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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Pimento cheese’s spreading popularity boosts N.C. food startups

Even Mick Jagger had to try it.

“I sucked down some pimento cheese,” he told thousands of fans at Bank of America Stadium when the Rolling Stones played in Charlotte late last year. The 78-year-old tasted the delicacy sometime before or after his much-publicized visit to the Queen City’s Thirsty Beaver Saloon.

Why wouldn’t Jagger order up some pimento cheese? He’s a rock star, not living under a rock. Pimento cheese has appeared on more menus and supermarket shelves in recent years. It’s not just for picnic sandwiches and bridge games anymore, nor is it just a Southern dip.

Rather, it’s a cash crop for North Carolina entrepreneurs who are creating distinctive variations of grated cheese melded with mayonnaise to create a staple in refrigerators from coast to coast. 

“Pimento cheese has been thought of as a regional peculiarity for so long, but it’s something that has taken hold all over,” says John Morgan, CEO of Queen Charlotte’s Pimento Cheese Royale. The Charlotte business still sells most of its product in the South but also cites success in Massachusetts, Ohio and nearly two dozen other states.

Morgan and four employees make 7,000 10-ounce containers of pimento cheese each week at a 6,000-square-foot warehouse in Charlotte. His repertoire includes original, jalapeno, blue cheese and bacon varieties. 

 “It’s like mass psychosis,” he says.”Any body who tries it — it doesn’t matter where they are from — they realize it’s good.”

Dr. Cheryl Barnett, CEO of Greensboro-based MyThreeSons Gourmet, also benefits from national demand for her pimento cheese, which comes in original, spicy white cheddar and jalapeno flavors. Small shops and large supermarkets carry the brand in 20 states.

“It’s in Whole Foods in Hawaii, believe it or not,” says Barnett, who is the mother of three sons. “My son was skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho, and it was for sale there. It’s also made it to Big Sky, Montana.”  

Home is where pimento cheese is

Long before pimento cheese gained national popularity, it was a regular on the crustless sandwich circuit and comfort food in Grandma’s Formica kitchen. The simple concoction was also a staple in commissaries and lunch pails at Carolinas factories for generations. A pimento cheese pioneer has been Charlotte-based, family-owned Ruth’s Salads, which has made its widely distributed spread since 1953.

Pimento cheese has come a long way since then. There’s pimento cheese quesadillas, pimento cheese on a biscuit or bagel, grilled pimento cheese, pimento cheese on deviled eggs, pimento mac-n-cheese, fried chicken stuffed with pimento cheese and pimento-cheese poppers.

Queen_Charlotte_pimento_cheese
Queen Charlotte’s pimento cheese is produced in its 6,000-square-foot Charlotte facility.

Martini drinkers will taste a touch of it in the Backhanded Compliment cocktail at Lenoir, a Charleston, S.C., restaurant that Kinston chef Vivian Howard opened last spring.

“The head bartender has a terrible allergy to blue cheese, so we stuff our olives with pimento cheese,” says Howard, who gained renown for her PBS series, A Chef’s Life. 

She credits acclaimed Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen with much of the newfound respect for pimento cheese, along with other Southern favorites. “[She] showed how to put your own spin on it,” Howard says. “Southern food really began being seen nationwide as something worth talking about and exploring more with her.”

Howard ships cookbooks and Southern foods nationally through her online store with many customers having Southern roots. “There are Southern expats all over the country. Pimento cheese tastes like home. I mean, who doesn’t like a good cheese spread?”  

There are countless variations, of course, on the basic ingredients of cheese, mayonnaise and pimento peppers. 

“We use sharp American cheese and real mayonnaise. We use roasted red peppers, not just pimento. We chop and roast them ourselves,” says Loretta Adams, CEO of Southern Taste Food Products in Kernersville.

Entrepreneurs and cheese

A great product is only the beginning for success, of course. Repeat production with continuous quality, coupled with increased demand, are essential. 

Owners of three N.C. pimento cheese companies — an art teacher, an orthodontist and a caterer — started their businesses for different reasons but share similar stories of countless taste tests with friends and family, then hundreds of cold calls to retailers and subsequent sampling events.

Queen Charlotte’s Morgan has always loved cooking, but he didn’t enjoy pimento cheese as a youth. Things changed when he tinkered with his own recipe while in college. Later as an art teacher in Union County, he started making big batches of pimento cheese for friends, holidays and Super Bowl parties.

“I took some of the things I didn’t like about it, when it was too mayonnaise-y, and when it got completely pulverized into a homogeneous spread, and I turned them on their head.”

For kicks, he landed a spot on the Jeopardy TV show in 2014. He was leading a five-day defending champion heading into the last question, which was in the category of museums. “I teach art. I looked at my friends in the audience like: ‘I’ve got this.’” 

Had he known Belfast was the home to a Titanic museum, he might not have ended up in the pimento cheese business. But the Final Jeopardy clue was vague. Another player had visited the Irish venue and won. 

