It all started with Mabel. The petite offset meat smoker designed by Texas native Chris Fultz could only feed so many people. This was back in 2013, when Fultz and partner Alex Graf began a pop-up barbecue operation in conjunction with the brewpub next door to their current restaurant.
The “Texas Trinity” of brisket, pork spareribs and sausage that Fultz and Graf were serving from Mabel became so popular that they first had to buy a bigger smoker, and next, in 2018, they opened ZZQ Texas Craft Barbeque, where they would have the chance to truly bring authentic Texas-style smoked meats to the Richmond community, which was generally more accustomed to pulled pork and mayo slaw.
“It’s been a fun opportunity to educate a lot of people about something they had never eaten before—which happens to be unbelievably delicious,” says Fultz. “In the beginning, the first thing I would hear from a customer was, ‘Can I have a barbecue sandwich?’ (And we do offer that, too.) But soon enough, brisket became our biggest seller.”
In addition to classic meats by the pound and a range of sandwiches, ZZQ also offers tempting sides such as jalapeño mac and cheese and Blackstrap collard greens. Desserts tend toward the sweet and Southern, such as banana pudding and peanut butter pie.
You can bet Daniel Vaughn, barbecue critic for Texas Monthly magazine, tasted a bit of everything when he came to visit ZZQ three or four months after it opened. “He came and sat in the backyard with his tray of food,” recounts Fultz. “And then he wrote this beautiful article about us. Being a Texan and trying to bring this craft to the Mid-Atlantic—to get that kind of respect from my peers in Texas was huge.”
Great barbecue starts with the quality of the meat. “We buy all our proteins from Sysco and most of the produce and dry goods,” Fultz says. “Over the last three years, our Sysco Sales Consultant, Alex Filicko, and his team have been great about researching products—whether it’s pork or beef—and bringing us samples of products that are on the market. The beef we sell is all-natural, prime grade, with no hormones or antibiotics. We care about what goes on our customer’s plate.”
“If something goes wrong with a meat supplier, the Sysco team is in lockstep with us, helping us find a new supplier that meets our standards.”
Sysco has also been behind the scenes, helping ZZQ with special events such as one they held in fall of 2019 in the restaurant’s backyard. “Sysco provided some of the proteins for the event,” says Fultz, “and I stood up and said to all the guests, ‘You know, I can’t say enough positive things about Sysco and how well they’ve taken care of us from day one.’ Alex in particular is the boots on the ground. He’s here once or twice a week, checking on us, making sure everything’s OK. If anything’s wrong, he’s on it immediately.”
When COVID-19 hit, the team ZZQ team found themselves suddenly needing to change and change quickly. “I feel like Sysco did their part in keeping their eye out for us on product we might need that we’ve never even considered before,” says Graf, such as hand sanitizer and PPE.
First, ZZQ adapted by going to a system of phone orders with curbside pickup. After a mandatory shutdown and securing a PPP loan, they reopened with online ordering. At first, Graf was reluctant about the online innovation.
“I was against online ordering because part of the magic I see in what we do is in our serving line,” says Graf. “It’s that face-to-face interaction. The moment when the guest is maybe thinking they want a barbecue sandwich, and then we pull out a brisket and slap it on the cutting board right in front of them and it changes everything.”
They were surprised, however, to find that online ordering also has its benefits, too. “You see the customer’s name on the ticket,” says Fultz. “And a lot of these names are starting to come up over and over, week after week. These are our new regulars—and we are so grateful for them.”
In addition to online ordering, curbside pickup and backyard socially distant dining, the pandemic has pushed Fultz and Graf to embrace third-party delivery, but in a way that feels right for their brand.
“We were approached by a local bicycle courier, and it’s been a great partnership,” says Graf. “It’s been really successful, and it fits with who we want to be in the community.”
The team plans to stick with many of these innovations that were spurred by COVID-19 even after the pandemic is long gone. That includes staying with the “sold-out” 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. barbecue model, instead of going back to serving dinner as well.
“I think we will really stick to a true, sold-out model once we are able to open our serving line up again,” says Graf, adding that it will be better for both the business and their hardworking, scaled-down staff.
“One of the big lessons from an operating standpoint is that we’ve learned how to do more with less, do it more efficiently, and manage costs even more,” says Fultz. “And, most importantly, we’ve also been able to find a better balance between work and our life outside of these walls.”