PALMETTO -- Aromas were plentiful at the Manatee County Fairgrounds on Friday evening. The smell of barbecue permeated the air. Racks of ribs sizzled side by side on grills -- some stacked on top of each other. And then there were the sauces. Too many to keep track of.
There's no doubt: the Gulf Coast Rhythm & Ribfest is back in the area to feed and entertain -- and place rib masters in competition with one another.
The annual event, now in its eighth year, is a major fundraiser for United Community Centers, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides programs to low-income and at-risk youth in Manatee County.
"It's a party with a purpose. That's what we like to call it," said Patrick Carnegie, president and CEO of the organization, adding that all proceeds benefit the organization. Carnegie, who was busy running the evening's behind the scenes, said he expects between 15,000 and 20,000 people to attend the festival, which runs through Sunday.
"It's like an American pastime -- barbeque, music and fun," he said.
On one side of the festival, the rib masters tended to their food at individual stands. Sweat glis
tened on Eric Smith's forehead as he turned over a pork sausage on his grill. An aluminum tray filled with green peppers and onions would later cover the cluster of sausages. The chef, who heads Georgia-based BBQ Masters, said he was happy to be in Florida for Ribfest.
"We go all over the country, and we knock customers' socks off all over the world," said the 45-year-old. Smith spoke about his Formula 226 sauce, which he said he learned from an old sergeant during his time in the United States Army. The 226 stands for the 226 ingredients in the sauce.
"It's a sweet sauce with a little bit of a kick -- not spicy," he pointed out. "It just does magic to your tongue."
A few minutes earlier, a customer had approached Smith and asked if he bottled the sauce. He also asked for a styrofoam to-go container to bring back a rib for his wife.
"You gon' let her try one bone? What kind of husband are you?" Smith teased the customer, who laughed.
Paulette Natzke and her husband, Ken, who live part of the year in Palmetto, stood in the middle of the festival. The Wisconsin natives weren't sure which rib booth to go with.
"It's got to have a good sauce on it," said Ken, in reference to ribs. He likes his sauces mild. His wife, on the other hand, likes her sauces with a tangy taste. "We're Germans," Paulette explained with a chuckle.
A familiar booth at this year's Ribfest is that of T & L's Bar-B-Q. The Bradenton-based business took home the award for "Best Ribs" last year, and owner Tiki Curry said he hopes to maintain the title this year.
"We're gonna put our heart and soul in it," said the 64-year-old. "We're just going to do our best."
Nearby, Amy Frasier of Parrish stood with her two sons, 14-year-old Logan and 10-year-old Dalton. The owner of Bellacino's Pizza & Grinders in Bradenton had just tried some ribs at Smith's BBQ Masters stand.
"We're just making our way," she said, adding that they plan on trying every stand. "We came hungry."
Ribs aren't the sole attraction at the Gulf Coast Rhythm & Ribfest. Entertainment reigns also. Just a bit after 6 p.m., country music duo One Night Rodeo kicked off a set with "Back to the USA." People swayed to the music as the Bradenton group performed. Those outside the VIP section parked their lawn chairs right outside the metal dividers. A woman in a cowboy hat and leather boots nearby tapped her right foot to the beat.
Country music star Tracy Lawrence was also set to perform Friday night. On Saturday, acts such as Musiq Soulchild and Lyfe Jennings are scheduled to perform. Rapper T-Pain will take the stage on Sunday, along with rapper/record producer Doug E Fresh.
Unlike most at the festival, Carnegie still had not tried any ribs on Friday evening. He said his team had been working too hard.
"I will on Sunday when it's all over," he said, adding that he is going to try a bit of everyone's ribs at the festival. With a wide smile, he said he never says whose ribs are best.
"We leave that to the people."
Amaris Castillo, Law Enforcement/Island Reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. You can follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.