CARTHAGE — Ashley Sheppard was awoken by a phone call in the early morning hours of May 30 to the news that his restaurant was on fire.
It was his cousin, Matthew, a firefighter with the Southern Pines Fire Department. He told Sheppard there was a fire at the Pik N Pig, the barbecue restaurant that Sheppard and his family have run for over 15 years, that he was en route and Ashley should come.
It was shortly before 4 a.m. when Sheppard got to Dowd Road, near his mother’s house, a few miles away from the restaurant. That’s where he first saw the sky glowing pink. It was two hours too early to be the sunrise.
“Either that’s an odd haze or we’re in bad shape,” Sheppard said.
He first saw flames shooting up over the trees when he crested the hill on the short road leading up to the Pik N Pig and the neighboring Gilliam-McConnell Airfield, where pilots of small planes would often fly in for dinner.
He had been holding out hope that the fire wasn’t as bad as he thought, that the bright glow in the night sky was some kind of innocuous haze. But when he saw the flames, he lost it.
“To build it from the ground up and then to have it in ashes overnight, it’s like a death,” Sheppard said, his voice starting to tremble. “It’s very devastating.”
Pre-Pik N Pig
Sheppard, 44, grew up around barbecue. His grandparents, John and Margaret White, opened John’s Barbecue and Seafood, which was open for nearly 40 years from 1977 until closing in 2009. The property was later sold and the restaurant torn down to make way for a Cracker Barrel.
Around 2001, while working at John’s, Sheppard went out on his own and started a barbecue concession business. He traveled across the Southeast with his smoker, outfitted to look like a log cabin, hawking his food at fairs and festivals.
At first, he made finely-chopped, vinegar-sauced barbecue, the classic Eastern North Carolina style that his grandfather made and he grew up eating. However, outside North Carolina, he found people were unfamiliar, prompting Sheppard to switch to the pulled style that would later become Pik N Pig’s signature.
In 2006, after coming back from selling barbecue at the North Carolina State Fair, he was ready to make his side gig a full-time job. He planned to smoke some pork shoulders, set up the trailer on the side of the road, and see what happened.
He caught a break when the pastor of Good News Community Church in Carthage passed by Sheppard cleaning his trailer in the John’s restaurant parking lot.
He told Sheppard that the church had a vacant lot in the middle of Carthage he could use to set up shop. Sheppard did his first cook there in November — 12 pork butts. He didn’t think he’d sell much, but in a few hours, he was sold out.
“It was just amazing.”
The following January, Sheppard got connected to Roland Gilliam, owner of Gilliam-McConnell Airfield. The first time he saw the spot that later grew into the Pik N Pig, he knew he’d found the restaurant’s home.
“That is a barbecue spot,” Sheppard said of the clearing at the top of a small hill, adjacent to the runway where small planes and hot air balloons would later come to fill the sky. “This is it.”
Building a foundation
Thus began the Pik N Pig. At the time, it was just two buildings. There was no standalone kitchen and all the smoking was done on the trailer.
As the business grew, so did the restaurant’s footprint. A kitchen was added, then came the two cookhouses, where the pulled pork, ribs, chicken, brisket and other meats get smoked low-and-slow over hickory wood.
The restaurant’s entrance was housed inside an old post office, a dark-stained wooden structure faded by sunlight and time. Customers paid at the original post office windows once reserved for money orders and stamps.
A covered outdoor seating area offered unfettered views of planes taking off and landing, an occurrence that became much more frequent as the restaurant’s reputation grew. A large, adjoining indoor seating area would swell with diners on busy nights. The kitchen, where the plates are composed and all side dishes, hush puppies, homemade desserts and everything else other than smoked meat is cooked, was running on all cylinders.
Almost all of it is gone now. The outdoor seating pavilion, under which tables, chairs, model airplanes and anything else that could be salvaged now sit stacked, and a small smokehouse are the only remaining structures on the property. The larger smokehouse, about five times the size of the surviving one, was annihilated.
Sheppard said a camera mounted on the second floor of a now-razed A-frame structure that was formerly his office showed a bright white flash coming from his trailer, which was parked next to a light pole alongside the cookhouse. He thinks an exploding propane tank is to blame. Neighbors told him they heard hissing noises and an explosion.
Sheppard wonders if the compressor in one of his refrigerators created a spark that ignited the leaking gas. Officially, the cause of the fire is under investigation, but Sheppard knows he might never know what caused the fire that burned so hot that it melted his metal walk-in fridge and reduced the log cabin on his trailer, the birthplace of the Pik N Pig, into coals.
The restaurant used two large rotisserie-style smokers for the pork shoulders and chicken, as well as two pellet smokers for the brisket, turkey and wings. All were salvaged, but need to be repaired.
