'It was life changing for many of the fellows': Kingsford program nurtures Black pitmasters

Todd A. Price
Southern Kitchen
New Orleans artist Brandan "Bmike" Odums looks over the mural he painted on the side of Payne's Bar-B-Q in Memphis to promote Kingsford's Preserve the Pit program.

Last year, Kingsford charcoal launched a program to pair up-and-coming Black barbecue entrepreneurs with established mentors. This year, Preserve the Pit will double in size, offering six fellowships along with 10 additional grants.

"We wanted to start this small and grow, rather than start large and fail," said Howard Conyers, a barbecue expert in New Orleans who helped Kingsford create the program.

Along with Conyers, who is based in New Orleans, the other mentors include pitmasters Kevin Bludso of Los Angeles, Bryan Furman and Pat Neely of Atlanta, Amy Mills of Illinois, Rashad Jones of Florida and food activist Davita Davison of Detroit.

"It was life changing for many of the fellows," Conyers said.

Ron Simmons, who owns Master Blend Family Farms in Kenansville, North Carolina, mainly raised hogs for barbecue before receiving the Kingsford fellowship. But barbecue was always part of his heritage. His grandfather was a machinist who would build barbecue grills for himself and others.

"You don't have barbecue without farmers," Conyers said. "Barbecue in the United States of America has a very close relationship with agriculture."

Through the program, Simmons got to meet barbecue professionals across America. And he launched a barbecue catering business with the help of his mentor.

"The number one piece that came out of this program for us was exposure. It gave us the stamp of approval," Simmons said.

Simmons also credits his participation in the program with helping close on an additional 56 acres for his family farm.

This year, Kingsford is spreading the word about the Preserve the Pit program through special bags of charcoal decorated by New Orleans artist Brandan "BMike" Odums. The bags are available at Walmart, and Kingsford will give $1 from each special bag, up to $750,000, to the Preserve the Pit program. Odums also painted a mural of his art outside Memphis' celebrated Payne's BBQ restaurant.

Black barbecue professionals can apply for the Preserve the Pit program through March 1. The winners will be announced in April. For an application and more details, see www.PreserveThePit.com.

News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at taprice@gannett.com. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.