Knowledge Center

Banking on KC – Stan Hays of Operation BBQ Relief

 

Listen Now, or read the transcript below:

 

Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Stan Hays, the co-founder of Operation BBQ Relief. When disaster strikes, Stan and his team of volunteers brings the barbecue. Welcome, Stan. Happy to have you here today.

Stan Hays:

Kelly, thank you so much for having me on.

Kelly Scanlon:

When I said that you show up with barbecue when a disaster strikes, I'm not talking about you're in the middle of a tailgate and you run out of the good stuff. You're on the scene for hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and other major disasters. What inspired you to launch an organization like Operation BBQ Relief?

Stan Hays:

It really was driven out of the Joplin tornado. Back in May 2011, when the Joplin tornado happened, I just really got into competition barbecue. I sort of felt a little helpless as you watched the devastation. That's one of the first major disasters that you could actually watch almost live happening. The next morning as I was getting ready for work, my wife looks at me and she's like, "You need to go." I looked at her and I was like, "Yeah, I'm running a little late." She's like, "No, no, no. You should get your barbecue friends together and instead of competing against one another, just go down there and cook for the community."

I left the house and was driving down the road, and didn't make it probably even a mile before I called my mentor, one of the three co-founders of the organization, and said, "Hey," he got me into competition barbecuing. I was like, "Hey Jeff, what do you think-" and before I could finish my sentence he's like, "I was trying to think of something we could do." In about a 15-minute phone call, we hatched a plan to go to Joplin and set up at a parking lot. Who better than a bunch of competition guys that have minimal needs to go out and do that?

But instead of competing against each other, come together to help a community. That was the genesis of it. I thought we would be there for three or four days, serve 4,000 or 5,000 meals maybe off of competition smokers. We had a friend that back then was a big smoker. What we found though, was about the third day we were there as we were doing a little retrospect with some of the volunteers that had been to Katrina and some of these other major disasters was that there truly was a gap that existed. From the time the disaster happened until the time the big organizations that would be there for weeks, months, even years ahead, and the local organizations, those civic groups, those churches, could get their feet back underneath them.

That's when the healing truly starts in a community, is when the community takes ownership of it and can take it over. I've called us, we're like a stopgap. We come in between those organizations. We've obviously grown enough that we're far past that now. We're one of the organizations that sustains for a period of time. We just got back from Florida after Hurricane Ian, and we were there serving food for 38 days. The longest, largest disaster that we've ever done. That has just been part of the genesis and the growth of the organization over the years.

We learned so much in that parking lot in Joplin that we still use today.

Kelly Scanlon:

Let's talk about that a little bit. The growth has been exponential. I assume that when you were heading down the road with your smokers, that you thought this is going to be a one-and-done kind of thing. Like you say though, you realize there's this gap. At what point did you decide to formalize it? Was it right there in that parking lot?

Stan Hays:

It was in that parking lot, that third day, as we were sitting there talking. A group of us said, "You know what, we need to take this and we need to make it into a nonprofit." About a week after we got back from Joplin, we started that process. It took months. It took about eight months from that time that we got back, seven/eight months, to fill out all the paperwork, do it correctly, get our 501(c)(3) designation from the IRS. From that moment that we got that, we just hit the ground running.

We didn't stop. We actually did a disaster after Joplin up in Pennsylvania. It was the second disaster we did, a massive flooding event up there. One of our volunteers was actually from Pennsylvania, flew in for Pennsylvania to help out in Joplin because as a barbecue person... I think we had people from 11 different states, many people that I have never met before that, who are lifelong friends.

Kelly Scanlon:

You make it sound so easy as you talk, like "Okay, let's get our smokers on the back of some trucks, and let's head down there and setup and start serving." I know that it takes a lot more than that to mobilize. There's a lot of organization involved. Walk us through first of all, how do you decide whether or not to go to a disaster site? Second, once that decision is made, what starts taking place in order for you to have the most immediate and effective impact?

