Monday, April 29, 2013

In Defense of Chains: Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q

Posted By on Mon, Apr 29, 2013 at 8:05 AM

Worth waiting for!
  • Worth waiting for!
More than once here at Bites, I believe that I've come across as a bit of a chain apologist when it comes to new restaurants. Now, I hate soulless commissary food as much as anybody, but I just don't abandon a favorite restaurant because they are part of a series of locations. For example, I love Martin's Bar-B-Q Joint for many reasons. Pat Martin is a good friend of mine, but if I didn't like his food, I would just hang out and drink beer with him closer to town instead of shlepping all the way out to Nolensville for a redneck taco. But now that he has expanded with a new franchise location in Morgantown, W.V., and will soon open an outpost in Mt. Juliet, should I stop patronizing his establishment because it is now part of a "chain"?

Edley's is also a great place to enjoy a creative sandwich or some brisket on one of the best decks in my neighborhood, but now that they are sharing their food with East Nashvillians, should 12South denizens turn their collective noses up on them? Personally, I hope that many locally owned restaurants make good enough food to expand and become successful chains at a regional or national level. And I understand the argument that chains supposedly funnel profits out of our local market back to corporate headquarters somewhere, but when you consider the low return on investment that most restaurants operate at and the large initial investment required to open, the vast majority of restaurant revenue stays in the market in the form of employee wages, rent or construction costs, food and supply purchases and taxes. So while it's even better if the corporate headquarters are located in the state, the main economic impact flows through to the local economy no matter what.

On the flip side, I really don't like Whitts Barbecue, but not because they are a chain (which they are) or despite the fact that they are locally based (which they also are.) I just don't like the choices they make in how they cook their pork and the sauces they offer. That's totally my opinion, and good for you if you love them. If Whitts caters your wedding reception, I will smile politely as I thank you for the meal and try to construct a palatable sandwich (IMHO) using their rib sauce on top of the squishy pulled pork.

Now some "chain" barbecue that I do enjoy is Jim `N Nick's out of Birmingham, Ala. Even though there are more than 30 locations of this restaurant across the Southeast, their growth has been organic and measured since the first Jim N' Nick's was opened in Birmingham in 1985 by Nick Pihakis, who has been nominated several times by the James Beard Foundation as outstanding restaurateurs for his commitment to made-from-scratch Southern food and their contributions to the local communities around their restaurants.

This dedication to the use of fresh ingredients actually extends higher than JNN to an affiliated company which shares some of the same partners as JNN, Fresh Hospitality. All of their brands share a commitment to common values of freshly prepared foods and local ownership. If you look at the roster of restaurants under the Fresh Hospitality flag you'll see local fast-casual Mediterranean favorite Taziki's and the aforementioned Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint. Fresh Hospitality encourages local partnerships, and Molly James is a co-owner of all three Jim 'N Nick's in West Nashville, Cool Springs and Smyrna. In fact, the investment group behind Fresh Hospitality has recently purchased a building in downtown Nashville and will be bringing part of their operations here, so you can now count them as a local company if that makes you feel even better.

With the proper attitude and management, a chain can provide potential entrepreneurial restaurant owners with the access to capital and back-end processes to open quickly and grow appropriately. In Jim 'N Nick's case, they have developed a menu of classic Southern sides and really good smoked meats, all cooked fresh on location every day from fresh ingredients. You'd be hard-pressed to find a can opener in a JNN kitchen, and they have even gone as far as to invest in pig farms and processing plants to control their supply chain and encourage the use of heritage breeds of pig.

The result is food that tastes like a combination between a great barbecue joint and a meat-and-three restaurant. At last year's Big Apple BBQ Block Party in New York City, I watched Yankees line up around the block for some South in their mouth as many of them reveled in the first pimiento cheese they had ever tasted served with spicy link sausage and some saltine crackers. Sure, it was utterly simple, but it was also reverential and revelatory. You can enjoy that same dish as an appetizer at any Jim 'N Nick's location and thanks to their rigorous dedication to their kitchen processes, it will probably taste exactly like it did in Manhattan.

Other excellent appetizers include the decadent Kitchen Sink Nachos piled high, as you would expect, with pork, lettuce, pico, sour cream, peppers and cheddar as well as some really good smoked chicken wings. It's often difficult to get enough smoke into chicken to cook it through without ending up with a tough piece of jerky or so much smokiness that the chicken begins to taste like an inner tube. Jim 'N Nick's certainly knows their way around a smoker.

The Greek heritage of the Pihakis family shines through in their Greek salad, an unexpected treat at a BBQ joint. Between that dish and the popular chopped Company Salad, you could easily get out of the restaurant fat and happy without ever eating any barbecue. But then you'd be missing out on their pulled pork, brisket and ribs, all of which are commendable examples of a pitmaster's talents. I like to think that I'm pretty good with fire and wood, but even my best efforts can vary a lot from batch to batch. To be able to maintain a consistent quality and flavor from day to day and even state to state at the different Jim 'N Nick's locations that I've eaten at is quite an accomplishment that I respect.

Other than your expected pork and beef products, the restaurant also serves a unique smoked cured ham that is delightfully subtle in its flavors and which shows up in several of their sandwich options. If you're not in the mood for a shoulder sammich, try out the ham or even the catfish dishes. Add in turkey, chicken, steaks and burgers, and there is literally something for almost everyone on the Jim 'N Nick's menu. While it's hard to be a jack of all trades in the restaurant business, they do a commendable job at every location I've ever visited. While there's not yet an outpost at every single interstate exit like a Cracker Barrel, I wouldn't be surprised to see them continue their expansion at an appropriately controlled rate. I wouldn't be disappointed either ...

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