“I ended up winning a couple thousand bucks. If I’d won any more than that, I probably wouldn’t have been so smart with it,” Morgan says. “I got enough money to buy a 30-quart mixer and I was off to the races.” 

A year later, he quit his job to focus on Queen Charlotte’s. His major breaks were getting rights to supply 140 Food Lion stores in 2017, followed the next year by a deal with Harris Teeter. “We started in a few stores in March 2018 and by the end of 2018, we were in the full Charlotte market.” By 2020, 200 Harris Teeter stores were offering the product. 

Attending hundreds of food trade shows, holiday shows and women’s shows had paid off. “I’m not afraid to make a cold call,” Morgan attests. “We sent samples to every buyer, to every distributor. If they haven’t heard of us, it’s because they haven’t opened their email in a while.” 

COVID-19 slowed growth but also made Queen Charlotte’s smarter and leaner. Last year’s final quarter was the company’s best ever. The product is now rolling out in hundreds of Kroger stores as far west as Texas.

“I’m really proud of the efficiencies we’ve made, that we can do all this with four people,” Morgan says. “We definitely have
this (Great) Depression mentality. We’ve learned to survive without a lot. We started out not knowing anything about this business; then we had a once-in-a-century pandemic that’s still not over. We are penny-pinchers, and we run a tight ship.”

Farmers market dream

MyThreeSons started with a sample handed to a Fresh Market buyer in Greensboro and encouragement from Barnett’s youngest son, Michael. 

Back injuries forced her to retire as an orthodontist in 2009 after 14 years of practice. Michael, then 9, reminded his mom that she had always thought that local grocers should carry a homemade pimento cheese brand. She started with plans to rent half a table at the Greensboro Farmers Market for about $15. 

“It was going to be a little entrepreneurship lesson for him, and he was so excited,” she says.

First, she had to pass an N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services inspection. “I had to make a few alterations to my pet-free, guest-house kitchen,” including installing shatterproof light bulbs. By the time the kitchen passed inspection and packaging was ready, no tables were available at the Farmers Market.

“Michael was so disappointed, so I ended up calling the Fresh Market. I knew they had a reputation for supporting local products.”

MyThreeSons pimento cheese
MyThreeSons’ original spread is made with extra sharp cheddar, spices and mayonnaise.

The Fresh Market buyer loved it but set another long list of requirements for insurance, testing, labels and other things. She also needed to tweak the recipe so it could be made in bulk.

By October 2010, MyThreeSons pimento cheese was for sale in a limited number of Fresh Market stores in the Triad.

“The buyer later told me she hears back from very few people after she gives them that list of requirements,” says Barnett. Guidance from Beth Ward of Sarah’s Salsa and Clay Howard at the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship and others in Greensboro was helpful.

Barnett hired demonstrators to hand out samples for a few hours at a time in other independent and chain stores. The taste tests usually sold out within an hour or two. She landed contracts with Whole Foods Market, Lowes Foods and Harris Teeter in 2011, prompting her to move production from her guest house to the Nussbaum Center in Greensboro.

 “We had so much to learn. Harris Teeter held my hand every step of the way,” she says. Visits to the company’s perishable distribution center taught her about process and safety requirements. “If our products arrived a 10th of a degree above what’s considered safe, they would be rejected.”  

Publix locations started carrying Barnett’s pimento cheese in 2019. Barnett declines to give an employee count. One of her sons is the company’s production manager. “Everything that’s happened — every single door that’s opened — is still shocking to me.” 

Door-to-door determination

Loretta Adams has been in the food business since she started waiting tables at a Kernersville seafood restaurant at age 15, but she’s amazed at the progress of her company, Southern Taste Food Products.

She earned a business degree at UNC Greensboro with a specialization in food service, then worked as a caterer. 

“In 2008 when the economy went bust, I lost over half my accounts. So I took my grandmother’s chicken salad recipe, put it in a tub and started knocking on doors.” After selling to friends and neighbors, she gave a sample to a local Lowes Foods store manager. 

The Winston-Salem-based chain “gave me two stores. Then I started trying different variations of pimento cheese. I went through 10 different recipes and had friends and family trying it,” she says. “I came up with my Carolina Pimento cheese and haven’t changed it.”

She added coleslaw, smoked barbecue slaw and potato salad to her offerings. A key growth strategy was hiring tasters to share products with customers, who in turn begged store managers to carry Southern Foods brands.  

Business doubled during the pandemic. 

“Grocery store shelves went bare. I think people who were used to buying something else had to try us and then they stuck with us,” Adams says. “That’s when we started busting it. I went in at 3 a.m. (to make food) and at 8 p.m. the day ended.” 

Southern Foods’ products are now sold at most of the 81 Lowes Foods stores, more than a dozen Harris Teeters, a handful of Food Lions and several independent stores. 

“The main problem we’re having right now is running out of stock.”

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