Stan Hays:

The first question is, one we get often asked, how do we determine to mobilize? Really, it's about need. Not every community after a disaster has a need. Maybe it hits a commercialized area, and yes it's a bad tornado or it's a bad flood. You have the churches, you have the local civic groups, you have the local restaurants already opening up to feed those people that were affected. In those cases, we know the healing starts when they take over. So, if we insert ourselves in that, all we're doing is taking away from the community really in those instances.

We do get some grief sometimes because we're not there, and we have to explain that to people like, "Look, we don't want to disrupt the community. We come in when the community is disrupted already." We can then help impact them in a positive manner.

Kelly Scanlon:

I imagine that at this point 11/12 years later, you have a very sophisticated communication system. You talk about safety too, so there's probably training involved in the people that you call on now too, I would imagine.

Stan Hays:

We do have a level of training we put our people through. They all know that if there's any doubt, that safety is the number one priority. If somebody is concerned about going in an area, we don't force them to go in. Generally, myself or my Head of Operations, or someone from our Programs team is the first person on the ground. With hurricanes, we have time to almost do the pre-assessment, looking for locations and things like that before it hits. So, we have ideas.

I'll use Ian because it's the most recent hurricane, we set up there and we had seven different locations up and down the coast because you don't know exactly where it's going to hit. That logistics piece is, we know the times of year, so come August our equipment is ready to roll. We have a meteorologist that we contract with, so we utilize that information in advance from him to pre-stage equipment. We pre-stage it outside of what would be really a bad cone area of disaster. For instance, Ian, everything was just across the border into Georgia. Far enough away that winds weren't going to really play havoc with it. The rain, there are vehicles and stuff that are meant to be in the rain.

It's far enough away that people are safe as well. Those things though are very fluid. Things change on a daily/hourly basis sometimes. The hurricane changed paths, and we left earlier than we were planning on leaving because it turned right instead of turning left. Those are things that you just have to be very fluid with. Our logistics, we have freezer warehouses full of food that we're loading on trucks. When we get in there, our forward culinary team basically has a smokers and quick cook stuff. So, they won. We did 500 sandwiches out mostly to first responders in the area. Day two, we did 1,000. So, we were on the ground. While that's happening, we're building this mass field kitchen in a parking lot.

Kelly Scanlon:

I was going to say, it reminds me of the military almost where you come into an area and they start building the infrastructure.

Stan Hays:

Very much. Some of our guys are retired first responders or retired military, so there is that piece of it. It's also very reminiscent of going into a parking lot and building out a competition grid of the teams that are coming in. It's just instead of being each team, it is a bigger area.

Kelly Scanlon:

But you're also, in many cases, even though you go out and scout around for the best locations to set up, you're still in some situations right in the heart of all of the devastation. Maybe it's not as widespread to where you can literally go over a state line and set up there. So, you're dealing with lack of access to clean water, and to electricity, and so forth. How do you overcome those things to do what you do?

Stan Hays:

We had those contracted to be there. We couldn't find water. They were all being grabbed by FEMA or major accounts. Luckily, there's a little local grocery store here, a regional chain called Hy-Vee, and they happened to call us and say, "Hey, we want to come and help. What do you need?" I said, "Man, I really need a tanker." They said, "Well it just so happens, last month we bought one." So, they bought a water tanker all the way down to Florida. They bought water. They want to be more involved not just with Operation barbecue Relief, but giving back in these communities that are hit so hard by disaster. I think it says a lot for them.

We have re-fuelers. We have generators. We have packages. Sunbelt Rentals is a big sponsor of ours. They know as we're going in there, they know what our starter package is, that we need a couple of forklifts on the ground, we're going to need three to four large generators, and these things. They started coming in while we were there. But we also carry one of their large generators on our culinary area on our trailer with five of our big smokers mounted to it. It powers the whole culinary center, or the whole kitchen area I should say. We have that with us. It's fueled up. It's ready to roll when we pull in there.

