By Mandi Bierly
Updated August 24, 2011 at 12:52 PM EDT

What’s the best meet-and-greet you’ve ever been to before a concert?

If you think posing for a picture with the artist in front of a banner advertising their tour sponsor qualifies, you haven’t attended one of the Zac Brown Band’s eat-and-greets. I recently caught one at the New Meadowlands in New Jersey, and here’s what it entailed: The band formed a receiving line to shake the hands of all 150 guests.

Then, while Zac chatted up folks standing in line for the buffet created by Southern Ground Executive Chef Rusty Hamlin, the other members actually served you before making their own plates and joining you at the tables. So three hours later, when you’re watching fiddle player Jimmy De Martini wow 55,000 people during their cover of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” you keep thinking He handed me my plate. And when Clay Cook belts out “America the Beautiful” before Zac launches into “Chicken Fried,” you’re thinking He’s the guy I told, ‘I don’t like tomatoes, but I really want to try the moonshine vinaigrette’ on the heirloom tomato salad with smoked corn, edamame, and pickled cucumbers, and he reasoned that I should just take some from him and eat around the tomatoes because they’re red and easy to spot.

That’s the other thing about the eat-and-greet: Sure, this summer’s have been sponsored by Kingsford Charcoal, but you’re not being served hot dogs and hamburgers.

Chef Rusty’s menu at the Meadowlands tailgate: White Marble Farms pork tenderloin with Zac’s Southern Ground Grub Love Sauce; Creekstone Farms beef tenderloin with Zac’s Southern Ground Grub Georgia Clay Rub; grilled cauliflower, broccoli and okra with a saffron Chardonnay butter; wild mushroom and snap pea spoon polenta with smoked gouda; braised brussels sprouts with country ham and red-eye gravy; pocketknife coleslaw (as featured in Zac and Rusty’s Southern Ground cookbook); that heirloom tomato salad with smoked corn, edamame, pickled cucumbers, and moonshine vinaigrette (which Chef Rusty made by sneaking onto Zac’s bus and borrowing a couple cups of Junior Johnson’s legal Midnight Moon moonshine); fresh bread with agave fig butter; and chocolate peanut butter biscuit pudding. The hour is worth the $50 fan club members pay for it, even if you’re not allowed to take photographs or get autographs because the band would rather be eating and visiting with you than posing and signing.

We phoned Hamlin and asked him to explain how the eat-and-greets started. He met Zac Brown in 2001, when he hired songwriter Wyatt Durrette (who’d go on to cowrite most of ZBB’s hits) as the head bartender at his restaurant Atkins Park outside Atlanta.

Durrette invited him to hear his buddy Zac play (back then in front of 100 people), and Rusty and Zac discovered a shared love of cooking. “Next thing you know, we’re hanging out,” he says. “We’re startin’ to go to each other’s houses. I’d spend the weekend over at his house cookin’, we’d do breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and be creative. He’d buy some crazy stuff off the Internet and surprise me with it, like some kind of Himalayan pink sea salt that came from whatever, and I would come back with some raspberry jelly that the bees actually fed on the raspberry bushes and flavored the jelly. We’d go back and forth with each other.” Around 2003, they started talking about Zac’s dream of combining music and food, and hoping one day they’d have the means to do the eat-and-greets on a large-scale to bring fans closer to the band. “Zac said he wants their fans to come to the concert and think they’ve got robbed every other time they went to one,” Hamlin says.

They started off with a 14-foot trailer they called Miss Treated. “Bless her heart, she was old when we got her,” Hamlin says, “and we put a stove and an oven and a couple home refrigerators in it, and started out like that. Just going out around the country and surprising people with the eat-and-greets. Nobody really had any idea what was gonna hit them when they got there. At the beginning, it wasn’t about the food with them. It was more about, ‘Hey, we get to hang with the band and we’ll eat a little somethin’ somethin’.'”

But now, he laughs, “It’s oh my god, I can’t wait to go get dinner, and it just so happens I’m gonna be sittin’ across from Zac Brown having dinner with him.” They’ve been doing the eat-and-greets on the current scale for two years. Now, Rusty has his own customized two-story 53-foot trailer he calls his “life partner.” For him, it’s a chance to support and promote the local farmers he buys ingredients from, which is important to him, and to bring Southern cooking to fans who may not have experienced it before. ”

We went to Boston, and I brought in stone ground grits from North Carolina, collard greens, fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese, all this stuff. You could see it on their faces when we announced the menu, they were just dumbfounded,” he laughs. “I just said, ‘I see your faces. I know what you’re thinkin’. Do me a huge favor: just grab a spoonful of everything and try it. Please, try it, and if you don’t like it, I’ll go cook you somethin’ else. I’ll do anything for ya, I just want you to try this.’ I can’t believe the reaction I had. People were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve heard about this stuff. I’ve never been able to get it. We don’t cook like this up here.’ One guy walked up and was like, ‘Man, that grit was amazing.’ He didn’t know that one spoonful has like 10,000 pieces of grits on it. So he said he only had one grit.”

Your turn. What’s your best meet-and-greet story?

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