ZEPHYRHILLS — Among barbecue aficionados, Jim Elser is a stud.
A mechanical engineer by day, Elser, 42, has honed his barbecuing skills over the past two decades.
Now a fixture on the competitive barbecue circuit, Elser, of Winter Haven, traveled to about 35 barbecue festivals around the country last year and won about $60,000 in prize money.
Among his 2014 wins was the grand champion prize at the Pigz in Z’hills BBQ & Blues Fest. Elser’s Sweet Smoke Q team is preparing to defend its title at the fifth annual Pigz in Z’hills event, which will be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at Zephyrhills Municipal Airport, 39450 South Ave.
Admission is free; parking is $10. The Tampa Tribune is a sponsor of the event, which is hosted by the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce. Attendance at last year’s event was around 6,000.
A native of northwest Ohio, Elser has momentum on his side as he prepares for the event, which includes 50 other competitors.
In November, the pork ribs and pulled pork specialist traveled to Las Vegas and captured the World Food Championship, an invitation-only extravaganza featuring an international line-up of about 50 contestants.
In Zephyrhills, teams compete in four categories: chicken, pork ribs, pulled pork and beef brisket.
“Florida has some top-notch teams,” Elser said. “The top teams come here. What will help this year’s event is it’s the first event of the year, so that helps bring more teams in.”
At Pigz in Z’hills’ inaugural event, 13 teams participated, but it has grown steadily. By its second year, it was sanctioned by the Florida Bar-B-Que Association, which meant contestants could win money, among other things.
This year’s contestants will vie for cash prizes totaling $8,000, and backyard competitors will cook for bragging rights and trophies.
Besides the increased number of barbecue teams, this year’s festival features four live blues bands. Music starts at 10:30 a.m. and goes through the afternoon.
This year’s musical line-up includes TC Carr and Bolts of Blue, the Lauren Mitchell Band, Doug Deming and the Jewel Tones and Cold Iron.
The stage area has covered seating in The Swine Terrace, courtesy of Sonny’s Real Pit BBQ.
There also are more activities for children with two Kidz Zones, which will include a Human Gavatron (which allows kids and adults to “spin like astronauts” and “watch the world go topsy-turvy,” according to a Human Gavatron website), a rock wall, Bungie trampoline, arcade games, bounce houses, face painting, and arts and crafts.
Last year marked the first time Pigz in Zhills was held at the airport; it was previously held at nearby Krusen Field.
“The city felt the venue would provide additional room and promote the fact that there is an airport here in Zephyrhills,” said Airport Manager Mike Handrahan. “Last year, with very little advertising, people from Daytona to Miami flew in to visit for a few hours and left. We expect a number of people to fly in.”
The event also will feature a train ride for kids, an array of airplanes, truck and military displays, a car and motorcycle show, a business expo, and retail and concessions vendors.
Although admission is free, people pay for food and concessions, kids rides and games with PigzBucks, which cost $1 each. There will be three locations at the festival where money can be exchanged for PigzBucks.
Beer or wine can be purchased at the chamber’s beer tent with either PigzBucks or cash.
Vonnie Mikkelsen, executive director of the chamber, said retail vendors selling larger ticket items such as clothing, art or jewelry are authorized to accept cash or credit cards.
“There’s nothing more important than thanking the people that make this happen for Zephyrhills,” Mikkelsen said. “The FBA teams and judges, the community partners, the volunteers, and the chamber staff.
“Our bottom line is people. The energy and enthusiasm and fun-loving nature of our community, and that of our extended family and friends throughout the Florida Barbecue Association: We’ve got all that. We’ve got the best of the best,” she said.
For information, call the chamber at (813) 782-1913 or visit the Pigz in Z’hills Facebook page.