Nick Pihakis of Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q knows the food business, and he knows what it takes to be a food entrepreneur. But he is the first to admit he doesn’t often speak in public, so when Pihakis appeared as keynote speaker at the second annual Food Entrepreneur Conference, he immediately threw the floor open for questions.
Pihakis’ openness and willingness to share what he has learned the hard way were typical of conference speakers and panelists, who talked about subjects ranging from Internet marketing to writing a business plan to the difference between a food broker and a food distributor—and the pros and cons of working with each.
“Attending the conference was beneficial for me in countless ways as I now have a much better understanding of moving from the dream stage to the planning stage,” said Cindy Thrash of Auburn. “Your program provided such a great service to the attendees, and I thank you.”
The Auburn University Food Systems Institute’s second annual Food Entrepreneur Conference took place Feb. 27-28 at the Prattville Marriott in Prattville. Attendees represented all levels of entrepreneurship, from those just thinking about going into business for themselves to those who had already taken the plunge and even some who had been in business for years.
“Great conference,” said Don Abercrombie of AquaSouth Seafood in Clayton, which has been selling U.S.-raised catfish and shrimp for 30 years. “My son Cass and I were impressed with the speakers, especially John Marsh from Opelika. I did not get a chance to hear Mr. Pihakis with Jim ‘N Nick’s, but many of the speakers targeted key areas of product development and marketing. I look forward to next year’s conference.”
Marsh, an entrepreneur from Opelika, was a big hit with the group. He owns JMarsh Enterprises, a real estate company that is steadily transforming downtown Opelika into a dining mecca. Marsh was a millionaire in his twenties and lost it all, so he understands what it takes to be an entrepreneur.
“In the beginning, I took incredible risks and mortgaged everything we had,” Marsh told Business Alabama. “It was almost like spinning the roulette wheel. I would spin it so many times that I became numb to it.”
Marsh is known for buying up dilapidated properties in downtown Opelika, intent on enticing restaurateurs to the lackluster downtown. He struggled to find tenants at first, but his marketing savvy helped him share his vision with others. That marketing savvy is what he shared with conference attendees, even telling some of the attendees what he thought they could do to sell their products.
Like Marsh, Pihakis is a man with a vision that he is not afraid to share. He started Jim ’N Nicks with his father in an old dry cleaner’s location in Birmingham, and the company now has 30 restaurants in seven states. Although Pihakis usually works behind the scenes, he was willing to talk at the Food Entrepreneur Conference because of his passion for promoting local foods, local business and innovative concepts.
Because of that passion, he is a partner in Fresh Hospitality LLC, which can best be described as a “collection” of innovative food concepts, including Taziki’s Café, Big Bad Breakfast and Cochon Butcher. Pihakis and his partners invest in the businesses, provide expertise and help them grow.
Another Pihakis brainchild is the Fatback Pig Project, a collaboration that supports regional production of “heritage” swine breeds and the ranchers who raise the swine humanely. Heritage breeds are those breeds that were around before intensive, industrialized farming. According to the project’s website, Fatback’s aim is to provide pasture-raised, high-quality heritage breed pork through the company’s restaurants by working closely with local producers.
The conference was conceived as a way to create a network of local food entrepreneurs in the region, while at the same time providing a venue to bring them together with experts in meat science, aquaculture, food processing and business from Auburn University and the Small Business Development Center Network, which is affiliated with the U.S. Small Business Administration.
“I just wanted to thank you again for inviting me to the Food Entrepreneur Conference,” said one of the panelists, Ben Moon from Dreamcakes in Birmingham. “I really had a wonderful time and learned quite a bit. I hope that I was able to offer something of value to the attendees and perhaps encourage those on the same path.”