Where there’s smoke, there’s… a community tradition that’s still going strong after 30 years
You always smell a ribfest before you see one: the smoky, woody haze of charcoal, the primal aroma of meat cooking low-and-slow over carefully tended fires, the top notes of candy floss and popcorn from the fairground attractions that often ring the periphery.
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It’s a scent Douglas Hillier knows well. “When Ribfest is on, no matter where you are in the downtown core, you can smell that sweet barbecue sauce, the pork, and the smokers that have been going all night,” says Hillier, whose family has been running the London, Ont., ribfest for 13 years. “It’s just so exciting,” he says, adding that his favourite moment is the same one each year: “When the line starts to develop,” he laughs. “It always makes me nervous that no one will come.”
He needn’t worry. Over the last 30 or so years, ribfests – festivals dedicated to celebrating the mighty rib, where various professional “ribbers” set up their rigs and tempt punters with their take on this sticky, succulent art form – have exploded in popularity, the arrival of smokers and tents in town parks and fairgrounds around Ontario greeted with the same excitement that used to accompany the arrival of the circus.
While ribfests can be found throughout Canada and in the U.S., Ontario over-indexes on this phenomenon, with more than 50 planned for this summer versus just a handful in, say, British Columbia. There’s some speculation that the province’s affinity for barbecue has ties back to enslaved people who brought their foodways north when escaping via the Underground Railroad, then celebrated Emancipation Day in border towns like Windsor and Sarnia with barbecue festivals. It certainly hasn’t hurt that ribfests have coincided with the rise of a foodie culture where we’ll happily wait in line for an hour to try the latest craze we’ve seen on Instagram; and food trucks, of which pitmasters and ribbers are a popular subset, can have cult-like followings.
Either way: “This isn’t just an event,” says Hillier, who averages 200,000 guests over five days at his ribfest, one of dozens across the province. “Some people wait all year for this. They talk about it like it’s their religion.”
As with other faiths, the precise origins of modern ribfests are a bit of mystery, and vary depending on who you talk to. Best as anyone can tell, the idea of gathering people together to eat a ton of ribs and select the ultimate pitmaster seems to have occurred in two separate places in Ontario around the same time.
In London, Hillier says the event began as a “barbecue festival” in 1985 that went for three years before officially becoming a ribfest run by the local Boys and Girls Club. The Club used it as an essential fundraiser for 20 years before turning it over to his family, who run it as part of their larger events business. (They still ensure a donation is made to charity.)
“I do it for my happiness,” says Hillier, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour a few years before he took over the event. “I don’t make a lot of money, but I have a joyous life because of Ribfest.”
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Ninety minutes down the 401, however, you’ll find Hillier’s “friendly rival,” a.k.a. Canada’s Largest Ribfest, a fundraiser by Rotary Burlington Lakeshore that’s generated more than $4 million for charity since 1996. “This phenomenon didn’t exist in Canada before our club started it,” claims Brent Paszt, one of the event’s current co-chairs. “At Rotary, our focus is always how to raise more money for charity, and the [the ribfest founders, John Thorpe and Robert Peeling] were just looking for another idea.” Inspiration came when Thorpe, active in cycling, was at a road race in Cleveland, Ohio and saw a ribfest being held as a side event.
They decided to try hosting their own event and ended up raising $850 in their first year. (If you’ve been to a ribfest, you know there’s no entrance fee and guests pay vendors directly for food, but organizers make money on alcohol sales, sponsorships, donations and vendor fees.) By 2016, the event had hit its highest attendance ever: more than 183,000 people who ate 150,000 pounds of ribs over four days. While the pandemic put a bit of a damper on this growth, they’re hoping to reach or even exceed those numbers in 2022, hosting up to 20 ribbers, the most out of any Ontario ribfest. Hillier, by the way, would refute their “largest” claim on those grounds, saying while he only invites the “top 10 ribbers,” he has another 100 vendors selling other food over a larger square footage. Given that guests vote for the best ribs at a festival competition, which makes competition an intrinsic part of any good ribfest, this kind of good-natured, er, ribbing seems only fitting.
“You get to know some familiar faces that keep coming back over the years,” says Paszt. “People make it a weekend getaway, and it’s become a gathering spot for groups of 20 or 30 friends who might not see each other for most of the summer, but they have that end of summer barbecue appointment.” They’ve even had a wedding book out space for a cocktail hour. (Yes, the bride did chow down on ribs, white gown and all.)
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That community spirit is common at other ribfests, too. Just ask Scott Wright, chair of another Rotary ribfest down the road in Niagara Falls. “It’s always on Father’s Day weekend, so for a lot of people in the community it’s become a tradition to bring the family out,” says Wright, who notes they get around 20,000 people over the three days. Their first event was in 2005, modeled on a ribfest they’d seen a St. Catharines Rotary Club put on. It has all the classic elements – 4 or 5 ribbers, bands playing, a beer tent, funnel cakes and freshly-squeezed lemonade – set against a particularly stunning backdrop in Rapidsview Park. “You can literally hear the roar of the falls, and you can see the mist,” says Scott.
On a good year, the Niagara Falls Rotary Ribfest can raise $40,000 to $45,000 for the club, which a committee works to distribute among the community. “We’ve been supporting a breakfast program in the schools of Niagara Falls since day one, so a lot of the money would go to that,” says Scott. “We support the local hospital foundation, the women’s shelter, the Y…” The list goes on, and also includes some international donations, like buying breadfruit trees to support nutrition programs in the Caribbean, and digging wells in Haiti. “We really try to get the message out about the good work that Rotary does,” says Scott.
It’s also just a really fun way to spend a summer’s day or evening. “It’s been our club’s largest fundraiser, but I also just enjoy it as well,” says Scott.
Road trip worthy RIB Fests
Will travel for ribs? Grab the wet wipes, because we’ve got a finger-licking itinerary of Ontario ribfests for you to visit this summer.
- Windsor Ribfest: This stop on the Northern Heat Rib Series—sort of like a band touring, but with ribbers and craft beer—brings some of North America’s best rib teams to Riverfront Festival Plaza on June 3 to 5.
- Rotary Club of Niagara Falls Sunrise Ribfest: After two years of running a drive-through ribfest, Niagara Falls’ annual ribfest will be back at Rapidsview Park from June 16 to 19. Expect music, vendors, ribs — and the return of Piggy, the fest’s big, pink mascot.
- Whitby Ribfest: From a full midway to a dedicated “Kidsfest at Ribfest” children’s zone, the 12th annual ribfest held by the Rotary Club of Whitby Sunrise, happening July 8 to 10, has plenty going on – including ribs, of course.
- London Ribfest and Craft Beer Festival: There will be live music, craft beer vendors and everything from fries and roasted corn to butter beer soda on offer at this fest, which runs from July 28 to August 1. But everyone knows what the prime attraction is: Ribber’s Row, which will run along Wellington Street at Victoria Park.
- Brantford Kinsmen Ribfest: Sample five of North America’s best ribbers – and vote on awards like “Best Pig Rig” and “Best Sauce”—at the Brantford Civic Centre over three days starting August 5.
- Canada’s Largest Ribfest: If variety is what you’re looking for, this four-day fest is for you. About 18 ribbers will be setting up shop at Burlington’s Spencer Smith Park starting September 2. Also on offer: midway rides, games and other kid-friendly activities.
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This piece was originally published in the April 29th Edition of the Great Taste of Ontario Special Report in the Globe and Mail.