Story and photographs by Lauren Allen
“Follow The Signs."
Driving east down Highway 70 between Smithfield and Goldsboro, the sun rises across Eastern North Carolina as little bugs pitter patter like rain on the windshield.
There’s another yellow billboard. “Turn Left at Next Light. Follow The Signs.”
Turning onto a country road surrounded by fields of corn and tobacco dotted with homes, you’re not sure if you’re headed in the right direction, until another yellow sign appears and you soldier on. After all, fresh bacon awaits at the end of the drive.
"Nahunta Pork Center 1 Mile Ahead." Giggling to yourself at the illustration of a larger-than-life pig adorned with a crown, you roll down the window and take a deep breath. Some say, if the winds are blowing right, you can smell the bacon and sausage cooking on a Saturday morning.
Top: Nahunta Pork Center is known for their large yellow billboards down Highway 70 and in the surrounding area. Bottom: Bacon and sausage cook up on the grill on a Saturday morning.
Pork is King at Nahunta Pork Center, dubbed the largest pork center on the East Coast. Opened in 1955 by Mack Pierce, years before the era of large scale animal farming, Nahunta started as a hog weighing center and slaughterhouse. When locals caught wind of the business, it grew quickly. In 1975, because of the growing demand for fresh pork products in the community, Mack remodeled a bulk tobacco barn for retail sale and slaughtered and processed three hogs. The Nahunta Pork Center was born in Pikeville.
Three generations and 61 years later, Nahunta now processes over 500 hogs a week, sells nearly a million pounds of country sausage links each year, and thousands of country hams every holiday season. These southern staples and their more bizarre pork fare, such as tom thumb and souse, draw crowds from across the state and the East Coast to this tiny community in northern Wayne County. Nahunta is more than just a thriving business in rural Eastern N.C. It’s a place locals are proud to call their own, a true family business.
Mack, who passed away in 2013, was the heart of the company. “I’ve always called him PigPop,” says his grandson Brandon Pierce, current general manager of Nahunta Pork Center. “He’s still very much missed around here."
In the early 1990s, Mack’s son, Larry, left the State Bureau of Investigation to help with the family business where he would work for nearly 20 years. When he was sworn in as sheriff of Wayne County in 2014, his son Brandon became the top hog.
“After college, I came in, unsure of what I wanted to do. I stuck with this, and luckily for me, Dad became the sheriff, and I stepped up,” Brandon says proudly.
In addition to the Pierce men, the women in the family play a large and critical role in the business’ operation. Mack’s widow, and president of Nahunta Pork Center, Jean Pierce, known by all as Mrs. Jean, is an active, cheerful and warm personality. Rita, Larry’s wife, is the office manager, and their daughter, Lauren Davis, is the bookkeeper.
While the Pierces reign over the pork enterprise, their family extends deep into the community. The employees, surrounding community, and patrons are all considered part of the Nahunta family.
“We’ve always tried to treat our employees with as much respect as we can because they’re part of our family,” says Brandon.
Top left: Mack Pierce, or PigPop as his grandchildren lovingly call him, poses with his grandson Brandon in a photo placed on a window sill of pig-related nostalgia. Top right: Details of Nahunta Hog Market office. Bottom: Brandon, Larry, Rita, Jean, and Lauren pose for a photo with a portrait of Mack "PigPop" Pierce holding his largest and most prized 1,105 pound salughtered hog. The Pierce family runs the Nahunta Pork Center and Hog Market, keeping family values and respect at the core of their business.
“This is my favorite kind of Saturday,” Robert Moss, sales manager, says as he walks by the center’s kitchen full of sizzling bacon.
On Saturday mornings, when Judy Crawford and Sierra Brown cook up biscuits and samples, Mrs. Jean comes in, grabs her breakfast of sausage biscuits and bacon, a fresh cup of coffee and makes her way to the employee break room.
“Hey, Mrs. Jean!" says Sierra.
“Hi, honey! You doing good?" Mrs. Jean says lovingly as she gathers her breakfast.
Mrs. Jean and her employees catch up on life and crack jokes with each other as they sip their coffee, munch on their biscuits, and break up the salt with Krispy Kreme donuts.
