Alabama’s Barbecue Kingpin
Nick Pihakis and his father, Jim, opened the first Jim ‘N Nick’s barbecue joint 25 years ago in Birmingham, Alabama. Known for the slow-hickory-smoked pork and an everything-made-from-scratch mentality, the meaty empire has now grown to 28 restaurants across the South (even the James Beard Foundation has taken note, consecutively nominating Nick as a semi-finalist in the Outstanding Restaurateur category). These days he’s making the case for sustainable practices, integrating heritage breeds into his menu, while urging farmers and consumers to change their habits. We chat with Nick about how he got into the restaurant business, the process of bringing sustainable products into his barbecue chain and what he considers “real” bbq.
AndrewZimmern.com: You’re on a crusade to bring sustainable food into your restaurants. What’s that process like? What do you hope to achieve?
Nick Pihakis: This is a hard process. We’ve skipped at least one or more generations in the farming community, so there isn’t enough infrastructure in place to produce enough locally-grown/locally-raised food to supply a large-scale operation. If we can raise the awareness of the average consumer so that they know more about where and how their food is raised, and the affordability of it, we can increase the demand for a more sustainable product.
AZ.com: Who inspired you to join the sustainability movement?
AZ.com: Biggest challenge thus far?
NP: Getting farmers to believe they can make a living—and sustain their lifestyle—without getting the rug pulled out from under them.
AZ.com: What do you think needs to change in our culture to make eating and preparing sustainable, high-quality products a top priority?
NP: We spend less money on food today than we did 50 years ago. Today, we largely rely on mass-produced food and factory farming systems. We use the word “sustainable” very loosely. Sustainable doesn’t mean that once the process starts, you can take your hands away from it and it will continue. It is not a self-sustaining entity; people have to support it and buy into it.
AZ.com: How did you first get into the restaurant business?
NP: When I was fifteen, I went to Miami every summer and spent every night at the Fountainebleau. I dreamt about how I wanted to take care of people and make them happy. I got so much satisfaction from preparing something that made people feel special. Once I got into the restaurant industry and realized that my friends could come see me and drink…are you kidding me??? That’s the best job in the world – the only one I’ve ever had.
AZ.com: You currently own & operate over 2 dozen Jim ‘N Nick’s. Was that the plan from the beginning? Advice for others looking to expand their restaurant concepts?
NP: Crawl. Walk. Run. We opened our first Jim ‘N Nick’s and it was successful. We opened number two and realized we were in an arena where we had no idea what we were doing. We had to find a way to develop systems that allowed us to control all areas of the business, from service to cost controls. As we’ve grown, we have developed a pool of talent that can sustain the continuous growth and demand of our business.
AZ.com: Some people prefer pork, others beef; some prefer a vinegary sauce over a tomato-based sauce. What do you consider the “real deal” when it comes to barbecue?
NP: It’s about the experience. It doesn’t matter what you’re cooking. It’s about wood, fire and smoke. It’s really about the time it affords you to spend with the people who really matter. That’s what it’s all about.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
NP: PBR, Kraft Singles and almond milk. I tried to cleanse, but…. I keep turkey for my dogs—I give it to them when I get home at night. It’s low sodium. And always a nice bottle of wine.
Nick Pihakis began working in restaurants when he was just 19 years old. A Birmingham, AL native, Nick worked each station in an old-school Italian restaurant doing everything from sweeping up and washing dishes to eventually becoming “the best bartender in the world.” To Nick, providing good food and drinks at his bar was like being host of a great party everynight.
In 1985, Nick, along with his father, Jim, reclaimed an old dry cleaners on Clairmont Avenue in Birmingham and opened the first Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, focusing on traditional recipes, scratch-made everything, and genuine community service. Now, 25 years and 28 restaurants later, Jim ‘N Nick’shas become one of the South’s most respected restaurant groups.
The hard-work of thousands of others at Jim ‘N Nick’s has been recognizedby the James Beard Foundation with consecutive nominations for Outstanding Restaurateur. And Nick also sits on the board of Jones Valley Teaching Farm and is a strong supporter of the Southern Foodways Alliance, among many others charities with an emphasis on improving the lives of local children.
Nick lives in Birmingham with his wife Suzanne and his three children.