Todd Llewellyn stood before about 100 volunteers munching paper plates of pizza, explaining when to arrive, where to park, what to wear and, basically, how to run Ribfest, one of the largest live music events in all of Tampa Bay.
"Everybody can knock on wood right now: We've never been rained out," he said, as the rumble of rapping knuckles filled the conference room at All Children's Hospital. "Hard to believe, here in Florida, we've never been rained out. Hate to talk about it, but the good lord willing..."
"Stop saying it!" John Petruccelli shouted from the back. He's been at this 26 years, long enough to know you just don't jinx a good thing.
And volunteering for Ribfest, which returns Friday through Sunday at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg, is most definitely a good thing. It might be the most coveted volunteer assignment of any music festival in Tampa Bay.
Sign up for one of 500-plus volunteer shifts, and you get a parking pass, T-shirt, meal voucher, two drink tickets and, if you feel like arriving early or sticking around late, free admission to the music. No wonder more than 1,000 volunteers jumped at the chance to sling tickets, beer, corn, Pepsi or just do whatever needs doing.
"People plan their vacations around it," said Dorothy Tadder, secretary of the Northeast Exchange Club, which runs Ribfest.
Here's the thing, though: The Northeast Exchange Club doesn't actually advertise for volunteers. If you want to work a shift, you basically have to know someone. Application forms — which are not disseminated to the public — even ask for the name of a referring club member, like you're trying to join a country club.
"Families, friends and co-workers," Tadder said. "We use folks we know."
They have to. Paying workers would cost organizers some $100,000 per year. But since everyone volunteers, all of that money goes to charities. Those savings add up over time — in 26 years, Ribfest has raked in some $4.3 million in net proceeds, with profits going to charities including All Children's Hospital, Suncoast Center Inc. and the Boy Scouts.
Some of that money can be traced directly back to volunteers' good work. There are tip jars at every station, and whatever goes in those jars goes directly to the charities that Ribfest supports.
"When you're selling a beer and you smile and you laugh and you make a guy so happy, and he puts a $20 tip in that tip jar, we did good," Llewellyn told the volunteers. "All that money goes back into helping kids in our community."
The job is more than an all-you-can-snarf buffet of smoky brisket and classic rock. Your shirt doesn't grant you much special access — in other words, no backstage chill sessions with headliners Bret Michaels or Kip Moore. You get a meal ticket, but you don't get to choose from the trophy-wielding 'cue-slingers in Vinoy Park. You get Sonny's.
And as is the case in life itself, some jobs are more coveted than others. Beer Truck No. 3, with what Llewellyn calls "a tremendous waterfront view," is where the vets all want to be.
During training, Llewellyn drives home a few key reminders with the aid of a PowerPoint map and laser pointer. Arrive early. Here's where you enter. Don't forget your ID. Bring earplugs. Be flexible on your shifts and assignments.
"If you don't know the answer," reads a PowerPoint slide, "ASK YOUR CAPTAIN."
And, of course, Llewellyn reminds everyone of that old Homeland Security chestnut: If you see something, say something. Volunteers work closely with police and security to ensure things run smoothly and safely. It's more responsibility than you'd think, especially if you work a beer or booze tent and fail to properly check ID stamps before pouring.
"If you sell them the beer, you're the one getting in trouble," Llewellyn said. "I hate to say that, but we can't change the law."
In general, though, Ribfest's volunteer army has done a solid job keeping the event low-key and largely incident-free.
"People are there to have a good time, and we're there to have a good time," Llewellyn said. "If we weren't there having fun, we wouldn't keep doing this every year."
That's what's keeps Petruccelli and his wife, Jane, coming back. They started volunteering through their old friend Tom Whiteman, who books the music. Their daughters were Girl Scouts together.
"It's the people we come for — the same people we work with year after year," said Jane Petruccelli.
Some of them are friends they've brought into the Ribfest volunteer fold. For first-timers, John Petruccelli has this advice: "Good walking shoes, big appetite, and come prepared for the weather to turn," he said. "Once the sun goes down at night, it can get windy."
No rain yet, though. Knock on wood.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.