Tuesday, August 7

The Short, Smoky Run of Little Pigs of America

From the sauce-stained keyboard of guest blogger Robert Moss. 

Last week we took a look at McDonald's roots as a barbecue restaurant before it converted into a fast-service hamburger stand. Pit-cooked barbecue ultimately wasn't a good match for the demands of fast-food chains, but that doesn't mean that entrepreneurs didn't try.

In the early 1960s, businessmen Bill Newman and Ben Burch teamed up with Frank O. Howell, Jr., who was running a local barbecue chain in Memphis, to create Little Pigs of America and franchise it nationwide.

This ad for a Little Pigs in New Orleans ran in the Times-Picayune on May 9, 1964.

Asking for a $6,000 upfront investment, Little Pigs promised its franchisees a net return of $15,000 to $20,000 per year. No prior barbecue experience was required, for the company trained recruits at its Memphis headquarters. It also helped them with location selection and provided detailed blueprints for constructing a wood-burning pit made out of bricks.

At a typical Little Pigs of America establishment, a pork basket sold for 59 cents, a pork plate for 69 cents, and a rib platter for $1.59. By 1965, some 200 restaurants had opened in the United States and Canada, and the company announced a bold goal of exceeding 1,000 locations in just a few years. (McDonald's Hamburgers, by comparison, had just opened store #800.)

Despite its initial growth, Little Pigs of America struggled to become profitable, and in 1967 it filed for bankruptcy, ending the brief run of what was once America's largest barbecue chain.

Most little pigs outlets faded away after their parent company folded, but some stayed in business as independent operators. A handful of restaurants that got their start as Little Pigs franchises are still selling barbecue today, including well-known spots in Columbia, South Carolina, and Asheville, North Carolina.

Robert Moss, a food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper, is the author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution. You can follow him on Twitter at @mossr.