One thing puts Pihakis in a very different league from his cohorts. Jim ’N Nick’s, a Southeastern chain with 27 outlets, competes with restaurants such as Famous Dave’s rather than fine-dining establishments. The restaurant’s average check size is $13. A substantial portion of its business comes from customers at the drive-through.
His goal is to promote sustainable food in the world of casual dining, where pre-shaped burgers, frozen fries and gallon-size bags of salad dressings are kitchen norms. That means not only cooking from scratch but replacing factory-farmed pork with heritage breeds raised on smaller farms and contracting with local farmers to grow staples including pimentos, peppers, garlic, onions and jalapenos — all without raising prices above what his customers can afford.
Pihakis is not the first chain restaurateur to wade into these murky waters. Chipotle’s Steve Ells has proved that serving high-quality, even local, meat can build customer loyalty — and profits. But Chipotle’s assembly-line, fast-food restaurants are less costly to run than Jim ’N Nick’s, which must pay servers and dishwashers and offers a menu with more variety.
Perhaps Pihakis’s biggest challenge is that his customers appear happy with things just as they are. In 2011, the Birmingham News named Jim ’N Nick’s the best barbecue in the city. The one time Pihakis did try to introduce higher-quality meat — an antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken — with a slight price hike, customers complained. Pihakis returned to his former supplier of conventionally raised birds.
However, Pihakis is determined to prove that good food doesn’t have to be expensive or highfalutin. “I don’t think good food has to cost that much more to produce,” Pihakis says. “It can be scaled. And that’s the only way we’re going to get it into the hands of mainstream Americans.”
Pihakis says he always knew he wanted to be in the restaurant business. At 19, he got his first job as a bartender in Birmingham, his hometown. Eight years later, in 1985, Pihakis’s father, Jim, helped him open the first Jim ’N Nick’s. Today, the chain grosses $90 million a year and has outlets sprinkled across the southeast and in Colorado. Three more are set to open this year.