When he arrived at the restaurant to the sight of all the buildings ablaze that morning, he held out hope that the trailer would make it through. He thought that even if everything else was taken away, he could always take his trailer and go back to selling barbecue on the side of the road, just as he did 15 years earlier.
His cousin telling him the trailer was gone cut the wound even deeper.
“When I heard that, I knew I was in trouble.”
Around 5 a.m. that morning, Peter Stilwell, co-founder of the inaugural Pinehurst Barbecue Festival that Sheppard will be participating in this Labor Day weekend, arrived at the restaurant to lend a hand. He established a GoFundMe fundraiser to benefit the Sheppards, which as of Aug. 10, has raised nearly $50,000. On a recent check of the fundraising page, Sheppard noticed that the vast majority of the donations were small, under $50 a person.
To be able to raise such a large sum of money with small donations showed the sheer number of people who donated to the cause.
“It just blew me away,” Sheppard said.
A regular customer who’s an architect by day and plays Santa Claus during the Pik N Pig’s annual Santa Fly-in, a one-of-a-kind event that also features skydiving elves, is donating his time to help draw up plans for the new restaurant.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the new Pik N Pig should be even better than the first. Since the fire, Sheppard has had the chance to travel to other barbecue restaurants around the region in pursuit of design ideas and inspirations he can bring back to the new Pik N Pig.
He was inspired by the open kitchen and bar at Noble Smoke in Charlotte, where diners can see their meals pulled, chopped or sliced to order — a feast for all the senses. A fervent believer that pork shoulder should be pulled to order and not allowed to sit long before serving, Sheppard is looking for ways to best showcase the meats that have rightfully earned him acclaim.
He’s toying with a few menu changes, including a move to more family-style and a la carte meat-by-the-pound offerings, instead of the composed barbecue plates the restaurant always served. But even though he’s the owner, he knows he doesn’t want to rock the boat too much.
His mother, Janie Sheppard, is his business partner and co-owner of the restaurant. Despite being in her 70s, she “works circles around everyone, including myself,” Sheppard said, laughing.
His aunt, Heather Davis, is the kitchen manager who cooks all the side dishes, as well as the special desserts made around Thanksgiving and Christmas. His wife, Tiffani, is an executive at Pinehurst Resort, but you’ll find her slinging barbecue on the weekends, too.
“As much as it’s my place, I feel like it belongs to the community,” he said.
The new Pik N Pig
The new restaurant will have a larger kitchen. Sheppard said the old kitchen was too small, but there wasn’t room to reasonably expand it while keeping the restaurant open. The new entryway will be larger and offer unobstructed views of the runway. A new takeout window will boost to-go capability.
Just a few of the perks of being forced to rebuild a restaurant from the ground up.
“We don’t get to pick our blessings,” Sheppard joked.
The post office windows, which Sheppard said likely date back to the early 1900s, survived the fire and are being restored. When the new restaurant opens, they’ll grace the entrance once again.
Sheppard hopes the new Pik N Pig will be open by early 2022. When it does, the pork shoulders will still be rubbed in a blend of brown sugar, black pepper, paprika, kosher salt and other spices, smoked over hickory wood for around five hours, then wrapped in heavy-duty aluminum foil, a technique often referred to as the “Texas crutch,” and put back on the fire for another four hours. The smoked chicken, a recipe inspired by Sheppard’s grandfather that he’ll present at the upcoming Pinehurst Barbecue Festival, gets coated in dry rub and butter before spending three hours on the rotisserie smoker.
That’s all to say that while the recipes won’t change, Sheppard is trying to limit expectations, because he knows the experience won’t be exactly the same. Barbecue is finicky and much of his equipment will be new or refurbished. His insurance is currently covering payroll, but he knows the employees the restaurant had before the fire won’t all be around to work when the restaurant opens. Some servers have been around the restaurant since day one, providing expertise and familiarity that comes only with time.
But one thing is for sure: the Pik N Pig will be back. Sheppard got a new mobile unit from the same manufacturer of his original trailer that he’ll be using at the Pinehurst Barbecue Festival and North Carolina State Fair later this year, offering the public a taste of the barbecue they’ve been missing all summer.
It won’t be this month and likely not this year, but the smokers will eventually be back on at the Pik N Pig, the planes coming and going once again, the 32 racks of ribs pulled off the smoker around 5 p.m. Saturday, ready to be served on a first-come-first-served basis to diners who know that the early bird gets the worm.
Sheppard rejects the term “pitmaster” because he doesn’t think barbecue is something he or anyone can ever master. He’s always looking for a tweak that can be made, a move that can get his barbecue and restaurant closer to his subjective view of perfection.
“Barbecue is an art form,” Sheppard said.
Now, in the face of tragedy, he’ll have the chance to rebuild an even greater canvas.
Jacob Pucci writes on food, restaurants and business. Contact him by email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @jacobpucci or on Facebook. Like talking food? Join our Fayetteville Foodies Facebook group.
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