Like so many other major events throughout the Tampa Bay area, the 11th annual Pigz in Z’Hills BBQ & Blues Fest will be forced to make many adjustments in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The largest annual event in Zephyrhills — which was slated for Feb. 27 — has been tentatively postponed until April, in the name of health and safety. Exact dates, times and a location are still to be determined, as are ticket and parking prices.
The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors agreed on the postponement in mid-December, after consulting with medical professionals and event partners, according to a chamber news release.
The BBQ festival’s reboot will take on a different flavor in 2021 compared to past years — possibly focusing on just a drive-in concert and drive-thru BBQ meal pickup.
More concrete details will be hammered out following another board meeting in late January, where final event recommendations will be agreed upon, Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Director Melonie Monson told The Laker/Lutz News in a recent interview.
Multiple proposals already have been discussed with Pigz in Z’Hills committee members and chamber leaders on the best approach.
One general concept that has been floated includes having attendees simply “drive through a line and pick up their BBQ, and then park and stay in their cars and listen to a concert,” Monson said.
But even this plan and its logistics have been questioned, as Monson said organizers “really struggled with some of the concept and the concern, so I think we’re back to square one of how we can do this in a COVID world and ensure safety.”
“The board really wants to be extra cautious, for sure,” she added.
Much concern from the board lies with the hundreds of volunteers who help make the event possible, Monson said. A point already has been made to excuse any youth and elderly helpers for this year’s festival, she said.
Said Monson: “That’s where a lot of it plays out — is can we guarantee safety to the people volunteering all day? You know, that’s the bottom line when it comes to things.”
Should a makeshift food and music show go on in some way or another, only local or Florida-based bands would be showcased for the event, Monson said.
Meanwhile, a final menu is being completed.
To do this, the chamber is collaborating with three of its regular cooking teams to serve up various offerings for attendees, perhaps an entrée choice of ribs, barbecued chicken or pork with various sides and drinks.
Aside from heaps of food and live music, Pigz in Z’Hills typically features a prized BBQ cookoff contest, car show, cornhole tournament, business expo, kids fun zone and tours of the Zephyrhills Military History Museum.
Those are off the table for the festival this year — though some type of combined car show and cornhole tournament may be organized through the chamber for sometime this summer, Monson said.
Event organizers have reached out to would-be BBQ competitors with information on refunds and to sponsors about being a part of the hybrid event.
A community staple and major fundraiser
Pigz in Z’Hills has not only been cemented as a community entertainment staple over the years, but also is a major fundraiser for student scholarships, and about a dozen nonprofits and community organizations, such as Boy Scouts, East Pasco YMCA, and Relay for Life of Zephyrhills, to name a few.
The chamber director acknowledged funds raised from this year’s BBQ event “is going to be very minimal,” but expressed confidence there’ll be enough in the coffers to continue the Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Scholarship Fund and Citizen of the Month programs.
To help make up for other anticipated funding shortages, Monson said the chamber in February is launching a campaign called “Love Your Non-Profit” that will showcase different organizations and solicit public donations for each.
Said Monson: “We’re going to spotlight the nonprofits that usually get the money (made from Pigz in Z’Hills) and really hope that the public will say, ‘Oh yeah, we recognize they’re not going to be able to get what they’re used to; we can help, too.’”
The BBQ shindig has grown substantially since its debut in 2011 — when it drew about 2,500 patrons.
Well over 10,000 people have attended in recent years at its usual staged location of 5200 Airport Road, across from the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport — including a record-high of about 13,500 attending in 2019.
The momentum carried into the event’s 10th anniversary celebration last January, drawing roughly 11,000 people.
The chamber had hoped to build on the string of successes and find a way to bring some normalcy to the area by holding the festival and all its familiar fixins’, but the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and vaccine delays forced organizers to pivot completely, Monson said.
Expected to be a much smaller turnout this year, the chamber director noted any hybrid festival would be considered “a huge success” if anywhere from 300 to 500 tickets get purchased.
“It’s real disappointing, but we recognize we’re not the only ones going through this, and we will rebound,” Monson said.
There’s confidence brewing that the BBQ extravaganza will get back on track by 2022, however.
That’s because next year’s Pigz in Z’Hills has been selected to host the Florida BBQ Association State Championship.
Monson said the showcase could draw upward of 65 top-notch BBQ teams from around the state, with a purse of at least $10,000 for the winner. The event is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 26, 2022.
“It will bring in competitors that we’ve never had before from throughout the state, which is exciting,” said Monson.
The chamber leader also noted that the event will be a solid marketing tool for Zephyrhills, at large.
She expects that television exposure and coverage of the event will offer a great opportunity “to showcase our little city.”
Published January 13, 2021