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1-on-1 With FMI's Pitmaster

Lucas Darnell talks competitive BBQ and how stores can profit from the grilling trend
Lucas Darnell
Illustration by Olivier Balez

Lucas Darnell is director of membership for Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and a competition barbeque chef.

Jon Springer: Welcome to the Breakroom, Lucas. You’re the director of membership at FMI. How did you land that job? And what does a membership director do?

Lucas Darnell: I moved to the northern Virginia area in 2000 and worked for the American Frozen Food Institute in varying capacities for 13 years under Leslie Sarasin. When I had the opportunity to work for her again at Food Marketing Institute (FMI), I jumped at the chance. In my role at FMI, I’m responsible for linking member needs to FMI resources that can help food retailers meet their business goals. I spend considerable time on the road listening to our members and creating customized solutions that address their priority issues.

The grocery business is about as diverse as it gets with each of our members having different needs. Over the last six years, I’ve seen the industry experience a rapid period of change. For example, the advent of the Food Safety Modernization Act, requirements related to menu labeling and shopper demand for digital solutions have all transformed what it takes to run a successful grocery store today. It’s our job at FMI to be an extension of food retailers’ teams and make sure we meet the needs of all grocery stores—large and small.

Lucas Darnell

Photograph courtesy of FMI

How does one become a competitive BBQer? Were you an enthusiastic backyard griller or did you have special training in the BBQ arts?

I’m a bit of a foodie at heart. Barbecuing started out as a hobby—making meals for friends and family – but once I discovered competition barbecue, I was hooked. My wife, best friend and I started the team about six years ago and now compete all over the country. The highlight so far was winning the World Barbecue Championship at the World Food Championships in 2016 and receiving the Kansas City Barbeque Society Chicken Team of the Year in 2017. We’ve been fortunate to take our backyard hobby and turn it in to something special, creating new friends and experiences along the way.

In addition to practicing on the “off season,” I’ve found it’s important to sharpen my skills by attending competition barbecue classes. I’ve also taught several courses because teaching others is part of the barbecue culture. One of my passions in life is helping people cook great food outdoors.

Your BBQ team is known as “Old Virginia Smoke.” Do you have a specialty or particular style you cook to?

I’m originally from West Virginia and now live in Virginia, so we wanted to have a team name that incorporated both states. This is where we got the “old” part of our name since West Virginia used to be a part of Virginia until 1863. As a result of my travels and appreciation of different barbecue regions, Old Virginia Smoke’s barbecue is kind of a mishmash of all styles. We like to incorporate elements from the Carolinas, Kansas City, Texas and the South, and over time, our team created its own style. Barbecue is an art; it’s all about personal preference, and even your mistakes taste delicious!

As you’ve pointed out on the FMI blog, the home grilling/BBQ trend has been great for meat sales. In your opinion, why do we love coking that way?

I think we associate cooking outside with great times and great people. Throughout American history, cooking outside was a way for people to gather, celebrate and engage with each other. Our Founding Fathers used barbecues to bring people together and share thoughts and ideals. In my opinion, barbecue is the second American art form after jazz–it’s in our blood and part of our culture.

Cooking brings people together and creates lasting memories. The FMI Foundation annually celebrates in September National Family Meals Month,  an umbrella campaign for food retailers and suppliers to encourage families to share one more meal together each week. When we’re on the road cooking barbecue, we show our support for National Family Meals Month by sporting the logo at competitions and sharing information about the benefits of making family meals a priority.

What are a few things you’ve seen supermarkets do well to be sure they are capturing their share of the BBQ business?

Cross-merchandising is the key for barbecue. Supermarkets need to make sure they have everything a barbecue shopper needs in one place – the condiments, the protein, side dishes and vegetables. There’s even a role for household merchandise, as I’ve even seen a lot of grocery stores offering giveaways of smokers and grills around the barbecue season. The grocery stores that are making it easier for customers to have a great outdoor cooking event are the stores that are winning barbecue season.

Lightning Round

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve seen cooked on the competition circuit (and how did it taste?)

Carp. It tasted fine, but I wouldn’t want to cook it or eat it again. It’s impossible to remove all the bones.

What’s the one mistake too many home grillers make?

It’s actually two: Under-seasoning and over-cooking.

Who does the food shopping in your family and where does it get done?

Depends on who you ask! My wife would say it’s her, but I’d say it’s me. FMI’s 2019 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends research confirms we’re not alone in this with 86% of shoppers claiming at least half of their household grocery shopping responsibility. Also like Trends reports, we shop a number of different channels and banners to meet our unique household and barbecuing needs.

 

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