By Tonya Dixon
Photos by Howard Gaither
If anyone knows anything about North Carolina, they know when it comes to barbeque most natives are notoriously opposed to anything other than chopped, pork barbeque. In fact, some may go so far as to say its not really barbeque if it’s not pork.
However, according to Mike Neal the best barbeque begins and ends with the best in fresh birds — turkey that is. That’s right, turkey. Neal is certifiably a North Carolina native, Durham to be exact, but his loyalty belongs to the turkey. “Turkey BBQ is healthier than the pork alternative. Health issues that run in our community were the main inspiration to perfect turkey,” he says.
Neal is the owner and operator of Hickory Tree Turkey BBQ located in Greensboro. The takeout restaurant, food trucks, and catering service is quickly becoming the go-to spot for all things turkey barbeque. From pulled and chopped turkey to turkey ribs, to fried turkey to turkey crackling to turkey wings and chili, Hickory Tree is in the novel business of sumptuous turkey. Add in amazing and delicious sides (most with a unique smoked turkey flavor) such as collard greens, mac & cheese, baked beans and even turkey dip, Neal and his crew have turkey barbeque covered. They call it healthy, delicious, and southern-inspired.
The turkey is slowly smoked over hickory and oak wood and has a bit of an eastern-style flavor. That’s about as much as Neal will divulge about his process and recipe. According to Neal, turkey is an extremely versatile meat. Still, some naysayers try to convince him otherwise, namely those who have never tried Hickory Tree. Moreover, all it takes is for patrons to get one taste, and most are hooked; the method becomes all but insignificant.
It was never in his plans to become a restauranteur, but Neal says it just fell into his lap. He has always been a pitmaster in his own right but admits there’s a big difference between cooking for fun than as an owner.
“It was never in the cards to have a barbecue business. I always barbequed and smoked for fun. It is just so that the stars aligned. Something happened and all of a sudden I’m operating a turkey barbeque restaurant,” says Neal. “I always say there’s a bit of audacity one must have in order to operate a barbeque restaurant in North Carolina and not sell pork because it’s all about pork here. It does give me space to be innovative.”
On any given weekend I would tell my wife I was going to put something on the grill and my wife, being probably the most extroverted person I’ve ever seen, would say okay, I think I’ll invite a few people, and then before you know it there will be 50 or 60 people at the house, but, of course, it’s a bit different when you do it for a business.”
Once a hard-core pork enthusiast, Neal says he still enjoys a good pork barbeque sandwich but admits that what he’s doing is pretty special as well. He has competed in the “Memphis in May World BBQ Competition” where he placed higher than many well-known pitmasters.
Neal is a chemical engineer by profession with several years of experience in the corporate sector as well as manufacturing. The same processes he used years ago when he had the assignment of making batches of Crest toothpaste for P&G are the same processes he uses within his business. He says, the ingredients are different, but the processes are very much alike.
“I like to have standards and procedures or SOP’s. It all comes in handy, so I can draw on my previous experience. Ultimately, the goal is that every bite tastes exactly the same every time. But my Achilles heel is that I’m never satisfied with how something tastes, but I’m well on my way to perfection,” he says.
There aren’t too many people who have ventured into the unknowns of turkey barbeque, but Neal knows that he has tapped into something unique with enormous room to grow. Not only that, but his patrons recognize it too. Most can’t get enough of, well basically, everything. He jokes that when he first introduced his now famous turkey ribs, he was met with virtually the same response, “It’s great, but I didn’t know turkeys had ribs.” Neal is confident in his ability to continually innovate and perfect his craft.
“We do turkeys and that’s all we do. We are experts at turkey. We live and breathe turkey so we have to be really good at what we do because we aren’t falling back on pork,” Neal says. “And there is so much room to grow in turkey. We are known for innovation. Customers always come in and ask what’s new on the menu because we are always innovating.”
In less than two years that Neal has been in operation, he has seen tremendous growth in the Hickory Tree Turkey BBQ brand. Catering (for weddings to businesses to family reunions) has increased, restaurant traffic has multiplied and the food truck can often be spotted at various festivals and events and Neal is extremely proud that his barbeque recently won second place at the North Carolina Food Truck Competition, which is no small feat.
It’s no doubt that Neal has the culinary chops to fit the bill, but he backs it all up with a rather impressive education and resume. It’s all part of his master plan. “Education is my tool. I’m using the tool to work the process, not necessarily the destination,” he says.
The success of Hickory Tree is a family. Mike’s daughter, who is nine, often greets customers during her time out of school. They also discuss new turkey products as a family. His mother-in-law bakes pies during the holiday and his three-year-old son sometimes holds the door for customers. Neal also credits his team of employees for helping to make Hickory Tree successful.
“Every day is Thanksgiving at Hickory Tree Turkey BBQ,” says Neal. “Although we do turkeys all year, Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday because it is unadulterated and it is a time when our business gives back by adopting families to provide with Thanksgiving meals. This is truly a ministry all within itself.” Neal wants everyone to include Hickory Tree in their holiday meal plans. They are selling smoked or fried turkeys starting at $55 for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They will also have sides of his wife’s famous mac-n-cheese, dressing, collards, and potato salad to go along with the turkeys.