Aiken County competition barbecue team featured on Food Network show

·4 min read

Jul. 29—An Aiken County competition barbecue team was recently featured on the Food Network.

Kurt Mueller, his adopted brother, Aleki Fualau, and Kevin Pflieger, partners in Atomic City Smokers, were recently featured in an episode of the Food Network's "BBQ USA" that focused on the Tifton Rhythm and Blues Festival.

Mueller said Atomic City Smokers had signed up for the early March contest when the Food Network reached out to all the competitors to gauge their interest in being filmed.

"I was like, absolutely," Mueller said.

Mueller and Pflieger went through a few Zoom interviews and eventually made their way to a senior producer. They speculated that host and chef Michael Symon was also involved in the process.

"We're relatively entertaining and goofy guys; and so they're like, maybe we'll take them for the show," Pflieger said.

Mueller said he asked a producer at the competition why they were chosen. He said the producer mentioned their social media presence.

"Everything across all the platforms is the same," Mueller continued.

He said he worked to make sure that Atomic City Smokers' social media presence was professional-looking and well-organized.

Mueller said they began what would become Atomic City Smokers in September 2021 when they decided to compete in a Cartersville, Georgia, contest.

"We kind of worked together anyway, and we were just kind of friends; and we noticed that we both loved to barbecue a lot," Pflieger said. "We were both cooking for ourselves, and we found one contest that was kind of local and close. We were like, we could try our hand in that."

The first decision that they had to make was to decided in which category to compete in: amateur or professional.

Pflieger said Mueller said they would compete as professionals.

"We're not doing amateur," Mueller said during a recent interview at an Aiken Dunkin' Donuts.

"We just jumped in, both feet, and went for it," Pflieger said.

They used the name Ruckin' Barbecue for the Cartersville contest but decided to change the name on the way back when they realized they weren't satisfied with it.

Mueller said they considered several names — including CSRA and Augusta monikers — on the three-hour drive home, but neither seemed like a good pick. They eventually settled on Atomic City, a reference to the Savannah River Site's presence in Aiken County.

With Atomic City decided, they tried barbecue on the end of the name but didn't like how it sounded. "Smokers" was the next choice.

"Atomic City Smokers, boom," Mueller said.

Mueller and Pfleiger both laughed when they were asked about success in early months of Atomic City Smokers.

Pflieger said they took a yard trailer he uses to take refuse to the dump to the Cartersville competition.

"We looked like the Clampetts coming in there," Pflieger said, referring to the family from the 1960s television show "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Mueller and Pflieger upgraded to an enclosed trailer after a couple of competitions.

Pflieger said they also decided on a recipe to use and worked at home to perfect it.

He said Atomic City Smokers takes advantage of its location in South Carolina, home of four types of pork barbecue sauces: mustard, vinegar-pepper, and two types of tomato sauce. He said they use a combination of a mustard and a savory sweet to create a product with sweetness with a little bit of a kick.

They also received help from other people that they competed against.

Mueller and Pflieger laughed as they remembered bringing fat lighter — a type of wood from the heartwood of pine trees — to a competition.

Most barbecue competitors use hickory, oak, peach, apple or mesquite.

"Yeah, that was a mistake," Mueller said.

After committing to Atomic City Smokers, they won a couple of awards from the Georgia Barbecue Association before they moved to the Kansas City Barbecue Society, the largest barbecue competition sanctioning body in the country.

"For me, its being able to compete with the best of the best," Mueller said.

They also are sponsored by Deep South Smokers.

Mueller said the company offers catering.

"The way we cook at a competition is completely different than the way we cook at home," Mueller added. "The way we cook for a catering event, we would not cook like that. You have to pack so much flavor, so much savory-ness, so much flavor into one bite because the judges are literally taking one bit of your rib or one bite of your brisket."

He said he hoped Atomic City Smokers could use the catering business to break even on the 15-18 competitions they plan to enter each year.

Mueller added that he also started a podcast: BBQ 4 Newbies. He said he hopes to bring a barbecue competition to the Aiken area.