Just as happened during the previous thirty-years with NASCAR, bass fishing about fifteen-years later, followed by professional wrestling; interest in competitive barbecue was on the verge of a popularity explosion. With the proliferation of barbecue newsletters, magazines, Internet web sites, long term sponsorship deals and cable television networks featuring barbecue, the potential to earn big money was enormous.
Winning barbecue contests is not just about the prize money. The opportunity for the really big bucks existed in the sponsorship deals, endorsements, branding, and product development arena. Taking into consideration what contestants spend just for the privilege of competing, and factoring in transportation expenses, money for practice cooking, supplies, tow vehicles and other equipment, it’s not hard to see how some participants spend $35,000-$40,000 a year or more in the barbecue hobby. To recoup any of the money, you have to win and win often.
The serious competitors on the barbecue circuit cook at least 20 – 30 contests per year or more and to do that necessitates a large personal bank roll, or serious corporate backing, whether through a related business (i.e. manufacturing, distributing, licensing barbecue equipment and supplies) or through a corporate sponsorship arrangement.
Benny Johns had both…a successful barbecue restaurant located in Warren, Georgia, and a corporate sponsorship from Bodacious Barbecue Products, Inc., a company gaining in popularity on a national basis.
Benny hosted one of the most popular cooking shows on the Cable Cooking Channel—Barbecue with Benny. The show had poor ratings to begin with, but had steadily grown in popularity. The ratings improvement was building over the period of three years on the air and coincided with the growing popularity of barbecue as a competitive sport and victories at several of the nation’s biggest and most prestigious barbecue contests for the “Benny John’s Boot Scootin’ Southern-Style Barbecue” team. Benny had done very well with the restaurant, but even better on the barbecue contest circuit. He had won most of the big contests in Kansas City, Nashville, Tryon, and Memphis. It supplemented his income and provided a way to promote the restaurant.
It was 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday and Benny Johns was preparing to open the restaurant when the restaurant phone rang. Deciding not to answer it, Benny continued the task of preparing the pans of pulled pork and ribs that would be reheated and served to the lunch crowd. Barbecue restaurants rarely served fresh barbecue to patrons because unlike a hamburger and French fries or nachos and burritos, real barbecue was anything but fast food. It was slow-food with a capital “S”. Benny preferred to pre-cook the meat and reheat it in a microwave or on the grill. Everybody in the business accepted the fact that “real pit barbecue” was hard to achieve commercially due to the quantities and time involved to make it.
Benny had a night man, John Waters that arrived at 4 p.m. each afternoon who seasoned and prepped whole chickens, slabs of ribs and pork butts for serving the next day. He tended the smokers at night while the meat cooked and cleaned up the place to make it ready for the next day’s service. The ribs and chickens were cooked the next morning just before opening. Waters had worked at the restaurant for almost 10 years and he’d been there longer than Benny had owned the joint. He had worked for the previous owner for several years before Benny purchased it.
After what seemed like forever, the phone finally stopped ringing. Just as Benny placed the last pan of meat in the oven and turned to head back into the walk-in cooler, the phone rang again.
“Now who could be calling us this early?” Benny muttered to himself. Most local folks knew it would be at least another hour before the restaurant opened.
He grabbed the phone from its resting place on the shelf above the meat prep table and answered a frustrated, “Hello”.
“Well good morning Benny. Do you know who this is?” said the voice on the other end. Although, the voice did sound familiar, it was difficult for Benny to identify the caller immediately. His mind rushed to associate the voice with a face or a name.
“Come on now Benny. I’m surprised at you. You sure do have a short memory this morning. Now is this any way to treat your old friend?” the caller continued.
As the caller continued to talk, Benny began to get a sinking feeling at the pit of his stomach that was methodically and menacingly moving up into his throat and nearing the base of his skull. He began to develop a headache and his heart started to pump harder and harder. Although not sure of the name, Benny was beginning to recall where he’d heard this voice before.
“This cannot be happening to me. Not now. Please not now!”” Benny thought silently. He remained silent on the phone, choosing not to respond, hoping that the caller would hang up. “Would someone, please wake me up from this nightmare?”
The caller continued with the needling, now beginning to press harder, hoping to impress Benny with the seriousness of his intentions. “What’s the matter Benny? You didn’t forget about our little secret now did you?”
“Now Benny, I’m surprised at you and disappointed. Is this any way to treat your ole’ buddy Lee Logan?”
Frustrated at this point and becoming angry that he’d been discovered, Benny said, “I don’t know you.”
“You don’t know me, but I know you,” Logan continued.
“What do you want? Why are you calling me?” Benny demanded.
“Well, Benny, it’s time for you to return a favor,” Logan explained. “You’re going to help me with a little project I’m working on.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, sir, but I don’t have time for any distractions right now. I don’t want to talk to you. Good-bye.” Benny responded, but before he could disconnect call, the voice on the other end of line continued.
“Well, Benny wait just a minute before you hang up on me. You had better think twice about doing that. You can’t afford not to talk to me. With your television show and your business…now is precisely the time you need to talk to me. If you don’t want to talk to me, I’m sure there are plenty of people that will want to talk to you after I tell them about that night out on that road near Luttrell.”
“You remember that night, don’t you Benny?” Logan asked.
Benny had hoped the day would never come where he would be confronted about the “secret” he thought he’d hidden so well.
After the collision with the mini-van he’d headed back to Roseville and waited until dawn before driving back to Warren taking the long way so as to avoid the accident scene and any residual investigations the various law enforcement agencies would be conducting.
He had been careful and borrowed a car from his brother to drive while the damage to the Yukon was being repaired. He took the Yukon to a body shop 40 miles from Warren in the opposite direction and paying cash in an effort to avoid traceability and he avoided insurance claim process altogether. The last thing he expected was someone calling him at the restaurant asking about that night.
Resigned that he’d have to talk to the stranger on the telephone, Benny agreed to meet the caller later that afternoon at the Waffle House down the street off the I-75 exit.
Logan explained that he’d be eating at the high counter opposite the cash register wearing blue cotton Dockers, a white Polo oxford and a Logan Family Barbecue hat. He also went into great detail about the consequences of arriving late or bringing any reinforcements.