Kelly Scanlon:

So, you're pretty self-contained it sounds like, with the exception of the tanker this last time. That brings me to another thing. You talked about Hy-Vee also wanted to be a part of the giving back efforts, and being a part of the community. This involves pit masters from all over the US, but it also involves other organizations who wind up partnering with you. It's a very collaborative national effort too.

Stan Hays:

Absolutely. In fact, we've actually grown way past what I would call the pit masters coming out at this point. We push this out to everybody because we need more than them. To sustain the amount of time that we are on the ground, almost 40 days, we were just over 865,000 meals in those 40 days. To be able to sustain that, you've got to have 150 volunteers a day and as many heartfelt pit masters are that are out there that want to give back and help, for 40 days they can't be there.

Really, our push has been way outside of the barbecue community. You don't have to have grilling or barbecue skills. You just have a heart to give, and want to be able to give back to a community and help people, and work hard by doing it. The majority of our growth has been outside of that. A lot of our growth has been on the stay-at-home mom side to the church group side, to school activity side, whether it's FFA students coming, ball clubs coming in for a day to help. We get these organizations also that want to come in for a day and give back.

We have activities that we can do for them. One of the biggest things is, I've seen those pit masters that you're talking about that have won TV shows and won the American Royal, or Memphis in May, one of these major competitions. They come in and may not cook a piece of meat. They may be running the sides area, cooking corn. Everybody checks their ego at the door. It's really about the people. It's about the people that have been affected. It's about the people that have come to that community, those first responders, that are there to help them. That's what we focus everybody on.

Kelly Scanlon:

You said that your greatest effort to date was Hurricane Ian, 40 days there in Florida. What's your average length of time that you spend?

Stan Hays:

If we were to look at it statistically and throughout the top, and throughout the bottom, it's probably four and a half days.

Kelly Scanlon:

Okay.

Stan Hays:

So, five days. They're small. The majority of these are small disasters.

Kelly Scanlon:

All of these meals, it takes a lot of meat. Do you get that donated? Do you get funding so that you can go buy the meat? How does that work?

Stan Hays:

Both. We do get a good amount of it donated. This time, we had some big companies donate, some local companies. Prairie Fresh Pork, who's a seaboard company here locally, they've been a longtime sponsor of ours so they donate. At the beginning of the year normally, we start putting it away for when they have some backlog or they have some overage. They'll donate that to us. But during disaster, they'll also... Sometimes we have such high demand that we have to pay for it. That's where the money from the donations that come in and things like that, it goes out to pay for.

This was the first time in about six years that we've actually cooked beef. Beef has been so cost-prohibitive that me spending money on beef versus poultry or pork just was ridiculous. National Beef came through this year and donated a couple of tractor-trailer loads. It was huge for us.

Kelly Scanlon:

During COVID, you expanded your mission a bit to aid Kansas City's homeless population. Tell us about those efforts, as well as some of the new initiatives you have that involve veterans and people with other types of needs.

Stan Hays:

During COVID, we looked at this, and we looked at the huge need. I think everybody can agree the pandemic was a disaster. When we started looking at that, we could set up a field kitchen and bring hundreds of people there, right?

Kelly Scanlon:

Right.

Stan Hays:

So what we did is, I saw friends that are in the barbecue business shutting restaurants down. All of a sudden it hit me, why don't we lift up a restaurant? Why don't we give them all the food and have them be the production arm of it? So, Plowboys barbecue here in Kansas City was the first that was sort of our test pilot to see whether or not this would work. We were doing some with our own team downtown to start with, serving the homeless, serving some of the homeless areas.

We wanted to do this on a larger, more sustainable basis than just using volunteers. We also looked at it as how better to give back than to help restaurants? Because we didn't just do barbecue restaurants. The Classic Cup right down the street here was part of this. They did a fantastic job getting meals out. We had food trucks. We did this nationwide. We had almost four million meals in a four-month time period across I think 13 different states.

