Family stories behind our summer staples.
This summer, if you’re feeling cheery, cheesy, spicy or nutty, you can match your mood with a product made right here in the Carolinas.
Cheerwine® is one of those companies with roots that run deep in the Carolina soil. In 1917, L.D. Peeler, who owned a general store in Salisbury, N.C., came up with a new soft drink, one with a hint of cherry flavor. He called it Cheerwine. Ninety-eight years later, the drink is still manufactured in Salisbury, and the fifth generation of the Peeler family is involved in running the business.
For almost a century Cheerwine has held its own against Coke™ and Pepsi™. “In the land of the giants, this independent family-owned brand is still in there,” says Tom Barbitta, Cheerwine’s senior vice president of marketing and sales. “We are the antithesis of the large corporation.”
Cheerwine’s unique taste is part of the reason it’s still around, Barbitta says. Not strictly a cherry soda, certainly not a cherry cola, Cheerwine has no taste competitors. “It’s one of those flavors you can’t describe,” Barbitta says. “It’s a flavor all its own. If it tasted like other drinks, it probably wouldn’t still be here.”
Once available only in the Carolinas, Cheerwine is sold in 20 states, mostly in the Southeast. Individual glass bottles of Cheerwine, made with cane sugar, are found nationwide, mostly in eclectic food and coffee shops, Barbitta says. “That little glass bottle is a great little secret weapon,” he says, adding that people often try the drink in the bottle and start asking for more. Cheerwine’s expansion is fueled in part by people who have lived in the Carolinas and miss the drink when they move away.
“We are a brand of the people,” Barbitta says. “For a lot of people, Cheerwine tastes like home. It takes them back. It’s for people who have lived here or wish they had lived here.”
Sharing a taste of her home led Sassy Henry into a surprising business opportunity. Sassy and her husband, Brian Henry, own Palmetto Cheese®. About 13 years ago, the Henrys moved from Atlanta to Pawleys Island, S.C., to operate the Sea View Inn, a fixture on the island since 1937. Sassy started serving her own pimento cheese recipe with Ritz crackers as an appetizer at the inn’s weekly Lowcountry seafood boil. It was a hit.
She had tinkered with the recipe for years. She combined elements of a cheese straw recipe and traditional pimento cheese recipe with some inspiration from the iconic Georgia Plains cheese ring. The result was a unique pimento cheese (“not so mayonnaise-y,” she says) that really caught on with Sea View guests.
Those who sampled Sea View’s pimento cheese wanted some to take home. The Henrys decided to start a side business, preparing containers of the pimento cheese to sell at the inn and around the island.
“We had no grandiose expectation,” Sassy says. “We really didn’t,” Brian says. “We just had a sincere belief in the product, and I think that’s a requirement – a belief in your product. And patience.”
The Henrys named the product Palmetto Cheese: The Pimento Cheese with Soul – “Palmetto” as a nod to South Carolina, “pimento cheese,” because that’s what’s in the container, and “with soul,” for Vertrella Brown, the woman pictured on the label.
Brown is a Henry family friend and the cook at Sea View who took Sassy’s original recipe and whipped up those crowd-pleasing batches of pimento cheese that inspired the business. And, Brian says, for many people, “palmetto cheese” became shorthand for the Sea View Inn’s pimento cheese.
After a few years, word about Palmetto Cheese began to spread. Customers left the coast with containers and took them to their local grocery stores, asking them to stock it. It worked.
Today, Palmetto Cheese is available in over 6,000 stores in 35 states. It outgrew the Sea View kitchen years ago and now Duke Food Productions in Easley, S.C., produces about 120,000 containers each week. In addition to the original recipe, there’s a jalapeño version and a version with bacon. Original is still the top seller, Brian says, but jalapeño is a close second.
The unexpected growth of Palmetto Cheese has given the Henrys financial freedom and the ability to give back to the community, which is a priority for the couple. They’re still a little surprised that a food they enjoyed as a tailgate treat before Braves games has taken off as it has.
“If you grew up in the South, you probably grew up with pimento cheese,” Brian says. “It really resonates with people. It’s a memory food.”
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The heavily traveled Interstate 95 runs through Florence, S.C., and just off the interstate is Young Plantations. Over the years, many motorists stopped there and left with a product that is iconically Southern – pecans. Pecans have been the specialty at Young Plantations since the 1940s.
Tom Coker, the company’s owner, jokes that asking him about all the varieties of pecans Young Plantations offers recalls a scene in a popular movie. “It’s like Bubba in Forrest Gump,” he says. “We’ve got chocolate-covered, honey crisp, salted, praline, roasted, chocolate honey baked, butter toffee, butterscotch-dipped, chocolate honey crisp … ” In all, Coker says, the pecans are offered with 13 different flavors. Coker, who also owns Reid’s Fine Foods in Charlotte, is from Hartsville, S.C., and was familiar with Young Plantations before he bought the company in 2005. Young’s has a strong foothold in the gift pecans market, Coker says. Some companies have come back for more than 25 years for corporate gifts, he adds. The company prides itself on quality, both in product and customer service, Coker said, and that commitment has paid dividends.
In addition to its headquarters in Florence, the company sells its products online and in more than 400 stores nationwide. They’re typically found in gourmet shops, where someone might want a regional gift to bring home. At the holidays, Young’s operates temporary holiday stores in North Carolina and South Carolina.
“The gift pecan market is a niche market, but we want to be the best in that market,” Coker says.
Many people are surprised to know that Texas Pete® isn’t a product of the Lone Star State. The hot sauce with the cowboy on the label is actually made in the Tar Heel State.
Texas Pete was created in the 1930s to add some bite and tang to Garner’s Barbecue Sauce, which T.W. Garner used at his barbecue stand. The hotter sauce caught fire with customers, and other restaurants started buying it too. It didn’t take long for Garner to close his barbecue stand and concentrate on making the sauce that generations have come to know as Texas Pete.
Glenn Garner’s great uncle founded the company, and it has remained in family hands for more than 85 years. It’s always been manufactured in Winston-Salem, N.C., So why “Texas?” The name was chosen because Texas evoked the idea of chili and barbecue. Eighty years ago, spicy food wasn’t as widely available as it is today, and adding “Texas” to the name gave it an exotic feel.
The company’s top seller is its 12-ounce bottle. The cowboy on the label is known within the company as The Little Red Cowboy but most customers think of him as Texas Pete.
Once a strictly regional product, Texas Pete has grown over the years and is now available in all 50 states and internationally. The sauce has been a staple on military bases for decades and members of the armed services grew to love it. Garner says, “They’d get out of the service and try to find out where they could get Texas Pete. Once the Internet caught on, the business really grew.”
Garner makes a variety of sauces. In addition to the original hot sauce, there’s a hotter version and a garlic version, as well as a pepper sauce that Southerners use to sprinkle over greens. Recently the company has added a Sriracha sauce (Glenn Garner’s personal favorite), wing sauces, honey-mustard sauce and cocktail sauce.
Garner adds original Texas Pete to lots of foods. He laughingly says he can’t imagine eating scrambled eggs or pulled pork without it. He’s even eaten it in brownie batter – a pairing that is not really unusual, he says. “The Aztecs frequently added spice to chocolate,” he says. “The combination of chili and chocolate is gaining popularity.”