Taking On the Big Boys: ‘Local Smoke’ Owners Prep for BBQ Competition

Steve Raab and Eric Keating, owners of Local Smoke in Neptune City, will compete in the Atlantic City Smokin' Hot BBQ Championship on October 5 and 6.

At their Neptune City restaurant, Local Smoke's Steve Raab, left, and pitmaster Eric Keating point to the fruits of their labor, which have brought them four state BBQ titles in five years.
Photo by Eric Levin

It comes down to one bite—that’s all a judge needs. “So it just has to be a perfect piece of meat,” says Steve Raab, co-founder of Neptune City-based Local Smoke, winner of a record four New Jersey state barbecue championships in the last five years. “You have to be on your game.”

Approaching the Atlantic City Smokin’ Hot BBQ Championship October 5 and 6—its $50,000 purse the richest ever for a ‘cue contest east of the Mississippi River—Raab sounds nonchalant.

“We won’t prepare for this any differently, not at all,” he says. “We’ll do our thing. If we execute our game plan, we’ll have a chance to win.” And the game plan is? “Ultimately to cook everything perfectly. There’s so much that goes into it. The wood, the smoker, the temperature, the time, the rub, the injection, the sauce. It’s the perfect combination of everything that is the hardest to achieve.”

The Atlantic City event is the first on the East Coast from Smoke on the Water Productions, an Arkansas company that mounts big-money competitions that draw top pro barbecue talent from around the country. Its calendar culminates in the USA Barbecue Championship, to be held November 1 and 2 in Laughlin, Nevada. Laughlin’s $100,000 purse is currently the richest in the game, but Ron Cates, Smoke on the Water’s president and CEO, says Atlantic City will soon exceed it. “We’re adding $50,000 to the pot each of the next five years, until we get to $250,000,” he says.

Smoke on the Water claims its competitions attract 15,000 to 30,000 people per weekend. Beleagured AC could sorely use that many “heads in beds” on an autumn weekend. Cates says team registrations have been strong, and he expects “well over 100 teams. When I first went into this, I was thinking 45.”

To accommodate the anticipated larger turnout, Smoke on the Water has moved the event from a lot at the south end of town, across from the Knife and Fork Inn, to the Showboat Casino’s huge outdoor parking lot. The food court will be under a tent, an adjustment made after Cates was told that seagulls will swoop down and snatch people’s food. “I’ve done these all over the world,” he says, “and that’s the first I’ve heard of the Seagull Rule.” For smokin’ synergy, he will run shuttle buses between his event and the third Annual Boardwalk Rodeo at Boardwalk Hall, in town that weekend.

That Local Smoke would someday (pork) butt heads in AC with champions like Glenn Gross of Fat Jack’s in Philadelphia or Dan Hixon of 3 Eyz in Owings Mills, Maryland, was not even a pipe dream in 2003 when Raab and his future wife, Loren, started “following around” her Vermont uncle Rich Decker’s Lost Nation barbecue team weekends after they earned business degrees from Lafayette College.

They eventually bought their own smoker. While holding down white-collar jobs, they formed a team with Raab’s boyhood friend from Normandy Beach, Eric Keating, a veteran cook and self-described former “ski bum” and surfer. Entering their initial competitions in 2007, they racked up firsts in pork ribs, brisket and chicken. That led to catering gigs, which grew into a business of its own, grossing $200,000 in 2009 just on weekends.

Dreaming bigger—and taking “a few double deep breaths,” Raab says—the three expanded catering and opened restaurants in Neptune City and Cookstown in 2011. Keating, 33, is the pitmaster. Loren, 35, designed the Local Smoke logo and website and developed several of the delectable sides, including cole slaw, potato salad and bacon-enriched baked beans.

“Loren’s the glue that holds us together, especially in competitions,” says Raab, 35. (Married in ’08, they have a daughter, Emma, five months.) He is the business head: “Accounting, scheduling, payroll, dealing with vendors, putting out fires.” His competition mantra: “Cook some good food and have fun. Be humble. If we think we’re the favorites, we get humbled.”

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