Kelly Scanlon:

Again, your footprint is much larger than the Kansas City area. Now that you're expanding to veterans and some of these other populations I referred to earlier, it's incredible. Tell us about those efforts.

Stan Hays:

You look at the fact that... I think our busiest year, we've just been over 127 days in disasters. That leaves a lot of calendar left for the year. I call it our "Blue Sky Days" and our "Gray Sky Days". There are a lot more blue sky days out there than there are gray. It was led by our volunteers. Outside of disasters, when they had projects or things that they wanted to do, who were they working with? About nine times out of 10, it was veterans, first responders, or active military, a guard unit being called, or a reserve unit going somewhere, or "Hey, my brother-in-law in this unit that's going over..."

So, we activated them during the slow times. That's what we used to do. When things were slow, we would give them the opportunity to get some money to be able to go out and put on these little thank you lunches if you would, or family lunches before they were deploying. What we did is we've gone a step further. We've started educational classes around grilling and barbecue to give life skills to these guys. That's just grown and grown to the point now that we've taken it a step further. We purchased a piece of property down at Lake of the Ozarks in the last year. It's 180 acres right on the water, about the 73 1/2 mile marker on [inaudible 00:13:47].

We are turning this into a camp for first responders, veterans, military members and their families. One of the things as we started doing a lot of research, we find a lot of services for the service member, whether it's for their emotional injuries or physical injuries they sustained. A lot of times, the family is going through so much, and there are not the same kind of services for the overall family. There are not a lot of services at this. We're not going to have a lot of counseling or anything like that going on at the camp.

We're going to use nature. We're going to use grilling and barbecue, bringing food which is the greatest unifier there is out there, bringing them around the dinner table together, bringing them to the grill cooking together. If you can bring a family together cooking together, there's something very therapeutic about a family doing that. So, it's one of those things, giving those life skills that we took for granted to these people. If you put them out in nature as well where there's no gaming, there are no streaming videos, they're out there being kids, hiking trails, maybe shooting some bow and arrows, going fishing, as a family to be able to do that, there's a lot of camps out there.

There are very few that also co-mingle first responders and veterans. We're not going to determine the mix there. We're just going to let it happen because I think it shows those service members out there that their network is much larger than what they thought it was. We're not the only ones doing this, but around the Lake of the Ozarks and around Missouri, I think it's going to be one of the first that's really focusing on the family itself. It's already grown nationwide. We have groups in the desert southwest that want to be able to send people here. Our biggest thing is getting the construction done.

Kelly Scanlon:

I bet. Yeah, right now especially. That brings me to the next question. So much to oversee. This is your day job now, right?

Stan Hays:

It is my day job. In 2018, I came on full-time, about July 2018, the second half of the year. By the end of the year, we hired our Programs person, and we started moving forward. We're up to I think 21/22 full-time employees now. We have our warehouses down in Peculiar, Missouri. It's not a very large warehouse, but we own about four acres of land around it. So, we could expand as needed. We have storage down in Dallas for our freezer space. We have a dry goods space in Memphis. We have another little warehouse down in Tampa. Then we have a host of locations where we can pre-stage things around the country.

Kelly Scanlon:

You and Operation BBW Relief were recognized as part of CNN's 2017 Heroes tribute. I saw the coverage of that. You got national coverage. What impact did that exposure have on the organization and on you personally?

Stan Hays:

Me personally, I'll tackle that one first. It was probably the most humbling thing that I've been through. It was a very arduous process to be vetted and go through all of that for the organization and everything else, but for me personally, seeing not just other nine Top 10 Heroes, but the total group and impact that they were making, to be part of that group was extremely humbling because there were people that are literally saving people's lives, and children's lives. I'm like, "I could barbecue."

