The short, smoky run of America's largest barbecue chain
August 7th, 2012
01:00 PM ET
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Editor's note: All summer long, the Southern Foodways Alliance will be delving deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of barbecue across the United States. Dig in.

Last week we took a look at McDonald's roots as a barbecue restaurant before it converted into a fast-service hamburger stand. Pit-cooked barbecue ultimately wasn't a good match for the demands of fast-food chains, but that doesn't mean that entrepreneurs didn't try.

In the early 1960s, businessmen Bill Newman and Ben Burch teamed up with Frank O. Howell, Jr., who was running a local barbecue chain in Memphis, to create Little Pigs of America and franchise it nationwide.

Asking for a $6,000 upfront investment, Little Pigs promised its franchisees a net return of $15,000 to $20,000 per year. No prior barbecue experience was required, for the company trained recruits at its Memphis headquarters. It also helped them with location selection and provided detailed blueprints for constructing a wood-burning pit made out of bricks.

At a typical Little Pigs of America establishment, a pork basket sold for 59 cents, a pork plate for 69 cents, and a rib platter for $1.59. By 1965, some 200 restaurants had opened in the United States and Canada, and the company announced a bold goal of exceeding 1,000 locations in just a few years. (McDonald's Hamburgers, by comparison, had just opened store #800.)

Despite its initial growth, Little Pigs of America struggled to become profitable, and in 1967 it filed for bankruptcy, ending the brief run of what was once America's largest barbecue chain.

Most Little Pigs outlets faded away after their parent company folded, but some stayed in business as independent operators. A handful of restaurants that got their start as Little Pigs franchises are still selling barbecue today, including well-known spots in Columbia, South Carolina, and Asheville, North Carolina.

Today's installment comes courtesy of Robert Moss, a food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper and author of "Barbecue: the History of an American Institution". Follow him on Twitter at @mossr.

Delve into more barbecue goodness from the Southern Foodways Alliance blog.

Previously - McDonald's got its start as a barbecue restaurant

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Edward G Hoffmann

    I'd just like to know the recipe for their vinegar pepper sauce. Anybody? We had a Little Pigs in Downers Grove ,Il back in the 60's. Their pulled pork sandwich with slaw was great but it was the sauce that was the ambrosia.

    December 3, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
    • Son of the Owners

      Thanks Ed for the memories and the compliments. Having grown up in that Little Pigs, I couldn't agree more. I too would love to have the recipe for the sauce! The slaw and sauce were handmade by my parents along with the onion rings and many other items.

      February 18, 2014 at 9:35 am |
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  3. Rick

    The best BBQ places are always tiny little independents. Chains have ruined everything, from hamburgers to chicken to pizza and even BBQ.

    Best BBQ I've ever had was run by 2 black dudes who had a tiny little place at the corner of a local strip mall. They were unfriendly and didn't give you eye contact but the BBQ was awesome!

    August 21, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  4. JT

    I've never eaten at Little Pigs but I might make an effort to give it a try. It's got to be on par if not better than some of the other "chains" like Maurice's or Duke's.

    August 20, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • GeorgeMur

      RTFA they are closed.

      August 20, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
      • Ignus Fast

        @GeorgeMur: RTFA: Most Little Pigs outlets faded away after their parent company folded, but some stayed in business as independent operators.

        August 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  5. Sherri

    In England, the Muslims have taken pork out of the schools and won't allow it to be served. Because they are offended by pigs! They have banned the telling of Three Little Pigs story in schools also.And have also banned the selling of pigs in little farm sets. Teachers are not to talk about pigs in classes. This is what will happen here soon. Beware

    August 18, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Shawn

      WTF? You must be off your meds...

      August 18, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Daniel

      Sherri, making up these fantastic anti-Islam stories makes you look beyond ignorant, because you really have to be special to believe that random people you don't even KNOW want to sit around and believe the made-up things you say. It must be sad to know that the only fuel for your apparent hatred of a group is the lies you feel the need to perpetuate.

      August 18, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
      • whozits

        Actually, the part about taking pork out of the schools is correct in England for the reason stated. All meat served in some schools must be halal (sort of like kosher, a ritualized slaughter and butcher method.) This also means certain English staples such as blood pudding and blood sausages are off the menu. Google it – was reported in the London Telegraph on Jun 12, 2012. The English Parliament did not make the decision, the school principals (heads) did. It is even happening in schools with no religious Jews or Muslims attending. The pig is considered unclean in the Middle East because it is used as a garbage disposal system and because they have been seen eating corpses in the long ago. When H1N1 was making the world run scared, Egypt destroyed all pigs (until recently, Egypt was very diverse, religiously) and found themselves chest deep in trash as the trash collectors, having no pigs to deal with it, refused to collect it. Also reported in the news Sept. 28, 2009 among others.

        August 21, 2012 at 5:33 am |
  6. Ray

    I used to eat at a Little Pigs in south Charlotte when I was in high school. It was tasty and inexpensive. I've eaten BBQ all over the country–even had my own barbecue catering business for a few years. Little Pigs in Asheville is still a good one.

    August 17, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  7. FatDave62

    I remember little pigs on Highland Blvd near Memphis State U when I went there. Great Bar b q, in a town known for it......Closed in the '90's so far as I know..

    August 14, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  8. apieceoftheaction

    For an entertaining account of my barbecue odyssey read my blog:

    "Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what's for lunch". – Orson Welles

    August 13, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  9. jillmarie

    I loved the McD's article- for some reason the post I wrote under it never showed up. I'm not into fast food, but never knew McD's started out as a BBQ joint. Very cool to learn about how their business model came about.
    Anyway, I love learning the history behind America's favorite brands and foods, so thanks for that, and please keep these types of articles coming!

    August 7, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Jerv@jillmarie

      Agreed! These BBQ reads have been excellent.

      August 8, 2012 at 7:15 am |
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