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Nick Pihakis on Hogs, Flavor, and Sustainability

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Nick Pihakis, owner of the Birmingham, Alabama barbecue chain Jim 'N Nicks, is doing something he doesn't need to do. At a time when his empire continues to grow — 27 locations to date — he's doing all he can to introduce the values of sustainability and quality to a casual restaurant business model and eventually, all of Alabama. To that end, he's developed a network of small farmers, taken over several processing plants, and gotten the state government to be part of an effort to breed heritage hogs that taste better and put people to work. In the following interview, Pihakis talks about the progress he's made and how far there is to go.

How did you get wrapped up in this campaign for sustainability?
It's been a pretty good while that I've been into this. I actually did a fundraising event in North Carolina and got introduced to Bill Niman. That's how it happened. We got there late because the weather was horrible, and we got an awful booth towards the back. Even still, people waited forty-five minutes to get our stuff and there was a line out the door. Niman was there and he was blown away by the people waiting.

After it settled down, we got to talking later about how we could get the level of food that he was representing into our restaurants. The thing with us is that we're very price sensitive. We're not a high-end restaurant. We are casual, and if I'm charging more for a sandwich that a place in our category is giving to you for less, odds are people will look at me like I'm crazy.

So my big thing in this movement or whatever you want to call it is making sure that it's affordable and available and making sure people are aware enough that they would want this in their refrigerator or on their plates. I'm fighting the preconception that this has to only be for white table cloth restaurants.

Let's go back to Niman and how you got into this first.
He wasn't involved with Niman Ranch at that point and was looking to do something on his own. We spent a week driving around Alabama and Mississippi, and we couldn't find any farmers. There was no infrastructure. That's what sparked my interest. Why is no one here growing and raising local products?

I kept going down that path and six months ago we were approached by the industrial board of Morgan County, Alabama about a processing plant that has been vacant. They want to reopen it. Another friend of mine has two processing plants on his ranch in South Georgia and has partnered up with me. And there's another partnership, as well. This is a critical time. We need 15,600 hogs a year, and we're going to get this going in a few weeks.

We've also got five farms that have our breed of pig. We're not going to limit it to that because you sort of have to get into the system before you can fix it. All of the farms that I have met are very interested. If we control the processing plant, we can pay them twice as much as they usually make and still afford to put it in our restaurants.

What are the biggest challenges?
The funny thing about it is that even though we stress affordability, every time we turn a corner to buy local or buy the right products the infrastructure is not there. Putting all the pieces together to get this system going has been a huge struggle. There's a farmer we are working with — the other day he was sending us some pigs and his truck broke down. We had to send over a refrigerated truck because they would have gone bad otherwise. There are all these small struggles that you have to give your attention to.

Have you seen marked improvements or is there still a ways to go?
It's somewhat changed, but it's pretty dismal if you look at it. This used to be a region driven by agriculture, and now I'm working on seeing how we can get local products at an affordable price so we can put it in our restaurants. It's just not there yet, and that's what makes my interest grow and grow.

What needs to happen for it to get there?
I think our state is number one in diabetes and pretty high up there in obesity. This is a generational thing, I think. We have to look at it that way to make it happen.

What does that mean?
You go to the grocery store and the price difference between commodity beef and grass-fed beef is huge, and a lot of people can't make that leap of faith. What we're trying to do is reach mid-tier pricing. To make it work, and I say this all the time, it has to be scalable. If we can get 40 farmers to raise 400 pigs a year, they can make $68,000 a year. They can net that out. That's a nice living. The truth of the matter is that most of these farmers with 1,000 pigs and tons of space are too big to be small and too small to be big. What I mean by that is that they can make a good amount of money for a bit, but when demand goes down, they get killed. That's why I think it has to be scaled on a lot of smaller farmers.

You have an exact time frame, right?
It will take about five years to put all of the infrastructure in place. That'll be just for my restaurants.

There are a lot of people who don't share your optimism about having people pay a little more for the product. What do you say to them?
If you walked into a grocery and that product was affordable and people knew what was going on, I think they would pay just a bit more to have it. You have to start with flavor. You can preach all day long about animal cruelty, but if it doesn't taste better, it doesn't really matter. People have to appreciate that it tastes better. And to make that happen, you have to scale. The farmer makes less money off of each pig, but he is selling enough that he makes more.

This will be extremely hard if it doesn't taste better. I'll tell you something: every week, I'm going to put one of our hogs on the menu at the restaurant and charge a little more for a sandwich and a plate, and I'll see if the customers want it. I bet they will. We took this meat to Memphis for a competition with a group I'm involved with, the Fatback Collective, and we were one of three finalists! The only danger of all the things coming out of my mouth these days is people thinking that the other stuff I serve isn't as good.

We're letting that animal run around, we're feeding it a certain feed, there's a certain breed of hog that my partner Donald Link and I have worked on, and we've realized that if we control it, it can be a superior product. If people begin to realize it, then we're chipping away at the problem. I'll take the chance.

I also have to stress that what I want is to put people back to work. I want farmers to be proud of what they're doing and happy to be working with us. If it weren't for Mississippi, this state would be in trouble. These people are extremely hardworking, good people, and if they succeed with this, then it will pass on to the next generation. The farmers need to be treated with a lot more respect. We have contracts with five of them right now, and one example of the relationship we're trying to develop is that we guarantee that we'll buy the pigs and replace them once they aren't reproducing. The money they'd lose with problems like that they'll hopefully put into their farms.

I had a friend ask me once if I wanted to be rich or powerful. I want to be influential.

Are you optimistic or in the weeds?
I'm so excited about it I could pee in my pants. i think it's going to work. I think having the processing plant, the state behind us, the interested farmers — a lot of pieces are falling into place.

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