Pig Farmer Tank Jackson of Holy City Hogs near Charleston, South Carolina has been a standout competitor at Pig Island for many years and a true friend to Food Karma projects for just as long. Not only was he the top heritage breed pig farmer at the past two Pig Island events, but also he won best pig with his team both years. During the pandemic, he has begun processing more of his pigs, which are normally sold directly to restaurants, into bacon and hams. We chatted with him about how business is going, what he’s looking forward to and how you can get your hands on one of his hams (hint: by being the fastest fingers on Instagram). As told to Sarah Strong, this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Food Karma: How has your focus changed during the pandemic?
Tank Jackson: You know, we’ve just had to contract because a lot of our restaurants were either closed or on pause. That means we thinned our herd and processed some of our breeding sows to eliminate the reproductive cycle, that’s how you make more pigs, so we just tried to cut back on our production. Just trying to ride it out and figure out creative ways to remarket and rebrand a little bit with retail consumers. It’s really time consuming getting into retail. I’ve been chef driven the whole time, so I kind of just contracted and made different cutting the fat kind of moves and here I am still, we’re hanging out.
FK: How did you start making hams and bacon?
TJ: I’ve been making them for about five years now. Allan Benton and I met at an event where we were put up in the same bungalow and he and I got to be buddies. I learned so much about the process from him, and at some point he told me they custom cured. Ever since then he’s been curing hams and pork bellies for me, and I recently started doing some cured pork shoulders as well. I think that Allan is an American treasure and probably one of the greatest american heroes there is.
FK: How has the response been to the hams?
TJ: As fast as we can make them, we can sell them. It’s kind of like wine: you can only grow so many grapes, and after you grow the grapes then you have to see which ones are the best, and then you take those and try to turn those into wine and then you just hurry up and wait. Salt, time and smoke, and a little bit of luck.
FK: How immediately did you realize you needed to pivot?
TJ: Pretty quickly. When restaurants called in orders, they were slowing down. It wasn’t that hard to figure out we were in for a pretty hard downturn. You’ve just got to move and shake, you either evolve and adapt or you die. We’re trying to hang in there, just coming up with creative ways to sell our pork. We also do a lot of cooking and catering now.
FK: Did you do any catering before?
TJ: We did, but now we’re doing a lot more private dinners for people because they don’t want to go out to restaurants but they still want to eat some really high quality food and do cool stuff. We’ve been going to some people’s houses and doing some cooking for them, too.
FK: How have these changes impacted your customer relationships?
TJ: You know, a lot of the already pretty big time clients just want to continue to support us and this is how they chose to do it. We’re not really seeing a huge uptick from anywhere, it’s just kind of helping us not sink. It’s bailing the water out of the boat but I wouldn’t say it’s paddling the boat.
FK: What have you learned about your business during the pandemic?
TJ: Stay lean, be on top of your shit or you’re going to not be in business tomorrow.
FK: Do you have things that you’re looking forward to?
TJ: Yeah, I’m looking forward to events, I’m looking forward to gatherings, I’m looking forward to celebrations, I’m looking forward to funerals, I’m looking forward to life again as normal or life as it used to be pre-covid, a more normal lifestyle.
FK: Do you think your business will go back to pretty much how it was before or will you take some of the changes you’ve made into the future?
TJ: You go with what you know, and when that don’t work you do what you can to hang in there. I’m sure some of these adaptations will stick. We’ll take every day one by one, one day at a time.
FK: Do you have anything else going on?
TJ: Just continuing to work with Dwight Muse at Dakota Hams and Allan Benton at Benton’s Bacon to get high quality hams out to consumers. I’ll ship cured meats anywhere in the country. We sell out every time. I post on Instagram at @holycityhogs when I have hams and I typically sell out in two to three days. I think in about two months we’re going to have 20 hams that we’ll be ready to release to the public, maybe 25.