By Donna Cornelius
The Cooking Channel show “Man Fire Food” isn’t named after Nick Pihakis, but it could be. Barbecue is still a hot topic for the Birmingham native who started Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q more than 30 years ago.
Pihakis opened the first Jim ’N Nick’s in 1985 with his father, Jim. The Birmingham-based barbecue restaurant now has 35 stores in seven states.
“We’ve gone from my dad and me to more than 3,000 employees,” Nick Pihakis said.
He worked at Rossi’s Italian Restaurant, a popular downtown Birmingham eatery, when he was still a teenager and decided on a food-based career early on. It’s a decision he’s never regretted, he said.
“Being in the restaurant business, my friends could come and visit me and eat and drink,” Pihakis said. “It’s always been more than just a job for me.”
His father had retired from the insurance business when the two opened their first Jim ’N Nick’s on Birmingham’s Clairmont Avenue.
“It was in an old Pasquale’s Pizza building,” Pihakis said. “In Birmingham, there was a tremendous amount of Greek families in the restaurant business, and the most popular ones had barbecue or hotdogs.
“I liked the idea of cooking over fire. From an emotional standpoint, you think about backyards and family.”
His business ventures these days are sizzling. He and several partners started Fresh Hospitality, which supports entrepreneurs and helps them expand their brands, about eight years ago. The company’s portfolio includes Big Bad Breakfast, Octane Coffee/Bar and Saigon Noodle House as well as Jim ’N Nick’s and Little Donkey, which Pihakis and his partners opened in 2012 in Homewood.
“We do concepts on our own or help others grow,” Pihakis said.
Jim ’N Nick’s – now officially Jim ’N Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q – began its growth spurt in 1993 when he partnered with Michael Bodnar and Wayne Lewis, who already had experience in multi-unit restaurant concepts. Since then, Jim ’N Nick’s has become one of the most recognizable barbecue brands in the Southeast.
Each store forges close ties to its community, with a local person who owns 20 percent of the business, Pihakis said.
“That gives them a real stake in the game,” he said.
Pihakis said he’s “food-driven more than anything else.” He’s passionate about supporting farmers and using sustainable, homegrown products as much as possible.
“We have our own processing plant to help put farmers in Alabama back to work,” Pihakis said.
The toughest part of having fresh, local ingredients on the menu isn’t incorporating the concept into multiple markets, he said.
“It’s getting the consumer to appreciate that kind of food, because you have to pay more for it,” Pihakis said. “It’s all about the flavor, about getting them to eat something and say, ‘That’s so much better.’”
Just as he started Jim ’N Nick’s because he loved barbecue, he came up with the idea for Little Donkey after developing an appreciation for authentic Mexican food.
“I studied it for about five years and traveled all over,” Pihakis said. “The produce we use is unbelievable. We cook our own corn and grind our own masa. I love the flavor profile.”
Fresh Hospitality partnered with John Currence and brought the Oxford, Mississippi, chef’s Big Bad Breakfast to Birmingham, opening on U.S. 280 in 2014. The company recently announced plans to open a second Birmingham-area restaurant in Homewood.
Saigon Noodle House, also on U.S. 280, will soon have a second location in the Avondale area, Pihakis said.
“Their Vietnamese food is wonderful, with so many complex flavors,” he said. “The owners’ grandfather used to sell this kind of food off a cart. These are old family recipes.”
The James Beard Foundation has paid attention to Pihakis’ achievements. The prestigious organization that annually presents awards to chefs, restaurant owners and others in food-related jobs has made him a semifinalist several times in its Outstanding Restaurateur category.
Community involvement is as important to Pihakis as corporate growth. He’s a member of the board of directors of Birmingham’s Jones Valley Teaching Farm, which promotes urban farms and teams up with schools to teach children about gardening and nutrition.
“We’re in seven schools now,” Pihakis said.
Jim ’N Nick’s supports causes related to “teachers, preachers, health and wellness,” he said, smiling. Among these are the Mercedes Marathon, the Seaside, Florida, Half Marathon, and the Cooper River Bridge Race in Charleston, South Carolina.
Pihakis and his wife, Suzanne, have three children: Nicholas Pihakis, Constance Pihakis Rutledge and Catherine Pihakis. All are involved in the family business, he said.
Jim Pihakis died in 2000 but left a legacy that his son said he doesn’t forget.
“My dad was a teacher and also very involved with athletics,” Pihakis said. “He’d work three jobs to take care of us. He’d paint houses on the side. I got my work ethic from him.”
Pihakis said the values on which he and his father built their first restaurant are unchanged.
“It goes back to having integrity, to taking care of people,” he said. “The ‘family business’ mentality has never left us.’”