From Friday through Saturday this weekend, there's going to be a lot of delicious, smoky pig roasting in City Park. Hogs for the Cause, a two-day Southern-style prig roast that raises money for the families of children suffering from pediatric brain cancer, will convene under a balmy (hopefully clear) spring sky for its fifth and largest cook-out since its founding in 2008. Back then, Rene Louapre and Becker Hall were just two guys hoping to organize a small barbecue to help kids like Ben Sarrat, Jr., a 4-year-old diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in November 2008. Since then, Hogs for the Cause has grown almost overnight into a full-blown festival, with live music, a gala dinner, Boss Hog passes, and a cook-off for anyone who doubts that New Orleans can host a kick-ass pig roast.
Tell us a little bit about how much this festival has grown in such a short span of time.
Becker Hall: Between it being fortuitous or the result of our own ambition to keep making this thing bigger in order to help more families, I'd probably go with the latter. I mean, getting deeper into knowing about the cause and assessing the need has continued to drive us to make the event bigger so we can help more families.
That being said...
Rene Louapre: I think I'll step in and say that we're both fairly entrepreneurial people and we did see a void and an opportunity. It's a little bit of both. We're both people who understand New Orleans and its special love of festivals, and it's not like we were trying to start this thing in Dubuque, Iowa.
BH: I've actually dated someone from Dubuque who was a lovely person, but, Rene and I have known each other our whole lives. We grew up together, we both went to school in the southeast, and both of us did big roasts in college. I mean, I did them before every South Carolina football game. We just both really enjoyed it and, Rene's a little bit younger than I am, but he's obviously much more food-experienced and food-oriented. I told him that I'd love to do a pig roast because you don't see them that often in New Orleans. So I said why don't we get a pig, invite some friends to the fly and sort of make a day out of it.
About a couple of weeks later, we learned about a boy named Ben Sarrat, Jr., and we quickly thought that we should build a charitable element into this idea. We formed a 501(c)3 and about 250, depending on who you ask...
RL: Friends might be a stretch. People is more like it...
BH: Yeah, hungry people who were at the fly that day. We cooked one pig, kind of, and I say "kind of" because it really didn't come in...
RL: It was 90 percent cooked.
BH: Yeah, 90 percent. So, it was one pig, two guys, and couple of kegs of beer that first year, and we were able to raise close $10,000, which we gave to the Sarrat family. We felt really good about that and got really positive feedback. Some people said we could more, we thought we could do more, and the second year we expanded into the barbecue competition, which had about 25 teams. Unfortunately, the week before that year's Hogs, Ben Sarrat, Jr. passed away. We were really inspired by that and wanted to make that event the best we possibly could. It was a great year?we tripled in a revenue and growth, and in the third year we introduced the music and moved into city park. It's kind of grown and grown until it became what it is today.
Did you guys get a lot of input from other festival people?
BH: I'd say no...
RL: No, and in fact I'll tell you this: Becker and I pretty much can't stand festivals and crowds. The festival culture isn't very symbiotic.
We did not set out to copy another festival. Now, sure, you got music and food, but we pretty much organized it the way we wanted to. We said we wanted to have a good local beer, we wanted to have better wines, we wanted locals cooking, we wanted local musical acts, and we wanted a spring-time festival out in City Park. Basically we said, "Let's design a festival we'd really want to go to."
BH: It was more out of our own penchants. Rene's more of a food guy and I'm more passionate about music. We were just kind of exploring our own interests, with the public in mind. Also, we wanted to make sure the festival had a low cost of entry, which is something that everybody is straying away from these days. You spend ridiculous amounts of money at festivals these days, and at least at ours, if you're going to spend money, you're going to do it for a good cause.
Pig roasts are a little unusual in New Orleans. Have people really embraced the hog?
RL: The first year, I think everyone wanted to come out just to see it, because you're right?in southwest Louisiana, yeah, it's pretty common, but in New Orleans? Maybe every now and then. It's really not as big a part of our culture as it is in other parts of Louisiana and other parts of the South. I think people just wanted to come out and see it just out of curiosity.
BH: In some of the pictures from the first year, you can see people staring at the pig with these weird faces. That's changed now.
RL: From there, we started having the competition aspect. That moved us towards more than just a pig roast.
BH: And now, you can sample the food.
RL: No one wants to go to a food competition if you can't eat, and at tons of these food competitions, you just go and watch people cook, and you don't get to eat it. That never made sense to us. I mean, we've got all this food that's being cooked because there's a competition barbecue. Cooks don't smoke one butt, they smoke ten and take the best-looking one. There's all this food left over and we thought, "Why not use it to raise money?" It seemed to us like such a simple idea. I think people have taken off with that.
Is the cook-off open to anyone?
BH: Yeah, it's really a first-come, first-serve. We always open up an early registration to all the returning teams, but it's not sanctioned, so if you wanna give it a shot, sign up.
Have you gotten a lot of response from local chefs?
RL: Oh yeah, we have 15-20 of the city's best chefs and restaurants that compete. Pretty much every chef except Sue [Zemanick] from Gautreau's has been involved with our organization for a long time.
It's a good because, you know, they do these events all the time and it's a high-ticket price and all they do is stand behind a table and dish out some seared scallop sample platter. A lot of the people already go to their restaurants, and I think a lot of the chefs like this because they get to go outdoors and cook, they get to cook on a piece of a equipment they don't usually get to cook on, they get have fun with their restaurant crew, and they get to meet people who don't go to those bigger, fancier charity events. Those events are great, but it's the same 300 people at all of them.
At the end of the day, our festival is just fun.
What are some of the events you guys are most looking forward to this year?
BH: I know Rene is going to say the gala dinner, but I'm excited about Friday night. We've always just been a Saturday festival, and now we're introducing Friday night as open-to-the-public. It's more like the underground party, which is a very wild time where all the teams let loose and there's this hog tail competition where our teams have submitted cocktail recipes and Neal Bodenheimer from Cure and some bartenders pared the teams down to five finalists. The teams don't know who they are, and at 6 pm on Friday, we're going make a big announcement to the public, and the bartenders from Cure are going to go to the tents that were selected and serve the selected drinks to the public, and the public will pick the winner.
And I'm excited about the music on Saturday.
RL: I'm usually most excited for Saturday afternoon at about 6:30. I mean, at that point, it sort of shifts from putting out fires and doing chores, to relaxing a little bit. The dinner is pretty cool, too.
· Hogs for the Cause [Official Site]