The problem was that Joe Swicegood, Justice’s old Lee Edwards High teammate, was leveling too many defensive players. In practice. His own teammates.
“Joe,” Justice said, “could you back off a little bit? We’ve got a big game Saturday and you’re hurtin’ those boys.”
Swicegood, a husky 6’-0” player who always played hard, nodded understanding. Justice was his boyhood friend. He was a future All-American tailback. The two had been friends and teammates at Lee Edwards in Asheville, where both had earned All State honors and Shrine Bowl appearances. This was just a practice, after all.
On the next snap, Swicegood again knocked a defensive lineman on his tail.
Peggy Swicegood smiles when Joe tells the story. She knows her husband is a singularly determined individual who, like his late friend Charlie, plays as hard as he works. She respects that. They met by accident, when she accompanied a friend to a blind date with another young man. “They didn’t get along,” Peggy says. “But Joe and I did.”
Peggy is a singularly attractive Southern lady whose age is off limits to this article. The love between them is apparent to everyone they meet. Joe got himself a good one.
The Swicegoods are the founders and owners of Little Pigs Bar-B-Que on McDowell St. in Asheville. Since its opening in 1963, Little Pigs has set the standard for good BBQ, friendly, professional service and prompt, efficient catering. The walls are covered with photos and newspaper clippings of Joe, his family and his employees serving the rich and famous as well as the common man. It has been a full life, one that overflows with the love they have given and received in 55 years of marriage and 49 years in business.
Like most men of his generation, Swicegood’s football career after high school had been interrupted by World War II.
“I think every boy in my class was drafted into the Army or went into the Navy the day they graduated,” Swicegood says. “I got on the bus with all the rest of them. It was my 18th birthday.”
Swicegood went through basic training and was shipped off to join the 3rd Infantry Regiment in Europe. He says by the time he got there it was mostly mopping up operations. “I wasn’t any hero,” he says.
He remembers playing on a football team that had a brief moment of fame on November 10, 1945. “We had a pretty good team that played in Berlin in the Olympic Stadium. In November, the day before Armistice Day, we played in Frankfort. General Eisenhower was there, walking up and down the sidelines. I was just a high school player and some of those guys had played in college, or as professionals. I didn’t get to play much, but I’ll never forget being there with the General on the sidelines.”
Joe’s football career at Carolina was brief. He became the team’s center when the starting center Chan Highsmith broke his back. Swicegood went in the game wearing long mud cleats and promptly broke his ankle in Virginia when he got hit from the side. He didn’t get to play any more, transferring to Rollins College the next year. “Choo Choo” Justice went on to play for the Washington Redskins. He often told Joe he could have played in the NFL.
“I wasn’t interested in any of that,” Swicegood says. “When I got out of college I got a job with the Retail Credit Bureau in Asheville. That’s where I was working when I met Peggy. Then I went with AT&T. I was real lucky to get that job. I did several different things. For a while I sold ads. Then I was in charge of pay stations all the way up to Boone. I had to make sure they were in the right locations, were clean and had telephone books. In those days with all the guys getting out of the Army you were lucky to have a job with a big company, but I didn’t like it. I always knew I wanted to be my own boss.”
Swicegood got into the business when he saw an ad in the Asheville Citizen-Times for a Little Pigs BBQ franchise. “I didn’t think I knew much about the business part,” Joe admits. “But I knew I could do the cooking. My mother and grandmother were both great cooks. We bought the franchise to get us started.”
Like most entrepreneurs, Swicegood was doing what he had to do. “We had three children at the time,” Peggy recalls. “I was scared to death, but I knew Joe had to do it and I told him to go ahead.”
Swicegood’s business judgment was as right as his recipes. “When we opened,” Joe says, “we had people lined up outside the store every day just waiting to get their food.”
The Swicegoods knew the restaurant would be successful. Joe says he knew that the first day when he saw the lines. For the next 49 years people would often be lined up outside the Little Pigs door, or at some event they were catering, eagerly waiting for their food, chatting with Joe or Peggy or one of their staff members or three children. Little Pigs was good food, good fun and very often there would be a bluegrass band somewhere in the vicinity. Bluegrass, Bar-B-Que and Little Pigs. It all just fit together.
Today, sitting in their main dining room, Joe and Peggy look back at their career with some astonishment at just how well it all went.
