John and Theresa AtkinsWhere can you find fantastic barbecue in Fluvanna?  The answer lies in what BBQ Connection’s pitmaster and owner, John Atkins, calls “the best-kept secret in Fluvanna County.

As a member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and certified barbecue judge, Atkins is no stranger to good barbecue. Judging by the talent, passion and flavor that lies in a small building just past Fork Union, BBQ Connection and its award-winning barbecue will not stay a secret for very long.
There is no denying that you can usually find multiple barbecue joints in every town, but Fluco residents probably have no idea of the history and talent behind BBQ Connection and the husband and wife team who run it.

Fifteen years ago, Atkins, a surgical nurse at the University of Virginia, found himself tasting barbecue at Old Farm Day and thinking, “I could do this.”  With a little push from his wife, Theresa, a business was born. Atkins bought himself a smoker and exactly one year later, his first gig was Old Farm Day, the very event that gave him his inspiration. Soon a catering business began.

Catering was only the beginning.  The love of the meat and the hunger for competition drove Atkins and his self-proclaimed ego to show off in the competitive barbecue circuit, forming his very own barbecue team called “Pigs on the Run.”  In his first competition, he was up against heavy hitters such as Myron Mixon, a barbecue world champion and judge on the television show BBQ Pitmasters.  With a $35 smoker, Pigs on the Run went head-to-head with Mixon’s team and other big names in barbecue, but unfortunately lost that debut competition.

That experience only made Atkins work harder. Ten years later he defeated the world-renowned Mixon in a Washington, D.C. competition. On a local level, the very barbecue served right here in Fluvanna has been named Virginia’s best in five state competitions. Pigs on the Run has also placed fifth nationally out of the top 500 teams in the American Royal championship barbecue contest. The little restaurant in Bremo Bluff boasts many trophies, medals and other awards, along with other barbecue-themed knick-knacks and repurposed decorations.

In 2012 Atkins helped bring competition barbecue to Fluvanna County by helping to organize Fluvanna’s first annual BBQ, Bands & Brews festival, which was a national competition the first two years it occurred.  The festival is now a regional competition to encourage more local participants.

The location in Bremo Bluff is relatively new, opening only five months ago as a way to “take the catering business to the next level,” Atkins said.  The catering business he and his wife, nicknamed “the boss,” have been running for 15 years has grown tremendously and become very successful, catering everything from small parties to weddings to large events for global corporations with up to 1,200 people. Large venues often require a health department permit to allow venders to operate on their property, and those are only available to businesses with a brick-and-mortar location, Atkins said. The new location allowed BBQ Connection to obtain the permits necessary to grow the business and also to reach out and engage the community, which Atkins described as “the heart and soul of the business.”

BBQ Connection is not just about good barbecue. John and Theresa Atkins started the whole project as a way to bring family and friends together. Their son was involved in the business on a daily basis until he went away to college, and they often employed family and friends who needed help.

While Atkins is clearly passionate about the meat, this business goes far beyond what is cooking out back. Deciding to challenge himself beyond just the flavor, Atkins takes smoking to the next level with his solar-powered smoker.  When asked if this is a common way to smoke meat, he said, “Absolutely not. It’s stupid. But it’s the most environmentally-friendly way to make barbecue, and I wanted to see if I could do it.”

In addition to caring about his environmental footprint, Atkins also cares about giving to the community. Everything in the restaurant is made fresh daily, which can create waste if not sold that day. Leftovers are donated to local churches, charities, and fire departments so nothing goes unused.

“Life is about more than making money,” Atkins said when describing why he chose the Fork Union and Bremo area for his location. He said he chose to invest in a community that needs attention and businesses to thrive. The spot near Fork Union allows him to meet people and give back to a community he has lived in for 20 years.
“Barbecue is not about the meat. It’s about the time you spend with family and friends,” he said. “If it all goes up in smoke, I’ll still be satisfied.”