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Palmetto Cheese: New plant will take Pawleys product west

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

When Palmetto Cheese was in its infancy, ex-boxer George Easterling mixed it in a big steel bowl in the kitchen at Sea View Inn on Pawleys Island.

He was a friend of Vertrella Brown, a cook at the inn, and used a steel kitchen spoon to mix the grated cheddar and other ingredients in a way that preserved its texture. Not too mushy, Easterling told Southern Living magazine in 2010.

Palmetto Cheese owners Brian and Sassy Henry — they also own Sea View Inn and the takeout food business Get Carried Away — have been selling the “pimento cheese with soul” for a decade now, and production is measured in tons at their contract packer, Duke Food Productions near Easley. It’s still the mixing that makes Palmetto Cheese different, according to Scott Smart, vice president of operations at Duke. “The ingredients are not the hard part,” he said during a tour of the company’s modern, 80,000-square-foot plant. “They’re scalable as percentages. What’s hard is the actual mixing.”

Smart, like the boxer years ago, knows that too much stirring will make the product mushy. Mixing machines have taken the place of Easterling’s strong right arm, but Duke Food Productions tries to replicate his finished product. “You can easily over-mix and under-mix,” Smart said. “You’ve got to whip the cream cheese out without destroying everything else.”

Texture and taste — the original flavor has a little heat to it and jalapeno has, well, more. They have made Palmetto Cheese different enough to establish it as the leading brand in a food category that evokes warm and fuzzy memories. A new bacon flavor adds to the conversation, because who doesn’t like bacon?

Pimento cheese, for some, is very personal and a memory of a warm kitchen at grandma’s house. This “pâté of the South” is in almost every church cookbook. Sassy Henry made her recipe for Atlanta Braves tailgating, but her husband, Louisiana native Brian, briefly claimed he preferred his mother’s pimento cheese. Wisely, he became a convert. They began serving her distinctive blend at Sea View Inn in 2003. Brown, the cook, gave the recipe some “soul,” according to company lore, and customer demand began. Brown’s picture remains on the container lid. The name itself is a delightful bit of happenstance, a mispronunciation of “pimento” that could only occur in the Palmetto State.

“Pimento cheese is such a memory food for people,” Brian Henry said. “It’s a unique treat when people get together with family or special occasions. We’re selling the memory, the mystique. It’s hard to imagine something as simple as pimento cheese having a mystique, but it does.”

The Henrys have brought Palmetto Cheese into the national limelight — it’s going into 800 Winn-Dixie stores this month — in a way that would have been impossible a decade ago. Word-of-mouth and social media have made it the best selling pimento cheese in the nation, sold in 6,900 stores in 37 states. It’s constantly being mentioned on lists of iconic Southern foods like RC Cola and Moon Pies.

The first national notoriety came with a story in USA Today’s business section about small companies using social media. “Man, that was a huge hit for us,” Henry said.

The next milestone was the decision by Publix to carry Palmetto Cheese in all its stores, rather than just its regional ones. Henry no longer had to deliver it. Another break came two years ago when Palmetto Cheese and Fritos were opponents in a Garden and Gun magazine snack food contest. Even though Fritos won the “Battle of the Brands” vote, Palmetto Cheese won a ton of publicity and credibility as a “quintessential Southern brand” in the eyes of the magazine’s subscribers and on social media.

Just last month, Palmetto Cheese was named one of Costco’s 14 best buys for summer. Of course, containers sold at Costco and Sam’s Club are the brand’s biggest: 24 ounces.

Growth has occurred organically, according to Henry. The company didn’t try and grow quickly, just rode the wave, he said. As an operations executive for Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Henry learned about product loyalty and branding from the best in the business. “During my career at Coca-Cola, people said you need to be in sales. Palmetto Cheese put that in motion. Every interaction along the way has been a sale. Coca-Cola gave me the professional experience. Palmetto Cheese gave me a chance to have a blank slate to do whatever we want,” he said.

Finding Duke Food Productions to mix, package and ship the product, has allowed Henry to focus on what he enjoys. Again, it was good fortune. The Henrys interviewed three potential manufacturers and gave each the ingredients and instructions under a confidentiality agreement. “Not even close,” Henry described their mixtures.

John Mack of Duke Food Productions had purchased some Palmetto Cheese in Greenville and called Henry about packaging it. Experienced in ready-to-eat salads, the Duke company nailed the mixture. “Finding them was a godsend,” Henry said.

Duke Food Productions is planning to open a second facility in Texas next year to push Palmetto Cheese and its own products westward to California.

Palmetto Cheese is the packer’s biggest customer, but it produces spreads and bakery products for about 20 others and themselves. Duke sandwich spreads were spun off after the company’s signature mayonnaise was sold to the C.F. Sauer Co. in 1929. Smart’s great-uncle bought the sandwich business, and it evolved into ready-to-eat products sold in supermarkets: pimento cheese, chicken salad, egg salad and a cream cheese and pineapple spread.

Company officials Mack and Andrew Smart decided they could do a better job of making, mixing and packing their foods than their contractors. “They would go in there,” Scott Smart said, “and as long as they stood over those people they could get what they wanted. They’d leave, and the stuff would be over-mixed or under-mixed. They decided we could do this ourselves, and that’s how they got started.”

Their first facility in Simpsonville was able to handle Palmetto Cheese when it began with 200 pounds a week. Now it’s 200,000 — that includes OMG onion dip — with a market extending from Massachusetts to Texas. The plant employs 150 people.

Those handling Palmetto Cheese work in a constant 34 degrees. “It’s never out of refrigeration,” Smart said. Cold-chain custody is part of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act passed in 2011. It is just coming into full force, he said, because it is so strict in its requirements under the USDA and FDA.

Smart said food products made at the facility constantly undergo “sensory analysis” to see that they meet the standards of taste, smell and visual appeal. They ship containers of cheese overnight to the Henrys for their opinions. “If there’s ever a question of food safety,” Smart said, “that batch goes away.” Every container passes under a metal detector in case a tiny shard from a tin can made its way inside. A third-party sanitation crew cleans the plant overnight.

“They check every box as far as sanitation and food safety goes,” Henry said. “We wouldn’t be where we are without them.”

Other business news: Fashion: Canadian designer’s pants enjoy bipartisan support

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