Meet Ronnie Lee, Lil’ Ronnie’s BBQ

Tofino may not be the first place that comes to mind for world class BBQ food, but Ronnie Lee is on a mission to put his adopted home on the map.

Ronnie is owner of Lil’ Ronnie’s Beachside BBQ, a restaurant famous for authentic Texas BBQ and legendary live music nights. Built on grassroots support and word of mouth, Ronnie’s restaurant has become a Tofino landmark, attracting surfers, tourists, and locals alike in search of good vibes and even better food. Not bad for a guy who had never even heard of Tofino until a few years ago…

Following his success at the 2022 SBBC Awards, where Lil’ Ronnie’s Beachside BBQ finished third in our Business Impact Award category, we caught up with Ronnie to hear his incredible start-up story.

How did a guy from the East Coast end up living in Tofino?

A few years ago, I’d never even heard of Tofino! After wrapping up culinary school in Toronto, a friend of mine invited me out here. Curious, I hit up Google and looked at some photos. At that point I had plans to either move back to Nova Scotia or go west to BC. My mind was quickly made up and I was on the road shortly afterwards. I’ve never looked back.

After you arrived, how did you get started in business?

Once I got here, I took a job in the kitchen at a fine dining restaurant called the Wolf and the Fog. I’d never worked in fine dining, I wanted to work under the chefs there, and they’d just been named the “Best New Restaurant in Canada” by Air Canada. It ticked a lot of boxes for me.

After working a while and getting to know a lot of locals, I started doing these backyard barbecues at a friend of mine’s place every Friday and Saturday night. This guy worked in the local fire department, and he knew everyone in town. I told him to get the invite out there.

I’d start smoking a brisket first thing in the morning. Come 10pm, I’d take all meats off and serve them. I’d get everyone to pitch in $10, $20 – whatever they had to help cover the costs. We did that every week over the course of a spring season, and word of mouth saw our numbers grow to 50 or 60 people each time. Next thing you know, I was making around $1,000 a night.

I decided to move to the next step – doing a pop-up barbecue over the summer. We had the momentum, people were talking about our BBQ nights – so I approached a local restaurant, told them the situation, and they offered me their backyard space. I decided at this point that we needed a name, so I went with Lil’ Ronnie’s Backyard BBQ.

I got my permitting sorted, spent around $10,000 on a big offset wood fire smoker and we started cooking. I was the only staff member, so I did all the cooking overnight, slept in my car when I could, and I served meats all day long. That’s how Lil’ Ronnie’s BBQ originated.

Working in a town like Tofino, how seasonal is your business?

Yea it’s absolutely a seasonal business here in Tofino. We’re so busy in summertime that winter is a nice opportunity to give everyone a bit of a breather. Folks here are working up to three jobs non-stop in summer. They like to work it that way so they can go away on vacation in the winter, maybe they want to do a season on the slopes. I don’t want anyone burning themselves out, so I like that we can give them that space.

Secondly, it’s a time for me to reset and look at a lot of the admin side of running a small business. We’re always trying to grow, so that’s my time to investigate our strategy, find places we can repair or improve, and start planning for the next busy season.

One of the big projects I’ve been working on is opening a catering company. We’ve always been open to doing catering and I wanted to make it a little more official. We started ‘Taste of Tofino’ this year, and I like to think of it as our company’s delicate side. We offer fine wedding catering, five course tasting menus, and obviously barbecue catering too. We booked around 70 events for the summer shortly after launching, so it’s a big success so far and will hopefully sustain us over the winter months.

Was the experience of starting a second business any different for you?

With Lil’ Ronnie’s BBQ the company really grew in a grassroots way through word of mouth. With Taste of Tofino, it’s been way more conventional with some learning along the way for me. I had to do the branding and the marketing, so I needed to brush up on my Google SEO, Instagram, and drill into things like defining our target market.

We’ve had wedding catering bookings come in from as far away as Toronto, so getting a handle on the digital side of it has been so important. Thankfully we’ve hit the ground running and everything is on target so far.

I’m finding I’m getting more organized over time, and I’ve added some key players to my team that really help. Constantly trying to identify your weak points as an entrepreneur and surrounding yourself with expertise to help is so important.

Lil' Ronnie's BBQ

Let’s talk about the fun stuff – what are some of your most popular dishes?

The big thing for us is we cook on a full log fire. That’s traditional Texas-style barbecue. We need a human to stoke that fire, prepare the meats and season them. There’s no temperature gauges besides your hand, so it’s a very tactile process. I feel like it really sets us apart in our flavours and quality.

With that in mind, the hardest meat in barbecuing, and the one that really sets us apart, is the brisket. It’s our specialty and it’s something I really took the time to learn how to do properly when I was in Toronto. I learned from one of the top barbecue guys in Canada, and I’ve been lucky to be able to pass that teaching on to my staff.

As we continue to grow, my focus can’t always be on the meats so it feels good knowing my team can prepare the food just as well as if I’d cooked it myself.

Why do you think it’s important for people to support small businesses like yours?

Small businesses add character to our economy. Sometimes, you don’t want some mass-produced item, you want something that has been handmade. Small businesses are where you can find these hand curated items. You can find unique, one-of-a-kind products, cool restaurants, and all those places that make our neighbourhoods such awesome places to live.

I really, passionately believe we need to support that, so we don’t lose it.