HOGS NIGHT OUT: The Hogs For The Cause festival hopes to raise $5 million in its 16th year. (All photos courtesy of the event)

What started as a one-time grassroots fund-raiser for a childhood friend has become a national campaign that has raised more than $11 million toward pediatric brain cancer. 

Now in its 16th year, Hogs For The Cause is a rare combination of barbecue contest, fund-raiser and music festival, taking place annually outside UNO Lakefront Arena at the University of New Orleans. More than 90 barbecue teams will take part in the two-day event April 5-6, 2024. Organizers expect to draw 30,000 people and hope to raise $5 million. Last year’s event raised $3.6 million.

Like many great things, Hogs For The Cause started by accident.

Partners and co-founders Becker Hall and Rene Louapre, born and raised in New Orleans, were developing a whole-hog roast barbecue concept to bring to their hometown after Hall, while attending University of South Carolina, fell in love with the tradition to roast pigs outside Gamecocks football games. New Orleans, despite being a culinary capital, lacked a barbecue scene.

“Despite being one of the best food towns in the country, we had zero barbecue, none,” Hall said, noting that the La Boucherie tradition in rural Louisiana did not extend to the Big Easy.  

After learning a childhood friend’s child was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, Hall and Louapre, who studied law, organized a pig roast event to raise money for the family, a grass-roots event Hall said was akin to “passing around a hat.” They raised $7,500, “which we thought was miraculous and such a huge number,” he said.

“We immediately formed a (nonprofit) and called it Hogs For The Cause because we initially thought we were going to change the cause every year,” said Hall, whose background includes investment banking.  “We were going to be this one pig roast annually that raised money, for something.” 

The Cause, however, was too clear.

“When we went to present the family with a check several weeks later, this child just floored us,” Hall said. “We both walked out of that meeting and said we are going to build the biggest pediatric brain cancer charity in the country.” 

ARE YOU THERE? One of the 90-plus barbecue teams taking part in Hogs For The Cause.

To date, the charitable organization has distributed more than $11 million, including over 1,800 in direct grants to families fighting pediatric brain cancer, and millions to hospital programs to renovate and expand their pediatric cancer units. The organization has worked with children’s hospitals to build multimillion-dollar “Hogs Houses” that provide free accommodations for families while children receive extended care, which the charity pays to operate.  

“So we were like, if we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do, we’ve got to grow this thing,” Hall said. In year two, a competition component was added — “it was too hard for us to smoke this whole hog for 20 hours and manage an event” — which saw fundraising efforts raise to more than $30,000 in year two.

“That’s when we started doing due diligence really hard on festivals and, I’m not joking, we still have it, we found this ‘how to produce festivals manual’ on eBay or something online and bought it,” Hall said. “That was our guide star for building a festival.” 

The music component of the festival leans to Americana and alt-country. The 2024 lineup features Band of Horses, Shane Smith & The Saints, The Record Company and Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country. Tickets went on sale last week, starting at $99 for two-day admission. 

The event features three stages and around 20 bands, with Hall taking pride in getting up-and-comers in the music scene before they break, such as Marcus King and Turnpike Troubadours although he is blunt about the cost of talent being a barrier when producing a charitable event.

“You can’t get emotional about who you’re booking,” Hall says, as advice to anyone wanting to produce a music event independently. “You have to be very mindful of your balance sheet and your P&L, because you can get in a lot of trouble very quickly with the way bands are pricing these days.”

The event has stayed true to its mission and requires buy-in from everyone involved, as the barbecue teams, with playful and creative names like “Chits and Piggles,” “Aporkalypse Now,” “Hair Of The Hog,” “Piggy Stardust” and “Squeal Team 6,” raise money year-round. 

“The average (barbecue) team is about 50 people, so there’s 4,000 people on about 95 teams, which we limit every year,” Hall said. “There is no public registration anymore. You have to raise a certain amount of money to be invited back. The largest team raises north of $500,000 to $700,000 a year, and if you don’t raise $5,000, you’re not invited back. We have a waitlist of up to 50 teams chomping at the bit to get in because we’re only 40 acres and we can’t fit everybody.”

The barbecue teams are the only vendors onsite, with the event’s expenses supported by sponsorships. Teams register based on size needed for their operation.

 “The teams compete in about 12 food categories and they’re selling food to the public as well,” Hall said. “These teams have become their own brands, their own 501 (c)(3). Most of them are incorporated. They fundraise year-round.”

UNO Lakefront Arena sits 5 miles outside New Orleans, which means the event isn’t subject to noise restrictions.

STICKY SWEET: Participating barbecue competitors raise funds year-round for pediatric brain cancer.

“People all the time say there is no festival like this in the country,” added Hall, who said many people attending don’t know they’re attending a charitable event, and that it has to to compete with French Quarter Fest and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for consumers’ entertainment dollars. “It’s 72 hours of New Orleans exploding on you, partying and food. But in the last few years, what we really value the most is hospitals all around the country telling us ‘There is no charity like y’all. There is nobody out there like y’all that, that works like y’all, that are aggressive in making a difference in magnitude like y’all and nobody comes to us trying to give us money.'”

Hogs for the Cause calls itself the largest provider of grants to pediatric brain cancer families in the country.

“We just committed to building a state-of-the-art oncology and bone marrow transplant unit at the Children’s Hospital of Mississippi,” Hall said. “We did the exact same thing in Greenville, South Carolina this year at Prisma Health, which is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. We do the best job we can to give money back in communities where it’s raised.”

Although macroeconomic conditions are a concern and sponsorships can be difficult to secure, Hall said he’s confident the cause will continue to push Hogs further.

“Pediatric brain cancer is usually a death knell; we don’t have many success stories,” he said. “Every day, I’m dealing with somebody having the worst day of their life. We help them immensely financially, but they still lose their child and there’s something so unfair about that. But that’s why I love doing these bigger projects, because it helps so many families, and that feels awesome.”