“This was a Pure Oil station,” Joe says. “It was owned by Mrs. Helen Gray of Biltmore, mother of Dickie Gray. She was a wonderful person. She had it for sale for quite a while but I couldn’t buy it. I didn’t have the money and nobody would loan me any. They said it was too far out of town. Mrs. Gray asked me if I wanted to rent it. I said I would if I could get a three-year lease with an option to buy. I agreed to buy it the first year but didn’t pay it all until the end of the third year. I needed the money to operate the business.”
Peggy remembers the floor plan was awkward. “It was an old service station and the rest rooms were outside. When you came in the service counter was where the gas station’s grease pit had been. Joe added this room. We had the cooker in the back.”
While Swicegood’s business was good his relationship with the franchiser wasn’t. After a short period of time the Swicegoods and other franchisees in South Carolina decided to leave them and go their own way. “They didn’t know what they were doing,” Swicegood says. “They wanted us to set up these little school desk chairs so people could eat alone. Then they told us to put soft drink vending machines in the store. I said no and put in tables and a soda fountain. We got together with the other folks and just decided it was time to leave. I think some of them are still in business.”
“I always knew that everything I bought had to be top quality,” Joe says. “We catered for Buck Buchanan who had a lot of food service. He owned Buck’s and had the contract at one of the big mills in Swannanoa. We catered for lots of presidents when they came to town, and for the Cecils at the Biltmore House. We catered for everybody including Billy Graham.
“We did all the Biltmore Estate’s catering before they had restaurants. We’d cater their movies and company parties in that big room downstairs in the Biltmore House.
“We did a big event for Lefty Driesel. We catered for two thousand people at the Civic Center, for Jimmy Carter, for Bob Dole and Jesse Helms and for lots of other politicians. You have to be down the middle in that.”
Peggy recalls that Joe often worked 24 hours a day back when Asheville had large companies that were running three shifts. “Joe would be at Glen Raven Mills, Ball Brothers, Gerber, lots of plants. He worked all three shifts. The people had to eat and Joe always tried to be there for them.”
Through the years, Little Pigs became known as the go-to guys for all outdoor or on-site catering. But that didn’t seem to interfere with the in-store restaurant business.
“We kept our customers, because we’ve always had a good quality product,” Joe says. “That’s the number one requirement. You have to serve good food. I remember Mr. Albert Briggs was one of our clients. He is from Burnsville and runs a land development company. He would have his clients fly into the Asheville airport. Of course they could eat anywhere, but they’d come here as soon as they got off the plane. We still have people who do that.
“We’ve had private parties here. Michael Jordan came in one time and had a group of 40 or so with him. We had the police here just to help insure his privacy. Dave Bristol has been here lots of times. They were all very nice people. It has been a great business, and we have just made so many friends that it’s hard to remember them all.”
Opal Black, a Hendersonville real estate agent and Realtor, remembers that as a young girl at her first job in Asheville the office workers would send her over to Little Pigs to get lunch. “If you called it in ahead of time you didn’t have to wait,” Black says. “They always had it ready when I got there. They’d have each order in a little bag and then the whole order would be in two grocery bags. They always got it right. Sometimes they’d throw in some extra. We loved Little Pigs.”
Joe and Peggy have three children. Carr, the youngest, owns and operates the Market Center convenience stores. Hope, the middle daughter is a Realtor who has built a successful real estate career with Beverly-Hanks. Michele is the oldest daughter, married to a businessman in Cleveland, Ohio. The Swicegoods have special stories about each child and also about each of their nine grandchildren.
One story is perhaps more special than the others. If you saw the movie “Blind Side” then you’ll appreciate the story of Michele and the youngster she and her family took in, Reggie King. Thanks to the love they have in their hearts, King moved from a drug-infested home in Chicago to live with his adopted family in Cleveland. Three months later, in public school, Reggie was elected president of his class. The next year Michele enrolled him at Christ School, where he played basketball with the Plumlee brothers. After graduating he enrolled at Winthrop University where he continued his studies and plays basketball for the Winthrop Eagles.
“We love what we do,” Peggy says as our interview ends. Joe has jumped up to speak with customers. Staff members are cleaning up after the lunch crowd. Peggy gives a quick tour of the kitchen, including a long look at the new Bar-B-Que cooker they installed the night before. Joe packs the writer a nice bag of goodies to take with him.
You can’t help but notice that as in Aesop’s Fables, this Little Pig’s house is made of bricks. The big bad wolf of the highly volatile restaurant business has huffed and puffed at it for 49 years but hasn’t been able to blow it down. As long as there’s a Swicegood at the helm, Little Pigs is here to stay.