A smashing decade as a butcher, delicatessen

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) – The Neon Pig is flying high after 10 years.

The popular butcher and restaurant has evolved over the years, but the one constant has been its mission to provide customers with homemade, handmade products.

The butcher shop breaks down locally grown whole animals and seafood is delivered three times a week. Locally grown vegetables and locally made products are also for sale.

However, Neon Pig didn’t quite start out that way.

Lizzette Van Osten started the business in 2010 as Home Chef Market with real estate agent Sandy Turner. Home Chef Market was billed as a gourmet grocery store including a butcher shop and with an emphasis on specialty meat, seafood, cheese, beer, sauces, and other food items. In 2011 Van Osten bought out Turner.

But a year later, in 2012, two Home Chef employees, Seth Copeland and Mitch McCamey, teamed up with Trish McCluney to buy out Van Osten, paving the way for Neon Pig and their vision for the business.

“Mitch and I were going to partner with her (Van Osten), but she had a totally different take on it,” Copeland said. “We said we wanted to add coffee, but she said that would never work, and we said, ‘OK.'”

While Home Chef Market offered many gourmet items like an extensive range of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, this was not going to sustain the business in the long run.

So with the new owners, Home Chef became Neon Pig, and Copeland, McCamey and McCluney went to great lengths to find and sell products grown and made by local farmers and producers.

“We got into this because we were going to fill a niche in the market that needed us,” McCluney said. “Our goal was to serve our community with mom and pop products on our shelves, supporting them and the community as well as the state…we tried to provide something different and unique.”

They also went ahead with the project to open a café. The results were startling.

The Smashburger was a hit from the start, and in 2015 it was named by Thrillist as “America’s Best Burger”. It features aged tenderloin, sirloin, rib eye, New York strip loin and ground Benton’s bacon with cheddar cheese, quick pickles and pickled onions, all flavored with hoisin and comeback sauces on crispy ciabatta bread.

The Best Burger title has continued to draw customers new and old to the pig over the years, seeking to enjoy the flavorful burger.

Today, the Neon Pig is thriving and its co-owners are grateful.

“It’s certainly exceeded my expectations, for 10 years, because it’s hard to survive in the restaurant business, given that most go bankrupt after the first year or so,” McCluney said. “But I know Neon Pig had the ability to succeed, and we endured many trials and tribulations.”

Indeed, the 2014 tornado damaged their building, and more recently the pandemic followed by inflation and high prices.

“We, along with other restaurants, struggled, but we persevered,” he said.

Soon the taste of Neon Pig will be enjoyed out west – Oklahoma to be exact. Specifically, WinStar World Resort and Casino is owned and operated by the Chickasaw Nation.

“We met the casino guys through our buddies at Blue Delta Jeans,” Copeland said. “They have been working with them for a few years. We’ve flown in to meet them and talk about what we do here, and last month I cooked for their VIPs.

Cooking for a crowd of around 60, Copeland offered small plates of some of the offerings available at Pig. The dishes went well; so good, in fact, that the casino wants to add several items from the pig menu to the Gran Via buffet, which features dishes from all over the United States, Italy, Vietnam and Mexico.

“It’s a great opportunity for us,” Copeland said.

McCluney added, “It’s nice to be seen and tasted in another part of the country.”

And that begs the question: Is this a step towards opening Neon Pigs in other locations?

Copeland said they have already had talks with interested people and are even close to reaching a franchise agreement with a group from Huntsville, Alabama. But that was before the pandemic and those plans were put on hold. It remains to be seen whether these plans will be revived.

“We want to get the right group involved, but it’s something we really think about,” Copeland said. “Right now we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary, sort of putting the original band back together and focusing on our core business, which is pig. You know, we’ve all gone and done other things too, but it’s good to go back to where it all began.

As for the next 10 years, they surely cannot be as tumultuous as the past few years. Even so, the Neon Pig will roll with it.

“We’re always trying to evolve within our restaurant and grocery store and find new local mom and pop products that we believe in and support,” McCluney said.

“We would like you to show us what you have,” Copeland said. “If we love him, we’ll try to make room for him. That’s why we are here.