“It’s not that different from visiting a McDonald’s”: The co-founder of Toronto Ribfest on turning a three-day-long food festival into a drive-through experience

“It’s not that different from visiting a McDonald’s”: The co-founder of Toronto Ribfest on turning a three-day-long food festival into a drive-through experience

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For 20-plus years, Toronto Ribfest has been a staple in the meat lover’s summer calendar. Under normal circumstances the three-day event, organized by the Rotary Club of Etobicoke, features more than a dozen rib masters, plus outdoor entertainment, fireworks and plenty of libations. When the city announced it would be holding off on park permits, organizers knew 2021 would require a considerable pivot. Here, Mike Bell, the co-chair of Ribfest, on how you turn a food festival into a drive-thru, if he’s on Team Pork or Team Beef, and why rib enthusiasts are happy to lick their fingers behind the wheel.

Toronto Ribfest is a time-honoured summer tradition. Were you at least hoping things might be able to proceed as normal this year?
We put in our application with the city back in December hoping that large outdoor gatherings would be allowed by summer, but that was before the third wave. When we found out they weren’t issuing any park permits until July, we knew we were going to have to pivot. Even if we had been able to go ahead, we were worried that people might feel a little gun shy about attending such a large event where social distancing would have been hard to execute. We did a drive-through event last August, so we knew that was the back up plan. Full credit to the ribbers, who came to us with the idea and how we could make it work. This year, we are back in our regular Canada Day long weekend time slot, which is great, and we have a better venue—in terms of size and visibility—in the parking lot of the Church on the Queensway.

How does planning a thousands strong outdoor festival differ from planning a drive-through-only event?
Overall it’s less work, fewer volunteers are required, there’s less infrastructure. Normally, set-up takes about a week, whereas this year we can do it in an afternoon. But of course there was some trial and error involved in figuring out how to accommodate as many vehicles as possible in the space we have. I spent yesterday afternoon just organizing pylons in a zigzag formation to direct traffic. Probably the biggest difference is that we’re not able to include a lot of the elements that people know and love. Yes, Ribfest is about ribs, but it’s also about bringing the community together through other activities—sort of like the old county fairs—the ones where they had contests for the biggest pumpkin, the prized pig. We have live music, rides and beer tents.

Is Ribfest even Ribfest without beer?
Well, certainly ribs and beer are a winning combination. Even more than that, the socializing and the festive atmosphere is what makes Ribfest such a special event. I have a little tradition that I have always done in previous years on Canada Day: right around the time where the fireworks are about to start I will go and stand in the middle of the park and just take it all in. It always feels amazing that we are this little club putting on such a massive event that brings so much happiness to so many people. I think the point is that we can’t do what we normally do—over a dozen ribbers, 100,000 attendees—but we can still do something.

How does the drive-through work exactly?
The menus have been pared down to keep things as streamlined as possible. This year’s ribbers are Camp 31 BBQ, Billy Bones BBQ, Crabby’s BBQ and Silver Bullet BBQ. When attendees drive in, they’ll choose from four different menus, place their order and then get into one of four lines of vehicles. Someone will hand them their order through the car window, and then they drive out the back. It’s pretty simple.

But what if you want to try more than one type of rib? Isn’t that the whole point of a “fest”?
In that case, festival-goers will have to go around, come back and repeat the process. It’s not the perfect system, but it’s safe.

Did you have to consult with any particular health agency?
We worked with Health Canada to ensure we were meeting all of the regulations, and all of our vendors had to fill out forms. It’s nothing too involved because what we are doing is essentially contact-free, so there’s minimal exposure. It’s not that different from visiting a McDonald’s or Tim Hortons drive through.

Any tips for—shudder—eating ribs in the car? Seems like maybe not the best behind-the-wheel snack.
Ha! Well I think if you’re a devoted ribber, you won’t necessarily care but I also think the idea is to pick up your ribs and bring them home. You can put on some music, crack a beer—recreate the Ribfest experience at home. We have a hashtag #ribfestto, so people can share photos.

What is it about ribs that Canadians can’t get enough of?
I think a lot of people associate ribs with summertime and relaxing with friends. With Ribfest, it’s also about getting to try the best of the best. The care and creativity professional ribbers put into their food is really something—whether on the smoker, over charcoal or wood, or on an electric grill. And then of course, a lot of it is in the sauce.

In terms of sauce, are you a sweet man? A tangy man? Dry rub?
I would say I’m a sweet guy. Camp 31 does sweet ribs and they are probably the best I have ever had.

Team pork rib or team beef rib?
Pork ribs, definitely. I think you get the better flavour, partly because beef ribs are tougher to cook. They’re larger and you don’t tend to get the same melt-in-your-mouth, fall-off-the-bone quality, which is key.

Will there be a winner at Ribfest 2021?
As we did last year, we’re putting the competitive aspect aside. It doesn’t really work with the parking set up and after the year we’ve had, I think everyone is a winner. When you’re in the park it makes sense and we do a big ceremony with trophies. I know that winning the blue ribbon comes with a lot of bragging rights. That’s something we’ll look forward to getting back to next summer.