Hooper: Tampa Pig Jig expands its recipe for success

TAMPA

Start with various forms of barbecue, add some heaping helpings of spirited competition, toss in a few cups of trash talking and mix vigorously with college football, live music, friendship and a good cause.

It’s a recipe that’s yielded some tremendous results for the Tampa Pig Jig, so much so that organizers have decided not to limit the fun to one day in October.

Of course, they had me at barbecue.

But maybe truffles are another ingredient because the annual Tampa Pig Jig has mushroomed from a humble beginning to an amazing event since it launched in the back yard of Vince Chillura in 2011.

In an effort to help friend Will Wellman, Chillura, Wellman and some of their other childhood friends brought the list of fun together. The aim was to help Wellman, who had been diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, or FSGS, a debilitating kidney disease.

The turnout proved substantial. The love proved palpable. I’d say the food proved terrific, but I didn’t get an invite to the inaugural Pig Jig. No worries. You’re forgiven.

"People had such a good time, we thought we were on to something," Chillura said. "A lot of folks wanted to know if they could compete in the competition the next year. We could tell we had a good idea. We just needed to tweak it and hone it."

So they added more cooks, more sponsors and shifted to a bigger event space — the old Tampa Armature Works field now being converted into a food hall. It eventually outgrew that area and found itself in need of Tampa’s top outdoor venue, where it’s been since 2014.

All the success of the recipe was on display last week at Curtis Hixon Park. Even under overcast skies that eventually gave way to a fall storm, more than 8,000 people strolled the pit, sampling all forms of barbecue — the bacon-wrapped, stuffed chicken was a surprising favorite — while bands performed on a stage and people under tents tuned in to football on big-screen televisions.

But again, why stop at one day?

Chillura said local Realtor and CPA Jamie Whitney, wife of co-founder Chris Whitney, teamed with EventFest senior vice president Maiken Stefany and hit upon an idea that would bring together individual supporters of the Pig Jig on a more regular basis. Now the Smoke Show Social Club.

"We were trying to make it a year-long event and bring in a membership component so we could get more individuals involved as sponsors," Jamie Whitney said.

For $500 for individuals or $1,000 for a couple, people can reap the event benefits that typically go to corporate sponsors — all-you-can-eat access at the Pig Jig — and attend related events during the year.

I know what I want for Christmas.

"We have several events planned to, ‘Get the band back together,’ and get people excited for the next Pig Jig," Chris Whitney explained.

Yet it’s more than a social club, because the mission of supporting NephCure Kidney International and raising awareness of FSGS is never far away. One event earlier this year brought together members for a "summer supper" not only to break bread but to learn more about FSGS research advancements from an expert.

"It’s a fine line between too much information and too little information," Jamie Whitney said, "But we had an entertaining speaker who could get across the key points during that time frame and still leave room for members to socialize.

"It’s a good formula."

Maybe the best aspect of the formula is it’s not only raising awareness, but it’s bringing together families impacted by FSGS. It’s fairly rare disease so families can sense they’re all alone. HIPAA laws prevent doctors from connecting patients, but the Pig Jig cooks up a support network where the medical community couldn’t.

More than 20 families met at this year’s event and enjoyed good food while comparing notes, sharing contact information and leaning on each other.

"I think getting together 20-plus families was a huge win for us," Chillura said. "We’re looking to continue and expand that and hopefully double the amount."

Chillura and Whitney and really everyone involved agree it’s amazing how far the Pig Jig has come since its simple inception. The results are more often found in smaller cities, but the success of these dedicated community leaders is one of the reasons I call Tampa the biggest small town in America.

That’s all I’m saying.

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