Ascuaga was an intern in the Special Events Department at The Nugget one year before the inaugural rib cook-off. He spent many of his days alongside a stack of phone books making cold calls to barbecue restaurants across the country. This was after then marketing coordinator Ben Plaza flew to Cleveland, Ohio to observe a championship barbecue competition that was causing a stir in the Midwest.
“Basically, on a handshake, (Plaza) reserved a date on the back of a napkin that said we’ll see you in Sparks, Nevada for Labor Day Weekend next year,” Ascuaga said. “Meanwhile, we are trying to get things set for hosting this contest and we don’t know if two people or 1,000 people are going to show up.”
Frantically booking vendors, competition cookers and entertainment, front office Nugget employees managed to gather commitments from five barbecue joints in the Midwest. Ascuaga said the first cook-off was slated for half of Friday and continued through Monday, and large trucks began rolling onto then B Street in Sparks.
“Even from the first day I think we knew we had something good because that first weekend I think we had about 15 to 20,000 people come out,” he said. “What started out as us begging people to come in, and trying to explain to people what a cook-off was, has kind of come full circle where we basically have a waiting list. It really became a unique event out West.”
Now in its 24th year, Ascuaga said the Best in the West operates under contrasting methods of similar rib competitions in the country. By not “charging a gate” price for entry, people are free to roam the street, buy food and beverages and come and go as they please, taking full advantage of more than just the nationwide barbecue cooks.
“We aren’t the typical promoter for this because our model is that we are bringing them here for what’s inside The Nugget — the rooms, the food, the gambling,” he said. “We’re not charging a gate, not charging for parking and the entertainment is free. The model there is so people can save their money to go buy ribs, which the cooks love.”
Ascuaga said the Best in the West infrastructure provides amenities, such as cleanup crews and security, that other event producers cannot provide. He said the event has “put Sparks, Nevada on the map for barbecue” and that food writers and competitors from around the country have coined the phrase, “the Super Bowl of rib cook-offs,” for Best in the West.
Ascuaga said the effect on the local community becomes even greater with the passing of each successful Labor Day weekend.
“I think there is a seed of an idea (with this event) of what Victorian Square could be beyond these six days,” he said. “Getting businesses to come down there and invest into the area because it really is a great venue. We have used the term of Victorian Square being ‘the living room’ of the community.”
Of course, the Nugget Rib Cook-Off was not always a well-oiled machine attracting half a million people to downtown Sparks. Ascuaga has witnessed the expansion of days, rearranging of entertainment stages and the battle for space in the clearings on the ever-improving Victorian Avenue.
“It’s a real puzzle. As the event grows, our sponsors want more and more space and each of the cooking teams hauls tons of their equipment as well,” he said. “Parking has also been a major issue, so we implemented a steady park-and-ride program. We also have moved employees off site and actually shuttle them in. Basically, anything to free up space for the public.”
Even confronting subtle issues that are corrected on site in the offseason, Ascuaga said he relies on the hard work, efficiency and dedication of his staff to make the event successful. Managing the event in the days before cell phones has made Ascuaga more appreciative of the seamless communication his staff currently possesses.
“If we could take a picture of all of us in our, sort of, ‘war room’ then people could really see that this is a machine that is finely tuned,” he said. “There are maybe 35 to 40 of us in the supervisors meeting and everyone is responsible for a specific department. It could be janitorial, security, valet, transportation and a lot of people might have a responsibility that has nothing to do with their area. It is just grandfathered in.”
Ascuaga said the public can be blind to the “all hands on deck” staff The Nugget has dispersed throughout the event. From replacing cash drawers to disposing of unwanted oil and liquids, he said the moving parts operated by the team proves essential every year.
“I look at the janitorial crew and I can’t give them enough praise to turn that street over every night and it is a wreck. It’s kind of like when you have a party at your house and everyone leaves and you say ‘where do I start,’ and these guys come out and it’s almost like the worse, the better. We come back in the morning it’s amazing to see,” he said. “Typically, I am more out on display, but it is definitely many individuals working together behind the scenes.”
Ascuaga pointed to several arms of the rib cook-off body that have “legitimized” the event in its 24-year history, one of those limbs being the Rib Eating Championship. He admitted the light crowd gathering prior to the start of the contest puzzled him, but he was never worried. The crowd, as Ascuaga expected, filled the open space from the stage railing to the VIP Village within 10 minutes of contestant announcements.
“In a way, we kind of stumbled on it seven years ago and we were able to get it here and I thought it was a great idea. It was one of those things that you try and maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t,” he said. “I wish we could take credit for it, but I don’t know how much of it is what we’re doing and how much of it is how competitive eating has come out more. One of the things we were fortunate with was that Joey (Chestnut) was in San Jose and wanted to come over. Now he’s more established and draws a good crowd, but then he was a college kid and it worked out well.”
As the final days are stamped on the 24th annual Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off, Ascuaga said gathering department supervisors for review is crucial in ensuring the event not only stays legitimized, but continues to be an event people cannot refuse during Labor Day weekend.
“With many events you do it one time and you can say I’ve done it. I think we have something where once a year people look forward to this event. I think whether its a new cooker or the Rib Eating Championship, we have to find new ways to keep people enthusiastic.”
In a tourist economy, Ascuaga understands the “ripple effect” that the Nugget’s major event has on the entire Reno-Sparks economy. He said an event in Sparks as large as the rib cook-off serves to form partnerships among competing hotels that ultimately benefit the entire area.
“People don’t always realize the economic impact in that tourism is our export. That is our product, and to bring in that outside dollar to our community is huge,” he said. “This is the first year where we had a major sponsorship (with the El Dorado) where we bring in tons of their guests down here, they enjoy the rib cook-off and then go back and stay at the El Dorado. The tax on that all stays with them, but that’s great for everybody. You start seeing the bigger picture and how it affects everybody.”
Localizing that bigger picture, however, has always been a goal for Ascuaga. Seeing the Sparks community rally around an event that caters to thousands of tourists only inspires him to throw an even bigger party each year.
“On the outside I think there is an effect from the community from a ‘community pride’ side, saying we know how to put on an event. People are inviting their families and friends to the area because you have to see this event,” Ascuaga said. “I have talked to several locals already who said ‘man, do we know how to throw a party or what?’”