Next-door neighbors Rick Willows and Billy Sheredy like to keep their barbecue smoker parked where they can access it night and day.

That's why their smoker sits in a shared driveway between their Davenport homes.

“We like having it close by,” Willows, 54, said, especially while their meats cook for 18 or 19 hours at a time.

Sometimes, their meat is cooking while they sleep and, Sheredy said, “Sometimes we wake up to check on it." 

The neighbors and business partners say this is one not-so-secret ingredient to their budding barbecue company, called Smokin’ Butt BBQ, which started in 2011.

And Sheredy and Willows will likely have a few sleepless nights this week as they prepare to defend their title at Ribfest in downtown Davenport.

Smokin' Butt BBQ competed in Ribfest for the first time last year and cleared the field, winning the People’s Choice, Best Pork and Best Ribs awards.

“To compete against five national guys who do it every weekend and win all the awards,” Sheredy said. “It was huge.”

This weekend, he and Willows will again compete against national touring barbecue brands, including Carolina Rib King, based in South Carolina, Austin's Texas Lightning BBQ, a 30-year veteran of barbecue competitions, Chicago BBQ Company, Porky Chicks and BBQ King Smokehouse, based in Woodstock, Illinois.

“This is what we shoot for every year now,” Sheredy said. “It’s all about Ribfest.”

New home for Ribfest

This year, the annual barbecue battle has a new date.

For the first time in its 18-year history, Ribfest will be held in conjunction with Street Fest on Friday and Saturday.

Ribfest started in 1999 and since 2007, it had been part of River Roots Live, which has been replaced this year by a new festival concept, called Alternating Currents, set for Aug. 25-26 at multiple venues in downtown Davenport.

“We needed a home for Ribfest because it’s such a popular event,” Jason Gilliland director of events with the Downtown Davenport Partnership, said. “We didn’t want to see it just go away.”

Gilliland said pairing Ribfest with Street Fest, a free event on 2nd Street between Brady and Ripley streets, is “a perfect fit.” In addition to six barbecue vendors, Street Fest features 15 food vendors offering everything from funnel cakes to tacos to burgers. They will be set up on 2nd Street between Harrison and Main streets.

“We have a lot of food at Street Fest, so this is a way to enhance that,” Gilliland said.

Sheredy and Willows say the date change could mean a bigger turnout for Ribfest, since it now pairs up with the Quad-City Times Bix 7 on Saturday. They estimated they served 3,000 people last year.

“I think it’ll be a better turnout just the fact that it’s a free festival,” Willows said. “You’re also going to have all of the out-of-town visitors from the race driving people downtown. I think it’s going to bring a lot of people who have never gone (to Ribfest) before.”

It will be a good test for Smokin' Butt BBQ.

“When they announce the winners, word spreads and your line gets a lot longer,” Willows said. “It gets crazy.”

Voting ends at 3 p.m. Saturday and the winners will be announced after that. Last year, Smokin' Butt BBQ sold out of its products before Ribfest ended.

Fueling the fire

Their business officially started in 2011, but Willows said the idea sparked before that, when Sheredy, then a stranger, moved next door in 2007.

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"We would have barbecues in the backyard and we started sharing recipes and techniques just like neighbors would," Willows said. "Friends and family would say, 'Man, you got to bottle this stuff.’”

He and Sheredy went for it.

“We both have the love of cooking and hosting backyard barbecues,” Willows said. “We’re also both pretty competitive.”

After developing a sauce that’s “a unique and balanced flavor,” Sheredy said, they began entering festivals and competitions around the Midwest. They won their very first barbecue competition and “that fueled the fire." They also cater weddings and special events.

Their Smokin' Butt BBQ sauces — one sweet and one spicy — are now available in 103 stores, including area Hy-Vee and Fareway Grocery locations.

Willows said the success comes from a not-too-thick sauce that’s different from the competitors.

“I’ve never heard a bad complaint,” Willows said. “We get people to start buying it by letting them taste it. Once they taste it, they’re like, ‘Wow.”

To get ready for Ribfest along with serving food each day of the Mississippi Valley Fair (Aug. 1-6), the partners ordered 60 cases of ribs, 1,200 pounds of pulled pork and 450 pounds of pulled chicken.

In November, Willows and Sheredy will travel to Orange Beach, Alabama, to compete in the World Open Chili Championship, part of the World Food Championships. They qualified by winning the Hand-in-Hand Chili Cook-Off in January.

For that event and this weekend’s Ribfest, the neighbors say they’ll stick to their usual strategy: Working together.

“We both have full-time jobs and families and we have a business that’s growing really fast, so our vacation times are spent doing this,” Willows said. “Getting to do it with your neighbor and friend … we love it.”

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Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).