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Turlock BBQ teams among winners at Ceres Smoke on the River event
Tony Barbagallo of the Turlock team, Full Barrel BBQ, finishes up barbecuing ribs at the Smoke on the River event Saturday. - photo by Photo contributed by Matt Garman

An estimated 3,000 enjoyed live music, barbecued meats with its irresistible smells, beer, great weather and conversation at Saturday’s third annual “Smoke on the River” event at River Oaks Golf Course and Event Center.

The eight-hour event included a barbecue competition that drew 22 competitors from all over the Valley and a few from as far away as San Jose. They sweated it out in the sun as they prepared beef, chicken and pork and grilled away for a possible win.

“Hands down, our decision to move the venue to River Oaks Golf Course and Event Center was the right decision,” said Renee Ledbetter, president of the Ceres Chamber of Commerce which organized the event. “Although it brought more challenges, it proved to be a venue we can grow into with so many options. We just have to work out some of the kinks. We are so thankful to River Oaks owners and staff for their hospitality and cooperation in making this event so successful.”

The first event in 2014 drew an estimated 700 to 800 and 1,500 attended last year’s event held at the Tuolumne River Lodge.

This was the first year that the event was sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. As a "backyard/amateur event," only those barbecuers who don't own a restaurant or a catering business were eligible to compete. Ledbetter said the Chamber will attempt to secure a KCBS “Master Series” sanctioning next year. By opening up the contest to professional teams including restaurateurs and caterers, the event could attract another 20 to 30 teams in 2017.

Attendees came out with lawn chairs or blankets to take position whenever possible in the shade on the grassy area in front of the stage. Musicians for the event included the California Outlaws, Patty Castillo Davis and Big Earl & the Crying Shame.

At 2 p.m., those who purchased $2 tickets enjoyed rib samples from 1,200 pounds of ribs barbecued by each team. The delicacies were washed down with beer supplied by microbreweries on hand that included Dust Bowl of Turlock and Blaker Brewing, which operates on a dairy on the outskirts of Turlock.

A total of 23 arts and crafts, information and food vendors attended.

Winning the Grand Champion award was the Salinas team of Showoff BBQ with Pitmaster Hondo Hernandez beaming over the cash prize of $1,000.

Reserve Grand Champion status went to the team of Ash Kickin' Smokers of Lincoln. Pitmaster Jeff Lemke accepted the award and $500 in cash.

Pitmaster Paul Swanson accepted the $300 cash prize for his team, Beer Belly BBQ of Modesto, which won the People's Choice award.

Cash awards were also given in the meat categories of chicken, ribs and pork shoulder.

The top barbecuing teams in the chicken category were: Showoff BBQ of Salinas, first place and $300; Hot Link & Chorizo BBQ of San Jose with Pitmaster Robert Garcia, second place and $200; Ash Kickin' Smokers, third place and $100; Full Barrel BBQ of Turlock with Pitmaster Tony Barbagallo, fourth place and $75; and Smokin' the 916 of Elk Grove with Pitmaster Shawn Echols, fifth place and $50 cash.

The five top teams barbecuing ribs were: Hello BBQ of San Jose, with Pitmaster Nick Bicoy, first place and $300 cash; Showoff BBQ, second place and $200; Rob's Smokin' Rub of Manteca with Pitmaster Rob Ryan, third place and $100; Off the Hook BBQ of Clovis, Pitmaster Guy Mitchell, fourth place and $75; and Smokin' the Bandit of Plumas Lake with Pitmaster Brian Choate, fifth place and $50.

In the pork shoulder competition, winners at the Ceres event were: Beer Belly BBQ, first place and $300; Off the Hook BBQ, second place and $200; Rob's Smokin' Rub, third place and $100; Smokin' the 916, fourth place and $75; and Hello BBQ, fifth place and $50.

“We will be debriefing this week with our planning team to discuss things we need to change to improve upon next year's event,” said Ledbetter.

The Chamber had added expenses, such as a generator absent electricity on the golf course, and bringing in a fresh water sink.

“It gives us a good foundation so that we can develop a budget for next year,” said Ledbetter.

Approximately 50 high school students from Ceres volunteered at the event to help with parking sell tickets, trash pickup and give directions.

The Chamber used the event to sell about 10 more $100 tickets for the raffle of a silver 2016 Ford F-150 Super Crew Cab pickup. The Chamber intended to give the truck away at the Ceres Street Faire last May but was unable to because not all 650 tickets were sold.

“We’re getting close,” said Ledbetter. “I think we may be 100 to 150 tickets away from doing the giveaway.”