When you’re named for a certain revolutionary, there might be some expectations. Che Ruddell-Tabisola just may be living up to them.
Ruddell and his husband Tadd run BBQ Bus Smokehouse (5830 Georgia Ave., N.W.) in Brightwood, named for their food truck (BBQ Bus) that launched them into mobile food fame. They still operate the truck, but concentrate on their brick-and-mortar shop that opened in 2017. The store still offers popular truck items but has a bigger kitchen and expanded menu that allows them to get creative with their meats.
It also has a mission, Che says: “to nourish and to gather.”
Unsurprisingly, there’s more to the men behind the sauce.
Che personifies lifelong activism. He wrote his first petition in fifth grade and moved to Brussels to pursue a degree in international conflict. Later landing in Washington, he worked at nonprofits like Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry. It was then that he and Tadd got married and combined their names.
Tadd, for his part, has plenty of cooking in his 23andMe results. While Che brings the signs, Tadd grew up at his grandfather’s side at the family restaurant in Florida. Restless in his day job in tech in 2008, Tadd decided to enter culinary school. To practice, he bought his own smoker, set up in the couple’s backyard where they would decamp and invite neighbors.
More passionate about cooking than cubicles, the two planned to open an eatery, but could not attract enough funding. Instead, on April 1, 2011, they threw open the doors of the BBQ Bus food truck.
Food trucking at the time was not easy. Haphazard enforcement burdened entrepreneurs, discouraging new operations. The couple quit their jobs to focus on the truck full-time, but the truck itself soon became the platform for additional activism.
Che sensed the need for a stronger food truck community. Standing on his experience in organizing, he connected with other operators.
“In LGBT advocacy, the idea of coming out is central,” Che says. “I took the same approach to food trucking.”
Che soon helmed the DMV Food Truck Association, turning it into a true D.C. lobbying and organizing effort. In its outreach, Che said that he “put the face to the truck” to tell the story of the people crafting the meals that caused lines to snake around D.C.’s parks and squares.
When BBQ Bus opened, it was subject to random checks, forced to run without clear guidelines. For two years, Che toiled, organized and lobbied with the association. Food trucks were a disruptor in the foodservice industry, he said, encountering resistance from traditional and chain food purveyors.
Food trucks were the pre-Postmates, Che says.
“Trucks were really the first to offer food where and when you wanted it. It was less about the in-store experience and more about the service and the food.”
In 2013, Che and his unified food truckers found success. They persuaded local authorities to pass a series of regulations that would allow the industry to flourish. “These regulations in 2013 weren’t perfect, but they worked,” he says.
“I remember my first job — it was the principles and work ethic that I took with me and made an impression, and that’s what we did with the truck and now with the Smokehouse.”
Back on the truck, Tadd oversaw the recipes, many of which originated from his family’s diner. The pork (locally sourced, of course) is pulled by hand, and workers ensure to slowly and painstakingly fold the beans to each dish so they maintain their integrity. The couple smokes their meat over a proprietary fruit- and nut- tree wood blend that Tadd created, sourced from one farm in Maine.
The BBQ Bus may be most famous for its sauces, of which there are more than 30. During the R&D phase, the couple numbered each sauce as it was created. They found success in Sauce 5, which is now the most popular. Only one sauce bears a real name: Georgia Avenue Gold, in honor of the shop’s location.
Che realized that opening the BBQ Bus and taking the helm of the association was his calling at the time. Today, he provides a place for his employees to be themselves, and most of the staff hails directly from the local neighborhood. “It may seem trite, but what we do is give people a reprieve,” Che says.
Though no longer officially in advocacy, Che maintains a close relationship with the communities he’s led. He hosts events with Republic Restoratives, the lesbian-owned distillery, and cook up a storm for special events and weddings, same-sex or otherwise.
Che and Tadd are still disruptors, but today, their vision is as welcoming as it is creative. They strive to be “woke and aware progressive business owners. We celebrate people as who they are.”
“This is a pop-and-pop business,” Che says. “There’s no question about that.”