It takes a village to build a sustainable following


Nick Pihakis, here with John Michael Bodnar at Bodnar’s pig farm, is working to get heritage pork products on the menus at his small chain of barbecue restaurants. (Angie Mosier)
March 6, 2012

At Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q in Birmingham, Ala., it’s policy that every day, everything is made from scratch: the pimento cheese, the hickory-smoked brisket and the lemon, chocolate and coconut pies. As if to prove a point, Jim ’N Nick’s owner Nick Pihakis refuses even to put a freezer in the kitchen.

It makes sense if you know Pihakis. At 53, he has become a fixture on the sustainable Southern food scene. He is a co-founder of the Fatback Collective, which describes itself as a clan of “chefs, pitmasters, culturalists and eaters committed to porkfection” and he regularly pals around with the region’s culinary royalty: Charleston’s Sean Brock (McCrady’s and Husk), New Orleans’s Donald Link (Herbsaint and Cochon) and John Currence of the City Grocery in Oxford, Miss.

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.

Pihakis caught sustainable-food fever about seven years ago after meeting Bill Niman, the founder of Niman Ranch. The two hit it off instantly and decided to drive around Alabama to find small farms that might supply at least one of his restaurants. But after days on the road, they had not found a single farmer.

The severity of the situation only increased Pihakis’s resolve to do something. He began to talk with chefs and cult producers, such as Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Georgia, about what it would take to build a network of pig farmers. What he learned is that it would be far more complicated than simply making deals with small farmers. Each year, Jim ’N Nick’s serves 4 million pounds of pork. To produce enough meat at a price his customers would pay, Pihakis would have to address processing, packaging and distribution. “I realized I needed to be in the system to fix the system,” he says.

Pihakis projects that it will take at least five years to have his new food chain up and running. But next month he is taking the first step: opening a pork processing facility in Eva, Ala., about 60 miles outside of Birmingham. To start, the plant will bring in pigs raised by industrial methods: on large farms and mostly indoors. But the restaurants will stop ordering shoulders, hams and bellies that make up the bulk of the meat they serve in favor of buying and using the whole animal. The practice, sustainable-food advocates say, is more environmentally friendly and profitable for farmers.

In the meantime, Pihakis and his crew are developing an ideal heritage breed for barbecue, a cross between the popular Berkshire pig and the Mangalitsa, a woolly, fatty animal that traditionally has been used to make charcuterie. He’s also recruiting the farmers to raise them for him. To meet the demand from Jim ’N Nick’s, he calculates he will need 40 farms to each raise 400 pigs a year. So far, only four have committed.

Pihakis says he is confident that it won’t take too long to enlist farmers. Contrary to the conventional sustainable-food wisdom that says small farmers must charge premium prices to make ends meet, the math for a mid-size farm actually makes sense. With control of the processing, packaging and distribution costs, Pihakis can afford to pay farmers double what an industrial producer pays. By his calculations, farmers who raise 400 heritage-breed pigs per year outdoors can earn the same as farmers who raise 5,000 using conventional methods.

“Nick is emerging as the Bill Niman of the South,” says John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance (to whom Jim ’N Nick’s is a financial contributor). “He’s an idealist and a pragmatist.”

Pihakis also is signing up farmers to grow vegetables. Already, he has one within the Birmingham city limits who is striving to grow the 13,000 pounds of serrano peppers the chain uses each year. Pihakis’s goal is to find one farmer near each restaurant to grow for him. He hopes having one big-volume customer will help make small farms more profitable.

How much will these changes cost Jim ’N Nick’s customers? Pihakis says that to put heritage pork on the plate, he will need to raise prices by only 50 cents for a sandwich and $1 for a platter. And that concerns some veteran food reformers who, for years, have argued that Americans must be willing to pay more money for high-quality food.

“I think Nick has more price elasticity than he thinks he does,” says Bill Niman, whose B N Ranch in Bolinas, Calif., raises pastured beef and heritage turkeys. “He underestimates the consumer’s willingness to step up and pay more for food that tastes good.”

Pihakis, however, disagrees: “There’s a big difference in mindset between Alabama and Washington, D.C., or San Francisco,” he says. “We are going to crack the myth that it costs more money to do this. Once people see it can be done, a lot of them will want to jump on board.”

Black, a former Food section staffer, is a Brooklyn-based food writer who is working on a book about one West Virginia city’s struggle to change the way it eats. Follow her on Twitter: @jane_black.

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