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A Mississippi man’s bait shop transitions to popular eatery

March 4, 2018

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — For the past eight years, Clay Coleman has been selling bait and tackle at a little shop on Veterans Boulevard in east Tupelo, Mississippi.

While business is good in spring, summer and fall, the cold weather just about shuts him down.

“It slows down or completely stops in the wintertime,” said Coleman, 46. “I needed an alternate source of income.”

Last May, Coleman began selling barbecue sandwiches and ribs out of a warmer to his customers with the hope they’d come back to eat with him when winter rolled around.

“I could not believe the response and how people were reacting to my food,” he said. “God has just about blessed me to death. But I’m having a ball. I hope Tupelo likes me as much as I like them.”

When he first opened the restaurant in one side of Clay’s Bait and Tackle, he was smoking eight Boston butts a week. Now he does somewhere around 75 butts a week, along with four briskets, 40 pounds of sausage, 30 slabs of ribs and 120 pounds of rib tips.

The meat at C.H.O.P., or Clay’s House of Pig, is cooked on a grill his father made.

“I was probably 6 or so when I helped him build his first grill and we’ve been cooking ever since,” Coleman said. “Me and my brother and my dad are always sharing recipes and rubs and ideas. We’ve been developing our rub for over 40 years.”

His father lives in Tennessee and his brother is in South Carolina. The three used to do the competition circuit, but they’re over that now.

“I’d rather feed friends and family and now customers,” he said. “I always strive to make my food better. I’m a one-trick pony and that’s the only trick I have.”

The grill is on permanent loan from his father.

“The flavors coming out of Dad’s grill are fantastic,” Coleman said. “I could give somebody that grill and they couldn’t duplicate what we’re doing. I could give somebody my recipes and they couldn’t make it exactly as I make it on their own grill. The grill and our recipes go together.”

The best-seller on the menu is the whole baked potato, which is seasoned with sea salt and black pepper and topped with queso, chopped pork and a Memphis-style barbecue sauce.

Other popular items are the barbecue nachos, ribs, rib tips, brisket, link sausage and, of course, his signature chopped pork.

“We smoke our butts over 100-year-old pecan wood that’s been cured for a minimum of six months,” he said. “When it’s done, it has this black crust on it, so when you chop the meat, you see white meat, dark meat, pink meat and black meat.”

Homemade sides include baked beans, coleslaw and loaded baked potato salad.

“I’d love to be able to serve chicken but I don’t have room to expand the menu because there’s no room to expand the kitchen,” he said. “I’ll expand the menu when I can expand the kitchen.”

C.H.O.P.’s customers come from all over Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.

“We had a girl come here from North Carolina to visit people in Tennessee,” he said. “They drove down to Tupelo to come here. It was three hours out of her way to get here. It’s not unusual for folks to tell us they’ve driven from 100 miles away to eat with us.”

The majority of his customers during the week are regulars and the out-of-towners usually find him on the weekends.

“You’ll have the assistant D.A. with a suit on sit down beside a guy who’s been rolling around under a car all day and covered in grease,” Coleman said. “When they leave, they’ll both have grease on them. All my customers get along here. I’m more proud of that than I am my barbecue.”

Coleman makes it a point to speak to as many customers as he can each day.

“I want them to feel like they’re eating at my house, eating in my yard,” he said.

Becky Weatherford of Tupelo is a regular at Clay’s House of Pig. She’s had the rib tips, the barbecue baked potato and the chopped pork.

“The rib tips are my favorite,” she said. “Very few people can do them correctly. My dad had a barbecue restaurant in Tupelo for years and I haven’t found any to match his until now.”

The restaurant is open Monday-Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Thursday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and beginning Saturday, it will be open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had with this restaurant,” Coleman said. “I’ve spent all my adult life being professional and walking the line. I decided if it goes, it goes, and if it fails, it fails. I’ve got a Plan B and a Plan C ready. This is God’s deal here. I just manage the chaos.”

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