Never Underestimate the Power of Good Barbecue

By Abraham Genauer

Published February 21, 2003, issue of February 21, 2003.
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Attempted by many, perfected by few, good barbecue is hard to come by. People build lifelong attachments to a particular restaurant, and I’ve seen grown men weep at the news their favorite joint’s closed down. Don’t think me heartless if I feel no pity for them. For however elusive good barbecue may seem, believe me when I say that for the strictly kosher consumer, there’s almost nothing out there. Sure, there are plenty of restaurants that claim to “BBQ,” but in reality, most of them just grill their food. (The difference: Grilling involves cooking over direct heat, whereas barbecuing involves an indirect heat source.)

Never one satisfied being left out, though, I put my faith in books like “The Barbecue Bible” and attempted to ’cue on my own, achieving some pretty good results. But, to borrow a slogan from Coke, you can’t beat the real thing. So when I heard that Corky’s BBQ, an award-winning, genuine “down home” Southern barbecue franchise, was doing a one-time-only kosher run, you’d better believe I jumped at the chance to order.

Plus, I knew that my money was going to a good cause. The kosher Corky’s order was organized as a fundraiser for the Memphis-based Margolin Hebrew Academy/Feinstone Yeshiva of the South, a community pre-K-12 school with approximately 250 students. I know it sounds like my brain is justifying the intentions of my stomach, but let’s just say that while I definitely would have ordered had it been a purely for-profit venture, I probably ordered a little more knowing that my purchase was also a donation.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought this way either. Orders came pouring into the school, and by the day of the deadline, the totals were staggering. “Corky’s assumed we would do about $25,000 in sales,” said the school’s executive director, Shimon Kaminetzky. “My initial estimate was a ridiculously high $75,000. In total, we took $147,000 in orders, and we had to turn a bunch of people away after the deadline.” I’ll pause for a moment while those of you with a basic knowledge of fundraising collect your jaws from wherever they landed.

Corky’s had done a small, local fundraiser for the school four years ago using the restaurant’s recipes in a synagogue kitchen, but they couldn’t duplicate the genuine product without using their own equipment. It was, as co-owner Barry Pelts put it, “a vague way to be Corky’s.” This time, however, Corky’s had just bought a new $50,000 smoker unit for use in their mail-order facility. Since it was brand new, it could still be used for kosher. “It was the exact authentic product. The only difference was that it was under kosher supervision,” Pelts said.

Instead of doing a costly direct mailing that would have limited reach, the school sent out e-mail announcements and encouraged people to forward the message to friends. Word of the sale spread across the country — and the world — like a computer virus. “We had people call from Canada, Mexico, France, England and Israel asking if they could order,” Kaminetzky said. Orders could be placed on the school’s Web site using a credit card, and customers received a prompt e-mail confirmation.

It was an easy sell for folks like me. Corky’s has won the Memphis Magazine award for “Best BBQ Sandwich” 18 years running. The descriptions of the food on the school’s Web site lured me in — ribs basted with a sweet and smoky barbecue sauce and slow-cooked for seven hours; brisket hand-rubbed with a secret seasoning and cooked over natural hickory logs. (Insert Homer Simpsonesque drooling sound.)

Orders came in at an astounding rate: 2,000 pounds of brisket, 3,200 portions of ribs (approximately 15,000 individual ribs), 600 whole turkeys, 1,250 orders of Drummies (mini chicken drumsticks), 600 gallons of baked beans and 300 gallons of sauce. All told, the school took close to 1,200 individual orders from all over the country, even tapping into the markets of such Jewish powerhouse states as Alabama, Arkansas, Maine and South Dakota.

After the deadline, it took the people at Corky’s 10 days to prepare all the orders, and the food was shipped out the following week. The day it arrived was one of celebration in my apartment. I prepared the ribs per the accompanying instructions and was set to indulge.

But as I sat down with all the necessary barbecue accoutrements — fork, knife, a nice microbrew and a whole lotta napkins — I began to wonder: Will this be the future of fundraising? What of the principles of tzedakah, of giving with unconditional generosity? Will people start expecting something in return every time they donate? With the first bite, the questions vanished like a wisp of sweet hickory smoke. I think that that is the lesson for fundraisers and donors alike: Never underestimate the power of good barbecue.

Abraham Genauer writes frequently for the Forward on his various appetites.

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