Clay Coleman’s barbecue business may have been launched in desperation, but it quickly became — and continues to be — a delicious success story.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem
Click here for the recipe for Clay Coleman’s spicy brisket chili.
In late February, just before people began to quarantine because of COVID-19, small business owner Clay Coleman began planning.
He spaced out the tables inside Clay’s House of Pig, his barbecue eatery. But when restaurants were notified they could only operate curbside service or pickup orders, Coleman gave thanks for his outside walk-up window.
“That outside window was already established,” he said. “That saved us. That and lots of prayers.”
Perhaps some of the most powerful prayers were sent up nightly by Coleman’s five nieces, ages 5 to 13, in South Carolina.
“My brother called me early on to tell me they were all praying for the business,” Coleman said. “He’ll sometimes text me the girls’ prayers. They will melt your heart.”
Five-year-old Ivy’s prayer one night in April was, “Dear God, don’t let Clay’s shop get canceled for that virus.”
In the early days of the quarantine especially, patrons of local restaurants reached out to help by purchasing takeout meals and gift cards to distribute to others for future use.
Later, when some restaurants made the decision to close their doors until the quarantine ended, others remained open. C.H.O.P. was one of those.
“We relied heavily on social media, advertising family packages for meals,” Coleman said. “We made every effort to show what we were doing, not what we were not doing.”
Still, Coleman said he lay awake at night, his mind mulling multiple concerns.
“I’d just keep thinking, ‘We survived today; will we tomorrow?’” he said.
Facing uncertainties in the business world is not a new experience for Coleman. In fact, only three years ago, he found himself in a precarious position professionally.
And no matter how many times he tells his story, his excitement remains as fresh as it was in its original telling. The owner of Clay’s Bait and Tackle on Veterans Boulevard in east Tupelo was on the brink of bankruptcy and trying desperately to decide what to do next.
“I was laying awake at night, wondering how to survive running a bait shop in December,” he said. “I was overdrawn $1,503. I was staring at the ceiling, talking to God, trying to figure out what my next move was.
“There were no booming voices, no miraculous answers, and I knew it would probably be my last day of being self-employed.”
At the time, Coleman also did a little deer processing in the back of the bait shop, but it didn’t bring in a lot of money.
“The day the bank was about to shut my bank account down, everybody I knew came in and bought a rod and reel, or ordered summer sausage and paid in advance,” Coleman said.
Near the end of the work day, Coleman raced to his bank. He had to dig deep into his change bag, and his deposit was just a little more than $1,503.
Change of Plans
Before he gave up on his business entirely, Coleman cooked up a plan based on one of his favorite pastimes: cooking barbecue for friends and family. It was a plan that would take every cent he made that spring in the bait shop, but Coleman hoped it might be worth the risk.
C.H.O.P. — Clay’s House of Pig — started off quietly, with little fanfare and no fancy feast. It all began with nachos, and some of the best Boston butt around. Coleman started cooking butts at 3 a.m. on May 14, 2017.
Between 11 a.m. and noon, he had one customer. He posted a video of the barbecue nachos on Facebook about 11:45 a.m. The phone started ringing, and orders were placed for what callers had seen online.
“Within 15 minutes of posting the video, we were bombarded with orders,” Coleman said. “Sales lasted about two weeks from that first video.”
Then came the potato video, featuring gargantuan baked potatoes loaded with queso, jalapenos, bacon, barbecued pork and a tangy sauce. The video got 40,000 views in a week.
Have a Seat
Much of the business in the early days was called in and picked up. But there were customers who chose to eat at C.H.O.P., and they happily ate wherever they found space.
“Eight guys ate on the chest freezer,” Coleman said. “It looked like they were hunkered down at a hog trough.”
Little by little, Coleman made additional seating available for his customers. He brought lawn chairs from home, and more times than Coleman can count, when he had a need, it was quickly and often inexplicably filled.
“Not a chair matches another chair,” Coleman said. “And no one cares.”
It works — because people come for the food. The nachos and baked potatoes remain the menu favorites, but Coleman’s repertoire is much more extensive these days. He has barbecue sandwiches, brisket, ribs, street tacos and belly buttons, which are caramelized pork belly. He goes through 96 Boston butts and 250 to 300 pounds of rib tips each week.
“Everyone has their own favorite thing on the menu,” he said. “My very favorite may be a big, old barbecue bologna sandwich. I have one at least once a week.”
In those early days, Coleman arrived in darkness at 3 a.m. to start his grills and then head home to Jinnie, his wife of 28 years, and youngest daughter, Emma, late in the day. The Colemans are also the parents of Cody and Shelbie.
Coleman, though proud his plan is enjoying prodigious success, quickly gives credit where due.
“I’m just managing chaos,” he said. “I’m a one-trick pony. I just barbecue. But I hired some people who have 75 tricks and are better than me at every station.”
Joe Tanner is store manager; Rich Barnes is kitchen manager. And Jinnie Coleman serves as her husband’s biggest supporter, he said. She is also his CPA and “bookkeeping ninja.”
It could be said that barbecuing is in Coleman’s blood. The Dyersburg, Tennessee, native grew up watching his father grill. As a kid, he held wrenches while Dennis Coleman built a grill from a 55-gallon barrel. He also watched his father make rubs and sauces.
There’s a lot of family tradition cooked into the menu items at C.H.O.P. There’s a rub that started off as a creation of Coleman’s father; the potato salad recipe, tweaked by Coleman, belonged to his mother, Becky; and the slaw is a cross between his mom’s and his wife’s recipes.
“When I nailed it, I nailed it, and I put it on lockdown,” Coleman said. “I am as happy as I’ve ever been in life. I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had as an adult. I’m tired, stressed out, but having a ball.”
Taking it on the Road
Clay Coleman has been keeping a secret. Hidden behind his restaurant on Veterans Boulevard in Tupelo, is a shiny, black 1989 Chevy truck. The vehicle, which resembles a UPS truck, is a work in progress, but Coleman can hardly wait to unveil his new food truck.
He found himself thinking about the possibility of additional C.H.O.P. restaurants in other places. Then he decided it would be easier to try out new venues if his business was mobile. He hopes to test the markets in places like Oxford, especially on game days, and Nashville, during music festivals and other big events. He’s even considering catering.
Coleman plans to debut his truck at a Food Truck Friday at Fairpark.