DAVENPORT — A warning to those traveling in northeast Polk County this weekend: You are likely to encounter smoky conditions around Davenport, with the potential for mouth-watering distractions.

Davenport hosts the inaugural Grills Gone Wild barbecue competition Friday and Saturday. Teams of professional grillers, as well as local amateur squads, will gather to display their prowess at cooking ribs, chicken and more.

“The pro teams — they’re serious about what they do,” said Danny McClain, Davenport’s parks and recreation superintendent. “These guys travel from city to city competing in these events.”

Davenport previously co-hosted a similar event, the Big Belly BBQ Battle, on Labor Day weekend.

“But we just didn’t get the response and competition we were looking for, so the city decided they would get a little more involved and move it to a better time of year,” City Commissioner Tom Fellows said. “In September, a lot of the Northerners are gone. This time of year, we should get a very good turnout.”

The event takes place 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday outside Davenport City Hall at 1 S. Allapaha Ave.

McClain and Davenport City Manager Kelly Callihan managed the annual Ribs on the Ridge barbecue event when both worked for Haines City. Drawing on that experience, McClain sought to land 30 professional teams for the initial Grills Gone Wild event.

Earlier this week, he said, at least 25 were committed. The event is sanctioned by the Florida Bar-Be-Que Association (FBA), a group founded in 2000. Starting with two events in 2001, the circuit grew to 27 competitions last year.

Sponsors have provided more than $11,000 in prize money, McClain said. The grand champion in the pro division will capture $2,000, while the same title in the backyard division yields $150. 

The FBA supplies judges to determine the winners in four main categories: pork ribs, pork butt, chicken and beef brisket. There will also be competitions for dessert and sauce.

Prizes will be awarded for the top 10 finishers in each of the professional categories.

The professional field will include Lakeland resident Matt Barber and his one-man cooking team, Hot Wachula’s. Barber, a two-time winner of the FBA’s Team of the Year title, began competing in 2009.

“I’m excited about it,” Barber said. “For a first-year contest, they’ve got over 25 teams and I think they’ve got plenty of room to grow. So we’re excited about having a new contest in Central Florida, for sure.”

Barber, who operates a sauce business based in Bartow, said he enters about 40 contests a year, including a recent event in Italy.

Barber said Polk County is known for its barbecue cooks. Two other local professional teams, Swamp Boys and Sweet Smoke Q, have won multiple FBA season titles.

Any FBA-sanctioned event with at least 25 entrants serves as a qualifier for the American Royal World Series of BBQ in Kansas City. The winner also joins a lottery for the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational in Tennessee.

Barber, 49, said he plans to enter all four meat categories. He said he devotes about 4½ hours to cooking ribs during competitions, and he’s learned that judges esteem texture above all else.

“The most important thing as far as barbecue contests and professional pit-master cooking is tenderness,” he said. “If it’s cooked perfectly, you’ll always score better than if it tastes great. Flavors can be subjective, but tenderness is pretty straightforward. It’s weird how it doesn’t work the way that you think.”

Vendors, including some of the competitors, will be happy to satisfy the appetites aroused by the swaths of smoke. Musical entertainment is also scheduled for both days.

Although he takes the competition seriously, Barber said events like Grills Gone Wild are also highly sociable.

“Food brings people together, especially barbecue,” he said. “Anything that takes a long time to do, it becomes more a social thing. You put something on the grill and hang out with your friends, have some beers and hang out for the next four or five hours.”

Gary White can be contacted at gary.white@theledger.com.