Get a socially-distanced crash course in the best barbecue central Virginia has to offer with RVA BBQ Tours. And show up hungry, because there’s a lot of good eating to be had en route.
Way back in March of this year, software developer Greg Hofbauer and his business partner, home inspector Ryan Martin, went on a retreat to finalize the plans for their new business.
They planned to start a tour bus company that took patrons to different BBQ restaurants around the Richmond area, and were looking at renting a bus to use.
When they came back a week later, the coronavirus had hit Virginia. Then, everything changed.
“We shelved the idea, so as not to put people’s safety at risk,” Greg Hofbauer said.
One morning in June, Hofbauer was listening to a podcast and he had an epiphany — a way he could continue with his BBQ tour idea in a post-COVID world.
“I said, ‘I’d much rather be listening to the owners of these barbecue places than all this political stuff,’” Hofbauer said. “Then it hit me.”
Hofbauer’s idea was to lead caravan-style tours, where tourists’ cars follow a predetermined route to sample the best BBQ restaurants in the Richmond area. Everyone on the tour is given a podcast audio guide — a 20-minute recorded interview with the owner or pit-master of the restaurant — to listen to as they eat in their cars, or in a socially-distanced outdoor stop along the tour route.
RVA BBQ Tours was born over the summer during the height of the pandemic in Virginia, and provides socially-distanced tours every Saturday. There are usually three stops, but they are different each week.
“We’ve had other BBQ businesses contact us, wanting to be part of the tour,” said Hofbauer. “We want to have multiple routes, and tours on different days, as things continue to grow.”
Most of the restaurants that the tour visits are outside of Richmond’s city limits, but still in the area. The tour has visited The Salty Pig in Ashland, Inner City Blues and Alamo BBQ in Richmond, and more. Restaurants offer attendees samples, sides, and even a full meal at the tour’s third and final stop, all included with the price of a ticket. Some places offer vegetarian options, such as barbecued seitan, for people who want to be part of the tour but don’t eat meat.
Getting the business started was a challenge for Hofbauer and Martin.
“I think readjusting how we were going to do the tours was a big undertaking to do rapidly,” Hofbauer said. “We were scheduled to launch in March; three months later we were out the door with a completely different business model.”
Hofbauer’s business partner, Ryan Martin, is the one who actually leads the tours. Unlike Hofbauer, Martin has experience in the restaurant industry.
“He also grew up in Richmond so he has a lot of deep historical knowledge,” Hofbauer said of Martin. “I do all the marketing; the legal. Getting people to the tours is my job. Ryan takes care of them while they’re there.”
Hofbauer says that his usual clients at RVA BBQ tours are either families with children, or groups of working professionals around their 30s or 40s.
“Kids under 10 eat free, so we have a lot of parents who are using it as a way to get out of the house,” Hofbauer said.
The tour is designed so that people can talk to each other, even if it’s at a distance. The last stop on the tour generally has an area where tour patrons can park their cars and talk to each other across a parking lot, or get out of their cars and have their BBQ lunch at an outdoor picnic table.
“People can get an adult beverage and enjoy being out of their cars, but they don’t have to,” Hofbauer said. “We had a group that would pull out some chairs at each stop, sit across the parking lot, and get to know each other.”
Hofbauer said that groups vary in how close they’re willing to get to others. While some people choose not to leave their cars at all, others will sit at outdoor tables within earshot of others on the tour and talk to total strangers about which BBQ place they prefer.
So far, though, no group has come to a total agreement about which Richmond BBQ restaurant is the best.
“That’s the great part,” Hofbauer said. “We spark some debate among folks. People get very passionate about what they enjoy, and we love to see that.”
Tickets for RVA BBQ Tours two to three hour excursions are $59 for adults, $25 for kids ages 11-17, and kids 10 and under eat free! To check the schedule and order tickets, visit their website.
Top Photo: Tour attendees visit Inner City Blues. Photo courtesy RVA BBQ Tours.