BRADENTON -- Doing business in Manatee County went a little bit country Thursday night.
About 800 people looking for a good time and the kind of barbecue they wait for all year gathered at Dolphin Aviation's hangar at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport for one of the county's biggest business events -- the annual Hob Nob Bar-B-Que.
Cowboy hats, jeans and even the odd pair of python boots were the couture du jour as plates of sirloin sliders, bowls of chili and cups of beer flew off tables set up by 29 volunteer grill teams charged with feeding the throng.
Put on by the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. and sponsored by dozens of local companies, the 28th annual Hob Nob wasn't so much a case of finding friends in low places as it was a networking event that reminded attendees they are part of a wider business community.
Dressed in riding boots, a Western shirt and sporting a bandana scarf around her neck, EDC CEO Sharon Hillstrom greeted everyone at the door. The Hob Nob is her organization's biggest fundraiser of the year, rustling up about $60,000.
It also brings out the widest-ranging crowd of local business people she sees all year, drawing from as far south as Venice and north to the Manatee-Hillsborough county line.
"Some people only know us by the Hob Nob," she said. "I think people really like this event because it's really relaxed."
That's true for the guests, but not necessarily for the grill teams.
John McIntyre of ME&S, a Sarasota general contractor, was moving quicker than an armadillo on an ant hill to keep up with the mahi he and several co-workers were frying in hot iron skillets. It was the firm's first time cooking at the Hob Nob since the event decamped from the polo grounds in Lakewood Ranch four years ago.
"We're glad to be back," he said.
Also putting on a spread were members of the Southeast High School culinary program. Frank Johnson, Jaimie Davis and Robert Rawls served up their homemade chili. They also did a lot of food tasting.
"The food is absolutely fantastic all the way around," said Johnson, a Southeast sophomore.
Regular attendees said they come for that food, as well as the opportunity to meet new people.
Joe Hembree, a real estate agent with Hembree & Associates Real Estate of Sarasota, said he is always surprised to see new faces.
"I feel like I know almost everybody, but there's always new people to meet," he said.
Top sponsors for the event included Feld Entertainment, Flowers Baking Co., Willis Smith Construction, NDC Construction and The Mall at University Town Center.
Grill team participants ranged from development and construction companies to food purveyors, real estate companies and schools.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter@MattAtBradenton.