizer…ha! We’ve traditionally been the first cook of the season for many of the Mid-Atlantic teams and we are an “inexpensive” contest to start with. A lot of teams really like the different format as well. It’s a challenge and makes you really tend to your pit and your food – one mistake can cost you, there’s no “fallback” entry!
THE IRONMAN now sells out each year and we attract teams from 7 different states and Canada. We are also what I call a “cooks competition” in that, while this is in conjunction with the Mason-Dixon BBQ Open House, we don’t attract 10,000 spectators, so the atmosphere is much more relaxed and the public doesn’t get in the way. The cooks can socialize and have some fun without any concern for the public interfering with their cook…or their fun.
THE IRONMAN has also introduced 22 new teams to BBQ competition over the past few years. This year we’ll have 4 teams that have never competed before. At $200 it’s inexpensive and you don’t have all of that meat cost normally associated with a competition. Also, because it is low-key, these newbies can really talk with other teams and get a leg up.
Let’s talk about the weather shall we? Your contest has always been at the beginning of the typical “BBQ season” in the Mid-Atlantic and sometimes the weather can be, I’ll say…interesting in Pennsylvania in late March, early April. Can you comment on that and also give us your annual promise for weather conditions for this year’s contest?
As I explain to everyone, weather is a state of mind. Do you see birds whining when it’s cold? No, they just freeze to death and fall off the line! But they don’t feel sorry for themselves at any point! So, while weather at THE IRONMAN has been temperamental at times, it’s still fantastic if you have the right mind-set! And if you freeze to death, we’ll give you a nice send-off!! That’s how we roll!
We’ve had cold, windy nights (I think the record for lost canopies is only at 9!), nice nights, rainy days (maybe a little sleet), and one beautiful day!! So THE IRONMAN, like me, is well-rounded.
Last year, we had a great weekend with temps in the mid 50’s, partly sunny, and no 50mph winds until after 3pm on Saturday. Despite rumors that I had sold my soul to the devil for good weather, that’s completely untru…there might have been some dancing and sacrificing of chickens, but that’s voodoo and not the same thing! This year I’ve sent a letter to Donald Trump asking for an Executive Order for tree-e-e-mendously good weather! I think I’m in!!! But just in case, bring a long sleeved shirt.
What else about your contest makes this event special?
As with all my events, we do some fun stuff for the teams…on Friday evening we have a pizza party – free pizzas for all teams and team members – after all, who wants to eat BBQ?! I always think we get enough and it’s like a wave of vultures when we bring them – and I never get a piece – but I digress. In an effort to stem the pizza purge we also offer free “Boat Drinks” to all of-age competitors! A fruity concoction of rum and juices to make everyone happy! It’s a grand effort to have everyone relax and visit….because, if nothing else, the BBQ family is great and it’s a lot of fun to visit with everyone.
All of my events also involve charity…gotta give back. This year we are raising money through The Wing Thing – a People’s Choice Wing Competition! All the teams cook 10lbs of wings that are sold to, and voted on by, the dreaded public. This year we are raising money for the Greencastle Relay4Life. They are a good crew and because we work with the local branch, the money stays here and they do great things for the local community. I am a big believer in giving back.
We also invite other charities to come and set up displays at THE IRONMAN. Better Days Animal Shelter will be here, Make-A-Wish is coming, etc. Also, instead of paying Mason-Dixon BBQ, all food vendors and craft vendors have to donate their vending fee to the charity…which is also pretty cool!
LAST, but not least, it is FREE for the public to get into THE IRONMAN. We don’t charge a parking fee or a gate fee. This is a great family event that revolves around the love of BBQ. We don’t run THE IRONMAN to make a profit for Mason-Dixon BBQ. All proceeds from the event go to supporting local charities, team pay-outs, and the coveted IRONMAN trophies!
Ok, here’s your chance to plug the business(es)! Anything special going on during the contest weekend for customers, teams, enthusiasts?
As I mentioned before, we do THE IRONMAN as a part of the Spring Open House at Mason-Dixon BBQ – Greencastle. In addition to the Competition, we have sampling and demonstrations all day long – I think last year we gave away 400lbs of food! There is also live music, door prizes, etc.
We have a modified Eggfest with demonstrations, huge discounts, tastings, and 15% DISCOUNT ON BIG GREEN EGGS! In addition, if you purchase an Egg that day, we team you up with an Egghead and give you meat – that way you not only purchase an Egg, you cook on it too!
EVERYTHING IN THE STORE (with the exception of Backwoods and 270’s) IS 10-50% OFF. When you have decided on your purchases, you get to pull your discount at the register….and yes, there are 20%, 30%, 40%, and even 50% off discounts in the jar! So Weber, Meadow Creek, Uuni, and Bradley cookers are at least 10% off; as are all accessories – Mavericks, Flame Boss, Spitjack, etc.; all rubs and sauces; and charcoal, pellets, etc. – you get the idea!
270 Smokers will be $100 off and we will waive the freight and crating fee off Backwoods, so they will sell at retail alone!
For teams, we will be offering these discounts on Friday after 2pm as well! We’ll also be offering financing (with pre-approval) for 6 Months same as cash purchases! (If interested in this, let us know at least a week prior!)
Discounts will only be available at the Greencastle store! We are looking to put together an Open House at the Frederick store sometime in May! Any ideas for something cool?
Any parting words for our readers or folks on the fence about signing up for the Ironman?
The IRONMAN is about 6 weeks away and we are full at 60 teams! Yeah, I know that’s a surprise…it’s a surprise to me too! Ugh. It’s like an addiction, I just can’t say no! But WE ARE NOW DEFINITELY FULL!!!
I’m looking forward to the warm Spring weather and seeing everyone!!!!