How Brenau and Barbecue Became A Winning Combination

Aug 26, 2011
Rudi Kiefer
When Jim Barco first proposed hosting a fund-raising event for Brenau University called Barbecue and Banjos, there were a few skeptics. 

After all, barbecue wasn’t something people associated with the cutting-edge liberal arts institution or its core 132-year-old Women’s College where genteel students in white dresses still sashayed around a May pol. Brenau was better known for its high academic standards, programs like the International Opera Center and world-class dance, an impressive permanent art collection – not bluegrass and smoked pork.


Jim Barco at BBQ
Barco confesses to a personal agenda with the annual community family event. "I just like barbecue," he says.
But Barco wanted a program that would bring onto the campus a wide array of people and institutions who know little or nothing about Brenau. Hard economic times in which fundraising activities for all nonprofits suffered, coupled with Brenau’s ambitions – and expensive – growth plans for the next two decades – convinced Barco that the institution would not be able to rely on “the usual suspects” to pay the bills. 

“I thought this would be a good way to raise money for local scholarships and become more engaged in the community,” said Barco, who is Brenau’s senior vice president for institutional advancement.

He was right. Last year’s Memphis Barbecue Network-sanctioned event attracted some 3,000 people and raised more than $20,000 for scholarships. This year Barco has set his sights even higher. He expects attendance to double at this weekend’s Brenau Barbecue Championship when 20 of the Southeast’s elite barbecue professionals compete for cash prices and 25 amateur cookers in the “Backyard Braggarts” division vie for not much more than actual bragging rights.

“I’m optimistic that we can raise $100,000. We’ve had a lot more corporations who said they want to be a part of this. They want to be identified with it because of boosting the local scholarships and because there’s going to be a ton of people.”

Barco’s “day job” is working closely with a group of long-time supports and major donors to the university with whom he has established relationships. But he is also responsible for developing other sources of revenue through grants from government entities and other organizations that have never supported Brenau, and through special events and other use of university facilities. The barbecue championship falls under that umbrella. But, he confesses, there’s a more personal reason: “I just love barbecue.”

He investigated other cooking competitions and festivals around the South and saw that most were very successful. The idea tapped into a mother lode of subculture on various barbecue cooking competition networks.

The festival technically opens on Friday night, May 28, with a preview party at the Brenau Amphitheater that will feature “The Cracker Queen” author Lauretta Hannon and live performances by musician Kimberly Clark, who is both a Brenau alumna and a current employee, and the Jimmy Buffett tribute band, Sons of Sailors from Athens. Gates open at 5 p.m. with $10 admission.

A key new feature on Saturday, May 29, will be an antique auto show featuring a host of mint-condition classic cars, many of which are literally works of art. In addition, thanks to an expanded role by event partners, Quinlan Arts Center and the Interactive Neighborhood for Kids museum, there will be many more activities for children, including programs, inflated playground equipment and a visit by “super celebrity” Ronald McDonald.

The health screening booth, one of the highest-trafficked exhibits at last year’s inaugural Brenau barbecue competition, will be staffed from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. by student nurses and faculty from the nursing programs at Brenau’s School of Health and Science.

“Health screening is a big deal,” Barco said. “We’ll provide information on health issues and do tests on blood pressure, glucose and hydration. If you haven’t had these tests done before, let us give you a benchmark.”

All of this is available for $5 admission, and that money will be used to fund local scholarships for more nursing, education and business students at Brenau University.

“Each year Brenau awards undergraduate and graduate diplomas to at least 250 men and women from this area,” Barco said. “Many of them stay put in the community, becoming nurses, teachers, occupational therapists, and business leaders – the intellectual capital that drives the local economic engine. The way I see it, anything Brenau can do to enhance its role in that dynamic is a worthwhile activity.”

Barco, 55, has been pursuing these goals for Brenau since moving to Gainesville nine years ago. A native of Miami with degrees from Catawba College and Florida State University, he has worked in higher education for 30 years.

He has served as director of a $32 million capital campaign, a $14 million project campaign and a planned $55 million campaign. He was associate director of a $10 million and a $22 million capital campaign and staff officer of a $28 million campaign.

“What I do is very gratifying,” he said. “The people who give money know how the institution makes a difference in people’s lives and they’re grateful for the difference. Success is communal. It requires a lot of individual effort, but ultimately it requires someone to believe in you.”

The Brenau Barbecue Championship will help change the lives of local students with the scholarship money it raises, Barco said, but it also will enhance the image of Brenau.

“It says that Brenau can be a place where people can come and meet, bring their kids and have a good time,” he said. “It really is something everyone in the family can enjoy. It attracts people to the campus who might never have thought about coming over here. I imagine that about half of the 3,000 people who came last year had never been on the campus. You can drive by something repeatedly and not know how beautiful it is until you visit it.”

For more information on the Brenau Barbecue Championship, visit the web site at

Originally published on 5/27/10