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VOL. 121 | NO. 102 | Monday, May 15, 2006

This Little Piggy Went to Memphis

Despite stiff competition, Whole Hog Café to open June 1

By Andrew Ashby

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Would you open a wing store in Buffalo? How about a brewery in St. Louis? That's pretty much what a Little Rock-based barbecue restaurant is doing here in the Mid-South.

The Whole Hog Café, a barbecue restaurant started by Little Rock-based Whole Hog Enterprises Inc., plans to open a new store in Memphis' saturated barbecue restaurant market June 1 under a licensing agreement with McMay LLC, which will operate the 6,000-square-foot store at 5727 Quince Road.

This will be the third Whole Hog Café location, with the others in Little Rock and Bentonville, Ark.

Going hog wild

Bran McCarty, who co-owns McMay with partner Louis May, said his group signed a multi-store licensing agreement from the Whole Hog Café last July. McMay will start in Memphis, then plans to move east to Nashville and eventually into the Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia markets. McCarty said the company hopes to add three or four stores a year for the next four or five years.

Whole Hog Café was born when Ron Blasingame, Mike Davis and Mike Blasingame started competing in barbecue cookoffs across the country 25 years ago using various names, including Southern Gentlemen's Culinary Society at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. They won hundreds of competitions, including first place at the 2002 MIM competition in the whole hog category and second place in the ribs category.

About six years ago, the group opened the first Whole Hog Café in Little Rock. After that, they licensed a location in Bentonville. And besides the planned Memphis location, the group also has licensed a site in Santa Fe, N.M., where another café is under construction and is scheduled to open in July.

If/then hypothesis

McMay hired a California-based market research company called Demographics Now to determine a prime Memphis location by analyzing data from the successful Little Rock store. The company concluded the business lunch crowd drove the store's revenue and that cost and speed of service were a focus as well.

"Every site that we went to, we would lay that information down and make sure it matched that criteria," said Al Harrison, McMay's director of operations.

"We feel that one of the reasons Memphis has such great quality barbecue is because the market is so competitive. You have to be on your toes every day because you have places opening up around the corner every day trying to produce quality barbecue. It makes it extremely competitive."
- Patrick Neely
President of Neely's Bar-B-Que and former board member of the Memphis Restaurant Association

Demographics Now found a similar hotspot in Memphis at Yorkshire Square, a shopping strip on Quince Road. It focused on employee population around lunch time and found 42,000 daytime workers within a mile and a half of the location.

"They have to eat lunch somewhere, and there aren't a whole lot of barbecue restaurants near us," McCarty said.

It also helped that the 1960s-era Yorkshire Square was undergoing a facelift, with Loeb Properties Inc. renovating the strip center's building facades.

The 30 employees at the 200-seat Whole Hog Café will have their work cut out for them in the Memphis market. In a city with about 100 barbecue restaurants, newcomers do not have much room for error.

"Either you'll do fairly well or you'll have some issues and challenges in terms of tapping into the market," said Patrick Neely, president of Neely's Bar-B-Que and former board member of the Memphis Restaurant Association. "In order to come in and be successful, you'll have to really, really compete and pull some of the customers from different barbecue restaurants."

Piece of the whole (hog)

Neely said he always welcomes businesses to the area because it creates more jobs. However, that doesn't mean the competition for Memphians' barbecue dollars will be easy. After all, competition is what drives the market.

"We feel that one of the reasons Memphis has such great quality barbecue is because the market is so competitive," Neely said. "You have to be on your toes every day because you have places opening up around the corner every day trying to produce quality barbecue. It makes it extremely competitive."

The competition has spread to other places beyond restaurants and barbecue competitions like Memphis in May. Neely said local grocery stores often carry sauces or seasonings from several local barbecue restaurants. Four or five barbecue restaurants ship overnight, and barbecue nachos can be found at AutoZone Park and FedExForum concession stands.

Also, Memphians can be particular about their barbecue. Everyone has a favorite place, and while they might venture to other barbecue restaurants, customers tend to be loyal, Neely said.

"I would say 85 to 90 percent of the people have found their own barbecue places," he said. "Everyone has their niche and their clientele."

Part of the reason the market is so competitive is because the demand for barbecue is there.

"Here in Memphis, most people are going to have barbecue once a week or two," Neely said. "They're going to eat it somewhere, whether it's at a function or at a restaurant. It's a signature cuisine in Memphis that is comparable to Cajun food in New Orleans, pizza in Chicago or the Philly cheese steak in Philadelphia."

Whole Hog Café is not shying away from competing in the barbecue game - that's part of the reason the company is entering the Bluff City market.

"Memphis is known for barbecue, so if we can come here and compete with the big boys - Corky's, The Rendevous, Tops - then we can go anywhere," Harrison said. "That's why we decided to come here. We're just excited to see if we can hang with them."

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 90 156 6,702
MORTGAGES 61 139 4,268
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 10 721
BUILDING PERMITS 0 158 16,073
BANKRUPTCIES 40 85 3,481
BUSINESS LICENSES 0 12 1,394
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0