By Robb Murray
---- — MANKATO — It started four years ago behind Buster's Bar with a few guys who just wanted to have a cookout. Now, the Bend of the River Cookout has grown into a major annual event with professional cooks and a goal of raising $30,000.
The event raises money to outfit local parks with playground equipment for kids with disabilities. Last year's event, which pulled in $17,000, helped install special swings at Wings Over White Oak Park in Mankato that enable kids in wheelchairs to enjoy the playground equipment.
This year the big attraction to the fundraiser is the addition of so-called "professional" barbecue cooks. Nathan Herme, Bend of the River Cookout organizer, said he took over after last year's event and started looking into having the event become an official sanctioned Kansas City Barbecue Society event.
Turns out, it didn't take much. He filled out the application, gathered all the appropriate paperwork and got busy getting the word out.
"I went to four different competitions, talked to the teams, went camper to camper, campsite to campsite," Herme said. "People were excited. Barbecue in Minnesota has been growing like crazy the last few years. And with the success of the teams we have in the local area, that just makes it even better."
Before long, he had a list of 25 professional cookers and 15 amateurs ready to square off for prize money at the event.
One of those cooks is Rich Davis, who owns and operates The Q Crew out of Waldorf. Davis said he got into the barbecue business just by grilling good food in the backyard.
"I got asked to cook with a couple buddies in a little backyard local thing where I grew up," he said. "They got in, signed the check, and realized they didn't have the equipment or the know-how. So I got a call."
Those buddies knew Davis could cook. And that event sort of started him down a road that has led to bigger and better equipment and, eventually, the label "pro."
Davis says he does six or seven competitive events a year, a far cry from some of the other guys who do events every weekend all across the country.
"Some of those guys are constantly going every weekend," he said. "I wish I could do that, but I've got a full-time job."
He said he's toyed with the idea of quitting his job with the Department of Commerce and opening a restaurant. And he still might, some day. For now he's content with a handful of summer competitions.
If you go
What: Bend of the River Cookout
When: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, June 29
Where: Land of Memories Park, Mankato
Cost: $10, which includes samples form 10 different cooks. More available for purchase, as well.
Related event : As part of its sponsorship of the cookout, Mankato Ford is entering the name of anyone who test drives a vehicle Saturday, June 22, in a drawing to win a gas grill. Johnny Marks from KDOG-FM also will be broadcasting live from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.