It was a little bit of a mind shift that I had to make, that the impact that we make with that hot barbecue meal is much more than really the meal itself. It's really about showing communities that people haven't forgotten them, that there is love, and there's still good in the world to come out and help them. That was the mind shift that I had to make. I think leading up to this, I knew that that was part of it. For the organization, I think every company out there, whether you're a nonprofit for a for-profit, goes through watershed moments. It certainly was a watershed moment for us because as we're sitting there filming for CNN, we're turning around the day after they leave and we're filming with Fox News. There is something about what we do in giving back with food.

Barbecue is comfort food. One of the things that I tell people is, when you think about barbecue, I think it's probably the top food when you look at it from the celebration of a marriage, to graduation, to the celebration of life. You don't normally have that broad of a food spectrum of how it's used in celebration, of accomplishments, and end-of-life. That's what I think part of it is, is that it's so ingrained in people, that barbecue is that comfort food. Barbecue is that thing that we do in our backyard. If you can give somebody a pulled pork sandwich and they can sit there seeing themselves with their neighbors again, or their friends in the backyard again because of the smells, and the flavors, and the taste, all of a sudden you've done something that other foods can't. It's memories. Memories are strong.

Your sense of smell is very strong. It helps you with those memories. Those things can help bring some normalcy, even if it's for 10-15 minutes, bring back that normalcy to where people can envision a future of doing that again, having that backyard barbecue, having that block party again, and being there with their neighbors. I think that that's what helps with the resiliency because these people are so resilient.

Kelly Scanlon:

What's your long-term vision, your long-term goal for Operation BBQ?

Stan Hays:

Every time I try to do this, we started exceeding it. I really think it is about bringing more people together to do good in the world, bringing more volunteers together to be able to impact on a more daily basis, to find their passion not just with us, but find it in their community, to continually give back. If we can start changing then people's mindsets across the country by going out and finding their passion, whether their passion is to go help homeless cats, or help seniors, or to come and help us, that's what we hope that we inspire people to do through this.

Obviously, I'm extremely proud of the amount of meals we've provided across the United States and the Bahamas. It's 30 different states, plus the Bahamas. Like I said, over 10.6 million meals. But the number, almost 10,000 volunteers, the lives that we've impacted in our volunteers to where we see them come in multiple times through a year, taking their own vacation time, taking away from their families shows the heart that they have to give back. Many of those people you find are doing things for their churches, for their kids, their grandkids, ball team, or something like that for fundraisers. Using the skills around grilling and barbecue, some of these guys were not grillers are barbecuers beforehand.

That's where I see this. I see this creating a whole network across the country. Let's face it, I hope that through the camps that we do, the educational classes and everything, we get first responders and veterans that want to come out and give back, and use that skill. If it's not with us, hopefully, it's with someone else.

Kelly Scanlon:

If someone is interested in learning more about Operation BBQ Relief, or interested in volunteering, where is the best place to go to find more information?

Stan Hays:

The best place is to go to our website. It's nice and easy, OBR.org. There's a ton of stuff on the website.

Kelly Scanlon:

Stan, thank you so much for what you and all of your team, and all of your volunteers do for those in need around the country. It never ceases to amaze me, the inspiration behind some of these organizations. Disaster in Joplin and you're getting ready for work, and just saying, "I can do something."

Stan Hays:

I appreciate you having me on, and getting to know a little bit more of the story of the organization.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Stan Hays for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Stan has been recognized as a national hero, but he doesn't see himself that way. He was just a guy who loved cooking award-winning barbecue. But when the Joplin tornado hit in 2011, he thought about responding to the disaster by feeding displaced families. Rather than dismissing his idea as being too time-consuming or too daunting, he acted on it. And that has made all the difference.

Stan and his team have now served nearly 11 million meals to disaster victims and first responders around the country. Never underestimate the extraordinary power of a simple idea when an ordinary person is willing to act on it. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're begging on you, Kansas City, Country Club Bank, member FDIC.

 

Member FDIC / Equal Housing Lender

Trust, Investment and Insurance products and Services:

  • Are Not Insured by the FDIC or any other federal government agency.
  • Are Not deposits of, or guaranteed by, the Bank or any Bank affiliate.
  • May lose value.