BBQ RibFest to scale back 2020 event

Crowds will not have nationally known ribmasters on hand at this year's BBQ RibFest. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the festival to scale down the Headwaters Park event, set for July 31 and Aug. 1.

Maybe the 15th time will be the charm for Timmy's BBQ.

Tim Johnson's 2020 calendar has been packed with notes but low on sales. The popular northeast Indiana ribmaster has prepared for 14 spring and summer festivals and has scratched 14 events from his schedule. With only days to go before BBQ RibFest at Headwaters Park, Johnson is counting on the scale of sales he needs to turn his year around.

Hours are 6 p.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday, July 31 and Aug. 1, with bands both nights. Admission is $15 for ages 18 and over, $10 for ages 17 and under.

"If I run out of food it's going to be a really good problem," Johnson said. Not likely. Johnson has been gauging crowds at RibFest for 15 years and at festivals near and far. He knows how to plan, how to deliver, and how to preserve his fans' loyalty. They have voted him a People's Choice winner at the Fort Wayne event several times, and that was against some powerful local competition and the big names of barbecue from the Deep South.

The COVID-19 pandemic that has cleared Johnson's schedule so far this year also took BBQ RibFest down a few notches. Festival owner Mark Chappuis postponed the festival by several weeks, prepared to stage it under relaxed rules, and then scurried to regroup yet again after Indiana's reopening was delayed. Public gatherings now must meet the approval of local health officials. And after meeting with the Allen County Health Department, Chappuis has cut the festival from four days to just two evenings. There will be no free afternoon admission. Gone are the national brands that have lined the lower level. Timmy's, of Huntertown, and Griffin's BBQ, of Fort Wayne, will put their skills on display once again.

There also will be music. "We've got two incredible acts," Chappuis said. The AC/DC tribute band Thunderstruck will perform at 9 p.m. Friday. The Fleetwood Mac tribute band Rumours ATL goes on at 9 p.m. Saturday.

Johnson has kept the smoker hot with smaller events. Last week he parked his truck and threw open the doors at Glenbrook Square.

"I'm looking forward to it, I really am," Johnson said. "I'm out at the mall and it's interesting to watch the people. Some are definitely not interested, with the social distancing. Then you've got people who want to come out and they are still doing things. People see us and they're excited. It's like 'We can get a lemonade shakeup, a turkey leg, an elephant ear.' "

Johnson said festivalgoers will find his prices similar to last year's, and the menu similar too. "We'll definitely have ribs," he said. "We'll have turkey legs, pulled pork, chicken, rib tips and Texas style beef brisket."

"Thanks for everybody in the past that came out to see us, and we're gonna serve some good barbecue," he said.

Tim and his wife, Neza, are known for working shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the crew, whether smoking ribs, cooking chicken legs, or tending the counter.

He tries to keep a positive spin on events to come, but admits that 2020 has been all he can handle. "We just got completely destroyed," he said. "We lost 14 events this summer."

Timmy's has two other events booked this year, and he's hopeful that those will go on as planned. "But otherwise we'll just keep doing what we do," he said.

Chappuis called this year's festival RibFest Revised. Face coverings will be required for admission. Social distancing will be enforced within the pavilion. He also has rented the adjoining 13 acres of lawn. "It's a big park so we see no problem with social distancing," he said. "Just come and spread a blanket."

"We know we’re all frustrated about all the canceled events this summer, and we certainly tried awfully hard to make RibFest happen as usual," Chappuis said. It appears he has succeeded in a scaled-back format in a summer that has forced other signature events to postpone their Headwaters Park parties for another year.

"It's tough times out there," he said. "We're just trying to muddle through this year to fight another day."

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