OSS BBQ 2013: Setting the bar high for summer fun

This summer we held the 3rd-annual open source software barbeque (#OSSBBQ) in DC‚ an event many in the local tech crowd (including myself) get excited about ever year. It’s a social event for the DC PHP, jQuery, and WordPress meetup groups borne out of convenience (or inconvenience, rather).

In the spirit of open source, this post should give you a behind-the-scenes tour of how we pull it off. You can do it too!


June is a historically difficult month to attract meetup speakers. In 2011 two of my groups suggested taking a month off, in lieu of skipping the month we decided to merge three meetups for an oversized social event that would cross-pollenate our memberships. We had a trailer smoker, sponsor connections, space provided by Fathom Creative, giveaway/swag submissions from a dozen vendors, and of course a lot of volunteers. OSSBBQ was born! We had no trouble maxing out our guest list. Feedback was nothing but positive.

OSS BBQ 2013, the chefs OSS BBQ 2013, the venue OSS BBQ 2013, food OSS BBQ 2013, the guests OSS BBQ 2013, beverages

Browse the full photo album of the event on Facebook.

Set a scope

The size was set by the venue and allowed around 250 people, so about 300 could RSVP and then we accounted for people coming and going at different times. Finding space for all of the food bought and cooked is always something I forget until I get home with it.

For your event you can decide to go bigger, but be sure to take into consideration the storage and transport of all of your supplies.


Our event encompassed a smoking day where the organizers bonded over a bonfire, beer, grilled snacks, dips in the pool, tending the smoker, and great conversation. That meant the chef needed to buy the meat on Saturday to rub and marinate it overnight so it was ready for smoking in the morning. The official event then kicked off on the following Monday or Tuesday evening, drawing a crowd of 300 into the hip Fathom Gallery and rooftop patio in Logan Circle.

Following the smoking, we have a pulling party to get it shredded with load balancing across people. It is very tiring work, so having a minimum of one person per two shoulders is ideal. We wet the pork with a bit of sauce, but not enough for flavoring.

On the day of, several of us take a half day. We set the time of the event to around 5:30. That gives us setup time after lunch and starts the event at a time striking an important balance: having patrons enter in a steady stream without all hitting at once, and without having reception twiddling thumbs. The average patron is getting off of work around 5:30 and they’re at variable distances from the event. You don’t want a dozen people to show up and have so few patrons the party seems lame, but you also don’t want to set the event for 7pm and have 275 of the guests hit at the same time.

We set an end time for the event, but that is a soft ending. Those who came only for free food will leave when it runs out. The friends will stick around afterward for the conversations and cleanup. In DC, meetups tend to break at 10pm, when you reach only the organizers and closest friends remaining for cleanup and picking over the refreshments. That timetable is magically no different for this big event.

  • For 300 people, we smoke around 100lb of pork shoulders from Costco. That ends up being eight packages, each around a dozen pounds, with two shoulders per package. We’ve gone up to 130lb and down to 80lb. We’ve never run out of meat 100%, but leftovers are good.
  • This year we underbought buns because we’ve had so many left in previous years. My original math was for 2 rolls per person, rounded down to 250 people. That ended up being entirely too liberal. This year, I went with 80% of 1 roll per person, rounded down to 250 (around 220 buns). We ran out of buns, but I heard no complaints about it happening too soon, so I’ll likely reuse that number next year.
  • For sides, we generally do a vegetable that keeps (bagged carrots are great), a fruit that keeps (grapes are good, berries get moldy quickly), lots of beans in a crockpot (we keep them vegan), multiple cookie/brownie trays, bags of chips (including veggie straws), tubs of bulk potato salad, and tubs of bulk coleslaw. If you can’t find slaw, find a restaurant to buy it from, or have someone make it.
  • Be sure to account for coolers and ice in your budget.

This is the loose budget we set for our event this year, based on actuals from last year:

  • $250 – Insurance
  • $100 – Firewood for smoker
  • $700 – Food & dinnerware
  • $750 – Beer
  • $100 – Incidentals (nametags, trash bags, etc.)
  • Total = $1900

For food and dinnerware, we came out to $530 this year, using a lot of supplies left from last year. That broke down as follows:

  • $200 for the pork shoulders
  • $80 for condiments (BBQ sauce variety, hot sauce, mustard, ketchup, salsa)
  • $50 for cookies & brownies
  • $50 for burgers (for non pork eaters)
  • $40 for grapes
  • $35 for foil & plates
  • $25 for buns
  • $20 for potato salad
  • $20 for cheese slices
  • $20 for beans
  • $15 for chips
  • $10 for Boca burgers

Getting sponsorship & swag

For monetary sponsorship, lean on your local community. Our organizers and members generally know companies who are always looking for opportunities to engage. We’ve never had a problem getting someone to step up. Allow for someone to either sponsor the who thing, or sponsor “food” or “beer”. Account for a sponsor promotion budget, if necessary, to make signs and banners. Fortunately, Fathom has provided that for our event.

For giveaway sponsors, Twitter is the best venue to solicit. Message all of your favorite open source projects and service providers (web hosts, registrars, version control systems, libraries, etc.) and ask if they are willing to donate. Most of them have swag in storage they will ship to you for just these types of events. The more giveaways, the better. We regularly get books, conference tickets, shirts, laptop bags, stickers, mugs, pens, cloth grocery bags, lanyards, bottle openers, and more.

  1. For big ticket items, do a business card bowl at registration and contact winners after the event. We tried raffle tickets in year one, but with a crowd that ebbs, this doesn’t work out well.
  2. For limited quantity items like shirts and bags, put a table at registration and allow first-come-first-served registrants to pick one.
  3. For all smaller items in bulk, scatter then in bowls and piles throughout the event to encourage wandering.

Other considerations

  • It’s too big of a crowd for games, but if you have some space, a lawn game of cornhole (e.g.) is good and people will use it.
  • For us, with the rooftop patio space, the weather is always a gamble. Account for all possibilities. We are going to invest in a tailgating tent to allow grilling in the rain. Two years in a row we’ve had spotty rain hassling us.
  • Buy event insurance if your venue doesn’t have it. We’ve never had to use it, but I don’t want to find out what happens when we do. We get ours from K&K, an online outfit.

Hopefully this collection of somewhat organized learnings gives you a sense of what it takes to pull off such an event and inspires your meetup group to give it a go. If you end up doing this, invite me. ; )


A big thanks to this year’s event sponsors:

And swag donors:

Of course, props to all of our organizers: