Homegrown Flavor

Tupelo’s Neon Pig, opening soon in Oxford, is garnering national attention, but the restaurant’s real success is in serving ingredients sourced from area farms that are focused on bringing fresh, local products to consumers.

Leake House

Written by Melanie Crownover
Photographed by Joe Worthem

One visit to the Neon Pig Café makes it clear this is a place where the eat local movement has risen to the next level.

Inside the restaurant’s original Tupelo location, the shelves lining the walls are stacked to the ceiling with homemade goods for sale: jars of honey from Paw Paw’s Bee Farm in Shannon, Miss.; Delta Blues Rice out of Ruleville, Miss.; and Glicco’s Pasta Gravy from West Point, Miss. Produce from St. Bethany Fresh in Pontotoc, Miss., sits ready for purchase beside a cooler full of Popsy gourmet ice pops out of Tupelo and a case of desserts from Sugaree’s Bakery in New Albany, Miss.

Signature smash burgers – named for their combination of ground aged filet, ribeye, sirloin and New York strip and recently voted No. 1 burger in the country in a thrillist.com poll – sizzle on the grill, drawing patrons past the barnwood-and-tin bar stocked with craft beers to the register. There, a full-service butcher’s counter teems with a selection of meats that are delivered from nearby farms and cut on site. The new Oxford location, in the Mid-Town Shopping Center, is opening soon, and the commitment to offering local products will be evident there, too.

Sourcing ingredients close to home became an obsession after partners Seth Copeland, Trish McCluney and Mitchell McCamey opened the downtown establishment in 2012. It all started with requests to Native Son Farm and Memory Orchard in Tupelo for fresh produce and cakes.

“We wanted to do things differently because hardly anyone in business here was doing this then,” Copeland said. “This is the way it used to be in a kitchen. We don’t know how it got so far away from that, but who better to support with your business than your neighbor? Especially when it makes everything you do taste better.”

From those first two connections sprouted a network of farmers ready to join forces. No longer did the co-owners have to search for collaborators to fill their larders and their patrons’ bellies with locally grown goodness. Each new partnership brought more opportunity by word of mouth.

Only a handful of the products hailed from more than two hours away, much less out of state. The ones that did were still made in the South.

Neon Pig management visited each farm to verify the livestock was treated well and the products and produce were made and cultivated to meet their high standards. The nearby farmers’ attention to detail and dedication to their products only reassured the trio that they were on the right path.

“We love doing business with them because we’re trying to accomplish the same thing: It isn’t about quantity or the money; we want our products to be the best,” Billy Ray Brown of Brown Family Dairy in Oxford said. “Our hogs eat barley from Yalobusha Brewery down the road and get leftovers from our milk and cheese production, and they don’t stay cooped on top of each other in a pen. The happier they are, the better their flavor – just like with our cows and their milk.”

That attention to quality ingredients is included in each recipe at Neon Pig.

They created their daily specials by mixing new items available on the store shelves with commodities such as the fresh pork, eggs and milk they get from Brown. The fusion turned their down-home comfort and bar food menu into something unique and gave customers a taste of the products they could take home to add flavor in their own kitchens.

Soon businesses previously considered competition began to approach Neon Pig about partnerships.

Many Tupelo restaurants – including the trio’s other business, Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen – get fresh fish and cuts of beef and pork from the counter. The Blue Canoe began buying meat there long before Neon Pig even opened a kitchen, and now Blue Canoe bacon jam is a best-seller on Neon Pig’s store shelves.

“That’s the only other place you can get it besides ours, and they sell more than we do,” owner Adam Morgan said. “It’s confusing to some people how we all back each other up here, but the independent local businesses are all fighting the same fight. We’re all in this together to bring customers back to hometown tables and goods.”

Such partnerships support the local economy by promoting fellow small-business entrepreneurs and encouraging customers to spend their dollars locally. It doesn’t hurt that the mélange of products is now exporting area flavor all over the country thanks to Neon Pig’s smash burger fame.

“A lot of people come in for that, but the funky, laid-back atmosphere and whole menu make them want to take some of that home. We had a guy come in from South Carolina the other day that filled a cooler with $700 worth of products before he left,” McCluney said. “That’s how we know we’re doing something right.”

Neon Pig’s Oxford location, opening in December, is at 711 N. Lamar Blvd. The new café is starting with the same ingredients as the original restaurant, though the owners hope to find even more Oxford-produced goods to incorporate into the menu as the business grows.

To find out more about what Neon Pig has in the butcher’s case and on the menu today, visit them on Facebook or check out neonpig.net. Read more about the art of butchering and why local meat is best in our interview with Copeland here.

Categories: Current Features