Hogs for the Cause: A soo-weet mix of entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and BBQ

This post is dedicated to the memory of Ben Sarrat Jr. for the movement he inspired.

Hogs for the Cause founders Becker Hall and Rene Louapre with their inspiration, Ben.

The formula for the first annual pig roast was simple: a few friends, a pig, and a keg. However, when Hogs for the Cause founders Becker Hall and Rene Louapre met Ben Sarrat, Jr., they were inspired to use their pig roast at the Fly to raise money for a family friend in need.

With that newfound motivation and drive, the duo has turned what was an idea for a small, pork infused gathering with friends into a highly anticipated festival that continues to triple in size each year.

In true New Orleans form, Hall and Louapre go back to childhood. Having grown up together, they always considered each other as brothers, and now play the roles of business partners with equal ease. Part of their success can be traced to the evident camaraderie and balance between the businessman and the lawyer, but their conviction and motivation has turned the young professionals into moonlighting entrepreneurs and philanthropists.

In 2009, the two friends and culinary aficionados came up with the idea of hosting a pig-roast, a tailgate tradition from Hall’s alma mater at the University of South Carolina, and a surprisingly new concept to New Orleans.

Shortly after they decided to add a philanthropic component to their roast, they met Ben. The young son of a family friend had been diagnosed with DIPG, an incurable brain tumor that cannot be removed because of its location on the brain stem, typically giving those who are diagnosed only one year of survival after detection. Hall and Louapre were taken by Ben’s enthusiasm and courage and decided to use their pig roast to raise money to help him and his family. Within a month, Hogs for the Cause was incorporated and registered as a 501c(3) non-profit organization.

“Meeting Ben was a really profound moment for us both, and immediately changed everything,” Hall says of this pivotal moment that inspired their endeavor. “Even with such terrible circumstances, he still continued to have a genuine enthusiasm for life. At that point, we decided to do whatever we could to help Ben have the happy childhood he deserved.”

In their first year, Hall and Louapre, along with 250 friends, raised $10,000 to help support Ben’s family with their expenses. However, they knew they could do more.

The week before their second Hogs for the Cause, Ben tragically lost his battle to DIPG.  However, his story only reinforced Hall and Louapre’s mission and drive to continue their fundraising for other families. In its second year, Hogs for the Cause drew in 2,500 people and raised $30,000, with a large portion of it going to support families like the Sarrats.

Hogs for the Cause’s mission is to alleviate some of the financial burden families face when a child is being treated for pediatric brain cancer. The money raised goes toward grants that help cover the peripheral expenses that insurance does not otherwise pay for, such as travel and lodging expenses incurred during cancer treatment.

Hall and Louapre filled a void of funding resources for pediatric cancer outreach services, as well as another void that New Orleans was ironically missing: pork cook-offs. In 2011, Hogs for the Cause moved from the Fly to City “Pork,” where they raised $100,000 for their cause, along with the help of 45 teams battling it out with their pork creations and 7,000 attendees.

And that was only year three.

This year, within three weeks of registration opening, 60 spots were filled with teams of pork enthusiasts, amateur cooks, award-winning BBQ experts, and renowned chefs and restaurant owners. Besides their genuine enthusiasm to support the cause, the teams participate for the opportunity to prove their culinary skills and compete for the ultimate title of Grand Champion. To them, the pork cook-off is merely the grand finale of a year spent practicing recipes and practicing witty twitter banter and intimidation between the teams. (I train my stomach’s pork capacity by reading their twitter feeds during this time. I recommend you do the same.)

The participants all compete in several categories, including Ribs, Whole Hog, Butt, Porkpourri, Grand Champion (who must Compete in three of the four aforementioned categories), Best Booth and Presentation, Fundraising Champion, Best Sauce, and Fan Favorite, which gives the fans a voice and opportunity to vote through the Hogs for the Cause iPhone app.

While Hogs for the Cause founders are grateful for the loyalty and enthusiasm of all the competitors, the team members continue to gain recognition for their participation in the competition as well. After winning last year’s Porkpourri category, Chef Adam Biderman credited his participation in Hogs for the Cause for the inadvertent loyal following he built before opening The Company Burger last August.

This year, Biderman will be back to defend his title and continue his support to the cause, along with other local chefs, including Aaron Burgau of Patois, Drew Dzejak of The Windsor Court’s Grill Room, Chefs Allison and Slade Rushing from MiLa, and Le Petite Grocery’s Chef Justin Devillier, just to name a few.

Six bands have also been confirmed to perform on the NOLA Brewing stage this year, including Trombone Shorty & Orleans AvenueVoice of the

Hogs for the Cause is Saturday, March 24, 2012

Wetlands All-Stars, 2012 Grammy nominated artist Marcia Ball, The Stooges Brass BandMississippi Rail Company, and Austin, Texas’ The Gourds.

While the event now launches the beginning of festival season in New Orleans and continues to grow significantly each year, Hall and Louapre still find that the greatest reward is being able to help their grant recipients.

“The greatest feeling in the world is walking into a room and delivering to a family a sign of hope,” said Louapre about his motivation to continue the growth of the annual cook-off. “These are families with odds stacked against them. Their child is fighting against a brutal killer, and to be able to deliver just a small dose of help — a reassurance that people care and a big hug of humanity — makes it all worth it.”

The entrepreneurial-minded team attributes the growth of their brand to their conviction and passion to help the families in need.  And, when asked about where they see Hogs for the Cause in five years, they both agreed on being at the forefront of funding sources for pediatric brain cancer outreach services.

Louapre added, “The cook-off will have 125 teams, there will be two stages of live music, and Becker and I (who have known each other our whole lives and are almost brothers) will still be fighting over minor details as we continue to make Hogs better.”

Hall’s vision includes taking the fundraising to a national level with cook-offs across the country.

While they might already be sparring about the exact coordinates of their five-year benchmark, it’s unmistakable that their brotherly dynamic has helped them surpass even their own expectations. So, who’s to say it won’t all be possible?

The country’s largest cook-off and nationally renowned charity based out of New Orleans is merely just a baby step toward what they can accomplish together.

What’s in store for March 24, 2012? Meatier competition, a new music lineup, larger location in City “Pork,” an adult “porkade,” frolf (frisbee-golf) games, a new iPhone app, and bigger fundraising goals.

To learn more, purchase tickets, and make a donation, visit their website, and follow them on Twitter and Facebook for all the updates and witty pork puns. Download the iPhone app to learn more about Hogs for the Cause, stay updated with the competition, vote for fan favorite, and purchase tickets.

Pre-Sale General admission tickets for $10, as well as ticket packages that include unlimited food and beer, judging privileges, and access to the “Boss Hog” tent, are available now and can be purchased online or on the iPhone App.

Adriana Lopez writes about the entrepreneurial community for NolaVie and Silicon Bayou News. She also showcases local start-ups through her non-profit organization GenNOLA. For more information on NolaVie, go to nolavie.com.