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Omaha Magazine

Backyard Barbecues to Cooking Competitions: Builder Partners with Financial Planner

Jan 15, 2021 03:21PM ● By Chris Bowling
From left: Kenny Engelmeyer, Jeff Gehring

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The wood smoldered. The smoke plumed. Under the metal hatch, heat combined with seasonings and time to break down the thick pork into tender, tear-off-the-bone ribs.

“I mean, what’s better than barbecue?” Jeff Gehring said.

By day, the two manning the grill are accomplished professionals. Gehring owns Mercury Contractors, a custom home builder and renovator. Kenny Engelmeyer is a senior vice president of the financial planning company Primerica.

But on weekends, their meeting ground is over a smoker. They’re not just any backyard barbecuers, though. They compete across the country against the nation’s top pitmasters.

The journey started when Gehring was invited to the mecca of barbecue competitions, Memphis in May, in 1998. The level of artistry and expertise he saw in the hundreds of crews competing for hundreds of thousands of dollars blew him away.

“It’s very serious business,” said Gehring, who teams up with his son, Steve, to create award-winning barbecue. “You have to think about every detail. If your temperature goes off and deviates by more than five degrees, you could burn your meat...You gotta pay attention to how you rub everything, how you trimmed it, if you de-membraned it right.”

Gehring started volunteering and competing, earning some top 10 finishes.

Engelmeyer grew up farming thousands of acres near West Point, Nebraska. As a teenager, Engelmeyer was a 4-H president and crowned the national youth organization’s best meat inspector two years in a row.  His family moved to Omaha in the early ’90s when their livelihood took a plunge, but the farm is still a part of him.

“I can tell by the color of the steak, the marbling, and the hardness of the bone, how old this critter was,” Engelmeyer said. “I can look at a fillet and tell you if that came from a fully fed animal or not.” 

That comes in handy because appearance and quality is everything in barbecuing competition. And the crown jewel is ribs.

For competitions, Gehring and Engelmeyer buy Duroc, a type of pig that produces pork with more marbling and better flavor, directly from a farmer in Kansas. From there, they have a variety of rubs, marinades, wood chips, and techniques, as well as special tools to coax the meat, probe its temperature and slice it.

After cooking for hours, the ribs are sliced and arranged in a takeout box. One person carries it to the judges’ table flanked by team members to make sure nothing happens on the last leg of this hog’s holy journey.

“It’s like armed guards going in there,” Engelmeyer said.

“Or a wide receiver getting a pulling guard in front of them,” Gehring added.

After several rounds of judging, a winner is crowned.

These competitions take place all over the country. Gehring and Engelmeyer’s team often compete in the Kansas City Barbeque Society’s network of events.

In 2013 they even added their own event to the circuit, a competition put on by Millard Business Association called Ribstock, which received a certified proclamation from Gov. Dave Heinmann. While the July 2020 event was canceled due to COVID-19, in the past they’ve drawn up to 6,500 people to the Super Saver parking lot near 144th Street and Millard Avenue.

The proceeds of the event go to the Millard Business Association’s Project Wee Care, which provides food, clothing, and other necessities to local families. They also donate money to Food Bank for the Heartland, which supplies food pantries across the region.

Gearing said over the last seven years they’ve raised about $100,000.

Because while barbecuing is satisfying, that’s not why Gehring and Engelmeyer do it. Barbecuing is about community. It’s a way to feed a lot of people. It’s reserved for special occasions. The techniques are passed from generation to generation. The culture around it becomes as integral to the people as a landscape or language.

That’s no different here—whether that’s charity, competition, or hanging out with friends.

“It’s a catalyst that brings people together,” Ghering said. “And it gives us a chance to drink together too.”

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This letter was in the February/March 2021 issue of B2B.