Off the beaten path

by Steve Krut
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Located in Eastern North Carolina, the second-largest hog-producing state in the country, is an intersection several miles from several small towns, the closest of which is Pikeville, population 719. There, on all four corners of an intersection sprawls the Nahunta Pork Center, an ever-expanding dream of Mack Pierce, a 78-year-old hog buyer who, in the mid-1950’s, operated a custom slaughter and processing plant.

“Dad believed there was a need for a retail pork store and in 1975 converted an old tobacco barn across the street into what has become America’s largest retail pork display,” explains his son, Larry Pierce, Nahunta’s vice president and general manager. The first week three hogs were processed for sale and everything sold out in just a few hours. “He’s (Dad) still the owner-operator and comes in every day for 12 to 14 hours,” Larry continues. “He does everything except kill-floor work now, and when someone asks for him, I’ll tell them to just stand still and he’ll come flying by you in a few minutes.”

‘Pork is king’
Commuters traveling along U.S. Hwy. 70 get a dashboard education about the Nahunta Pork Center. Billboards are everywhere touting the place where “Pork is King.” Larry estimates the firm spends more than $150,000 a year on a dozen billboards, and advertising on five radio stations and in five newspapers that serve a 150-mile radius. In addition to the regular advertising budget, Nahunta has its own Web site, www. nahuntapork.com  . Their advertising and promotional efforts help bring people in to the pork center, he says, but the real sales job has always been the one turned in by his father.

“Dad had a driving personality that brought people to his retail shop when others thought his idea wouldn’t work,” Larry recalls. “And despite the advertising we do, it’s that personality and word of mouth that brings people here and keeps them coming back.”

Nahunta’s customers – thirtyfive percent of whom are from out of state – are there to see pork’s version of a factory outlet. And, they are not disappointed when they feast their eyes on the more than 200 feet of fresh, cured, ready-to-eat and frozen pork items in the 10,000-sq.-ft. retail area.

“We have a Nahunta Pork Center Outlet in Raleigh that operates at the North Carolina Farmers Market Wednesday through Saturday,” Larry explains. “We load up the reefer trailer from our main plant and sell pre-packaged items. While Raleigh is about 50 miles away, it’s a more urban area and the average sale might be in the $10 to $20 range,” while spending at the more secluded store is as much as 10 times as much per customer.

Nahunta employs 60 people and seasonally another 10 high schoolage workers as baggers or extra help. Twenty-five counter clerks and wrappers serve the crowd. The three cashiers even have plenty of insulated boxes and bags handy for those customers who are looking for a few more items after they get to checkout.

Customers visiting Nahunta aren’t there only for the pork, they also like to see the live hogs across the street, take their pictures in front of the friendly billboard that says “we appreciate you,” and walk around to discover how much fun a basic commodity can be. Nahunta is the type of venture Walt Disney would have emulated if he knew anything about pork.

Staying unique
The philosophy at Nahunta is to give customers the best product at a value price and demonstrate appreciation for their patronage. Their meat cutters soon learn that Nahunta differs from large packing houses that want every animal within a 20-lb. weight range or they reject it.

“We make our cuts a little differently than the supermarkets and other retailers,” Larry explains. “Many of the others want a 12- to 15-lb. loin and we prefer ours in the 8- to 9-lb. range. We deal with slightly smaller animals and the nearly dozen hog producers that supply us know we will pay a premium price for what we want and that the animals they bring us will have a market. We also buy from livestock auctions but because of our variety of finished products, we can use any size hog. We do everything but raise the animals.”

Nahunta, which is an Indian word for “black water,” refers to the Nahunta Swamp that lies about the community, but it is not an incorporated town. And while finding it might be a little challenging, Larry contends the pork retail operation’s rural location suits it well.

He says other localities have offered to build the firm a similar building so Nahunta could open another store. And others have said the business would do well along U.S. 70. But the Pierce family isn’t interested.

“If we get too big too fast, we lose our niche,” Larry says. “We want to operate in a way we can control what we do and how we do it. We are unique and don’t want to lose all that’s going for us.”

Of the 40-plus pork products offered at Nahunta, country sausage and country ham are the biggest sellers. Depending on the time of year, some items like whole pigs for barbecue might take over top billing temporarily, but the country sausage and ham still command the leader board.

Fresh pork items range from whole hogs to any individual cut and even pork burgers. Sausage includes country, breakfast, smoked and Italian. Country hams, shoulders and side meats are cured offerings while the fully-cooked menu lists BBQ spareribs, smoked loins, BBQ pork, smoked pork chops, souse, chitterlings, smoked hams and a regional favorite, liver pudding.

Thirty-six hours after leaving the packing house cooler, product gets frozen and discounted. About 15 percent of the Nahunta business is wholesale, primarily to about 15 restaurants and barbecue shops. Some others come in for what could be wholesale orders, but Nahunta does not deliver to them.

The processing area operates under North Carolina State Meat Inspection and the Pierce family’s reputation is sterling in the meat processing community. When North Carolina State Univ. wants to do studies on country ham production, or Iowa State Univ. is looking for a business model to tell about in its extension programs, the folks at Nahunta are more than willing to share their facilities and time.

The 15,000-sq.-ft. slaughter plant across the road allows pork carcasses to be transported in refrigerated units to the 25,000-sq.-ft. processing area and retail shop. The packing plant is finished in stainless steel. Aside from a few barbecue sauces and some frozen vegetables items, there are no other groceries available at the store – it’s all pork, all the time. The Pierces insist that all display cases always be filled to the top so customers don’t feel they are sorting through leftovers.

Happily, Larry says the hoards of customers led to Nahunta by the green and yellow billboards empty the meat cases almost as fast as they are filled up. Once they arrive at the no-town pork store, visitors’ appetites build and any shyness about spending is typically short lived. “At our center in the middle of nowhere, customers will spend between $50 and $300 each,” a proud Larry Pierce concludes. •

Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat&Poultry, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.
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