Nahunta’s employees are loyal, just like family. Many have been at the pork center for years — Dennis Coley, processing supervisor, has been with the company for 35 years. He’s practically grown up with the pork center.
Coley isn’t the only employee who is a long-standing member of the Nahunta family. “I can remember being a little boy here and the same women are still working here,” Brandon recalls.
Top: Robert Moss, Judy Crawford, and Landon Pipkin sit at the break room table with Jean Pierce as they eat their sausage biscuits, bacon, and Krispy Kreme donuts for breakfast on a Saturday morning. Mrs. Jean comes to eat breakfast every Saturday at the Pork Center and catches up with employees during breakfast. Middle: Sierra Brown washes her hands and greets a customer while Judy Crawford cooks bacon on the skillet. Sierra normally works at the cured meats counter but started helping out Mrs. Judy on Saturday mornings. Bottom left: Nahunta Pork Center offers customers free samples and employees breakfast on Saturdays from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. On Saturday, April 30, the kitchen offered samples of bacon, sausage biscuits, and roasted pork chops. Bottom right: Judy Crawford cleans off the skillet after cooking a batch of bacon in the kitchen at Nahunta Pork Center.
Nahunta’s familial hug reaches far. Supporting churches, first responders, and local businesses with donations and charitable drives are just as important as Sunday lunch to the pork center and Pierce family.
“Grandmother always makes sure church is taken care of, and Dad always makes sure the fire department is taken care of,” says Brandon.
In addition to local organizations, Nahunta supports local hog growers, sourcing about 50 percent of their hogs from the Wayne, Wilson, and Johnston tri-county area. Nahunta also supplies about 15 restaurants, including legendary barbecue favorite Wilber’s Barbecue and the nationally renowned Chef and the Farmer, within a 60 mile radius with fresh pork products.
As the largest all-pork retail center on the East Coast, the company attracts quite a crowd. With a busy flow of local folks during the week in both the Pikeville area and at the State Farmers’ Market in Raleigh, the weekend brings in families from across the state and the East Coast.
Top: Hams start their curing process by spending 30 days covered in a salt. Salt is added as it disolves into the hams over the 30 days in the "Winter Shed" before being cured in a climate controlled curing house. Second row left: Employees in the processing center separate pork into fresh cuts of meat. Second row right: Fresh link country sausage is the largest seller at Nahunta Pork Center. In 2015, the center sold nearly 1 million pounds of sausage to its loyal customers. Third row left: Brandon Pierce separates hogs in the slaughterhouse freezer so enough air flows around them, helping them to cure. Third row right: Brandon Pierce checks the progress of country hams as they are in the curing process. Country hams cure for 8-10 months, losing up to 28 percent of their green weight, or raw weight. The ham house currently holds 10 to 12 thousand hams, which will be ready for the holiday season. Bottom: Bill Lawson packages up thick cut country smoked bacon. Bill's favorite way to eat country smoked bacon is to cut off the skin, fry it in a cast-iron skillet outside, then cook his eggs up in the bacon grease.
Donald and Josie Wade, from Richmond, V.A., stopped in at the pork center one Saturday in late April to pick up food for a family party. “Josie went to the community school in Nahunta growing up, so we always have to come here when we visit family,” Donald said.
As Donald and Josie enjoyed their bacon, three eager little girls peered over the kitchen counter. Cheyenne, Addison, and Sarah Pendergraft of Princeton, N.C. took their styrofoam plates of biscuits, bacon, and their cups of Mello Yello to a green, red, and yellow Nahunta bench.
“I like bacon!” Sarah exclaimed as she chomped on a perfectly crisp piece. Her oldest sister laughed and said, “I just like all pork!”
The Pierces take their relationship with customers seriously. As guests walk into the center, the staff always greets them with a warm, southern welcome, catching up on each other’s lives like they’ve been longtime friends. “Whenever you’re here, you’re part of our family,” says Brandon matter-of-factly.
Family is "the heart of the business,” he adds. Then followed with a humble chuckle, “I’m just happy to be here."
Donald and Josie Wade sit with Anthony Camps while they eat their biscuits and samples on a saturday morning. Donald and Josie, who drove into town from Richmond, Virginia to visit family, always make sure to stop at Nahunta Pork Center before going home.