Fair food booths work hard to stand out and grab the attention of fairgoers. At the N.C. State Fair, that runs the gamut from bright or unusual colors, flashing lights, dynamic music, a huge inflatable ostrich head or a unique and repetitive voice advertising all types of pies.
But the Pik-N-Pig’s rustic, tiny, 5-foot-by-12-foot wooden-sided trailer serves more than just being an eye catcher, it’s also houses the barbecue vendor’s pig cooker — the heart of the food operation.
So on May 30, when the Pik-N-Pig’s brick-and-mortar restaurant at the Gilliam-McConnell Airfield in Carthage went up in flames, owner Ashley Sheppard immediately asked a firefighter friend about the status of the trailer parked near the restaurant.
Hearing the words “it didn’t survive,” his heart sank.
“Losing the trailer … it was devastating. We started in that thing and we had a lot of hot days in that trailer that helped us build this business,” Sheppard said.
“It was the original cookhouse for the restaurant, and the booth was very much part of who we are at the fair,” Sheppard said. “It fit us perfectly. You can’t beat the taste of fresh BBQ and we cook BBQ every night onsite at the fair to be ready to sell the next day.”
But as devastating as losing both the restaurant and mobile trailer in one fire was, Sheppard’s business caught a break in finding a replacement trailer, something he never would have thought possible.
The original booth with a combined late-70s-style interior kitchen setup and pig cooker on the back was manufactured for only a few years by Southern Yankee BBQ Smokers of Indiana, making them rare and difficult to find.
“We were blessed because my brother was able to find one outside of D.C.,” Sheppard said. “It is two or three feet shorter, but otherwise it is an exact replica of what we used at the State Fair.”
So fairgoers looking for the iconic Pik-N-Pig booth this year, should immediately recognize the new set up, right down to the wood siding. Sheppard would like to turn the booth sideways to provide a larger store front, but he won’t know until closer to fair time if that is possible.
For Sheppard, the return to the State Fair will be both bittersweet and a big deal for a business that is likely still several months away from being able to reopen.
Sheppard credits the growth in the brick-and-mortar location to the name recognition gained through the State Fair booth. And while the Pik-N-Pig brand started by doing festivals, weekend events and fairs, the trailer also still fills an integral role in the company’s business model.
“From a marketing standpoint, we get a lot of business from people who see us at the fair,” Sheppard said. “Our first few years, we broke even, but over time our business at the fair grew. Nowadays, (what we make at) the fair has turned into something that got us through the slow winter months at the restaurant. This year, being able to be back at the fair means a lot. I’m hopeful it gets us through this year.”
Sheppard takes pride in the product the Pik-N-Pig serves, including its much-loved BBQ Sundae — a clear Solo cup of baked beans, BBQ, slaw and sauce that is easy to take to go and eat.
When staff work at the fair, it gives them a chance to see people’s reaction to the BBQ, too, he said.
“We have always placed a huge emphasis on the quality of our product,” Sheppard said. “When I look around the grounds and see vendors who have been there for years, the ones who stay are the ones who do something of quality.”
The Pig-N-Pig seems to have found the right recipe to do just that. This year marks the business’ 15th year at the State Fair.