More than a Southern spread: Pimento cheese isn’t just for picnics anymore.
by Katherine Snow Smith
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 must have tasted the delicacy sometime before or after his much-publicized visit to the Thirsty Beaver Saloon on Central Avenue.
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.
There are countless variations, of course, on the basic ingredients of cheese, mayonnaise and pimento peppers, and North Carolina entrepreneurs are creating distinct varieties that are becoming 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. Morgan’s products are mostly sold in the South, but he has also seen 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 lineup includes original, jalapeno, blue cheese and bacon varieties.
“It’s like mass psychosis,” he says. “Anybody who tries it — it doesn’t matter where they are from — they realize it’s good.”
Greensboro-based MyThreeSons Gourmet pimento cheese, which comes in original, spicy white cheddar and jalapeno flavors, is sold in small shops and large supermarkets in 20 states, including local Harris Teeters and Whole Foods Market stores.
“It’s in Whole Foods in Hawaii, believe it or not,” says CEO Dr. Cheryl Barnett, who is a 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 the pimento 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 Ruth’s Salads, which has been making its widely distributed spread since 1953.
Pimento cheese has come a long way since then. There are 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.
Martini drinkers will taste a touch of it in the “Backhanded Compliment” cocktail at Lenoir, the 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, best known for her PBS series, A Chef’s Life. She credits acclaimed Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen with much of the newfound respect for pimento, 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. Many of her customers have Southern roots. “There are Southern expats all over the country,” she says. “Pimento cheese tastes like home. I mean, who doesn’t like a good cheese spread?”
Jumpstart from Jeopardy
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 holiday shows, women’s shows and food trade shows 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.”
The pandemic slowed growth, but it 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.
“We definitely have this (Great) Depression mentality,” Morgan says. “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.”
“It’s like mass psychosis,” says John Morgan, founder of Queen Charlotte’s Pimento Cheese Royale. “Anybody who tries it —
it doesn’t matter where they are from — they realize it’s good.”
Farmer’s 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. 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. But by the time she passed the required inspection and packaging was ready, no tables were available at the farmers market. So Barnett called The Fresh Market.
“I knew they had a reputation for supporting local products,” she says. By October 2010, MyThreeSons pimento cheese was for sale in a limited number of Fresh Market stores in the Triad.
Barnett hired demonstrators to hand out samples for a few hours at a time in other stores. The taste tests usually sold out within an hour or two. She landed contracts with Whole Foods, Lowes Foods and Harris Teeter in 2011, and has since moved production from her guest house to a local business incubator.
Publix locations started carrying Barnett’s pimento cheese in 2019. 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.”
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.
The UNC Greensboro graduate worked as a caterer until the recession hit.
“In 2008 when the economy went bust, I lost over half my accounts,” she says. “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 put her products in 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.” Adams uses sharp American cheese, mayonnaise and roasted red peppers in her pimento cheese.
She added coleslaw, smoked barbecue slaw and potato salad to her offerings. She hired tasters to share the products with customers, who in turn begged store managers to carry Southern Taste 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 Taste’s 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.” SP
Featured photograph: A pimento-cheese trio from Queen Charlotte’s Pimento Cheese Royale. Photograph by Peter Taylor