Palmetto Cheese: Spreading Pawleys Island love to the nation
A young couple walked into Independent Seafood in Georgetown, but they weren’t interested in the fresh catch of the day. They were looking to land a big one of their own – their first account for Palmetto Cheese.
Armed with the inaugural batch packaged for distribution and a recipe that was taste-tested for more than a decade, creator Sassy Henry and husband/salesman Brian earned their first, albeit unappealing, shelf space.
“They let us put some in the ice tub next to the mullet and shrimp and bait,” Brian laughed. “We didn’t really know what to expect. We just knew if we could get people to try it, they would fall in love with it.”
Fourteen years and millions of units later, Palmetto Cheese is the nation’s top-selling cheese spread. Sampled and sold at more than 9,000 stores in 44 states, Palmetto Cheese is winning over America’s palate one scoop at a time.
“The biggest difference is the quality of the ingredients,” said Sassy, who developed the recipe back in the 1990s. “When we came along there were no premium pimento cheeses on the market. That was our opportunity.”
Unlike most food products, which are conceived in corporate test kitchens and fine-tuned with focus groups, Palmetto Cheese is a grassroots success story that has the whole country putting some South in its mouth.
From Tailgate to Retail
Like fine cheese, good ideas get better with age. Such was the case for Sassy’s homemade pimento cheese dip, which was a crowd-pleaser among friends at Atlanta Braves’ tailgate parties but far from a business venture.
Besides, the Henrys had bigger fish to fry. Living in Atlanta with two young daughters, the Henrys gave up big city life to run the historic Sea View Inn, which proved to be the perfect proving ground for her recipe.
Vertrella Brown, a longtime Sea View Inn cook whose image appears on the Palmetto Cheese label, began making batches of the creamy cheddar spread for guests to rave reviews. You can’t buy that kind of market research.
“Vertrella would make it every Wednesday and the guests just went crazy for it,” Sassy said. “They would ask for the recipe or if they could take some home with them. It was pretty obvious there was a market for it.”
After securing the necessary legal permits, they began making and packaging the product in the Sea View Inn kitchen. The game plan then became getting people to try it, hence the fateful trip to Independent Seafood.
“Price point has always been the biggest challenge,” said Brian, whose resume includes work for Coca-Cola. “Most pimento cheeses are $3, and we’re $4.99. Premium ingredients cost more but you can taste the difference.”
You Say Pimento, We Say Palmetto
A smart business plan is a marathon, not a sprint. However, since the Henrys sold their first tub of Palmetto Cheese in 2006, the milestones keep coming at an amazing pace – to the tune of 15.2 million units last year alone.
Here’s the road map: A few months after making its Independent Seafood debut, Palmetto Cheese broke into the minor leagues with four local Food Lion locations. The growing demand required a step up in production.
The Henrys moved operations to a building on Ocean Highway (now another business venture, Get Carried Away Southern Takeout and Catering) to produce, package and distribute Palmetto Cheese. They quickly outgrow it.
Thanks to a unique marketing strategy that celebrates the Lowcountry lifestyle as much as it sells the product, Palmetto Cheese struck a chord with Southern taste buds and added a big scoop of Pawleys Island charm.
For starters, there’s the name – a natural fit and play on words for the product. And the logo – the iconic state flag emblem of the palmetto tree and crescent moon. And the motto – “The Pimento Cheese With Soul.”
“We wanted to reflect the story behind Palmetto Cheese and its connection to Pawleys Island,” said Brian, who launched an all-out online marketing campaign. “The picture of Vertrella on the lid, that says it all.”
An Empire Built on Cheese
After selling 2,100 tubs in 2006, demand quickly outgrew the building and the “Soulburban,” an orange Chevy Suburban used for deliveries. In 2008, they partnered with Duke Food Productions to take it to the next level.
“The most important thing is quality control,” Sassy said. “We wanted to make sure we worked with someone we could trust to stay true to the recipe. We talked to a lot of different distributors to find the right fit.”
Word spread like, well, pimento cheese, and so did the orders. Piggly Wiggly, Kroger, Costco, Publix and more fell in line, and media outlets like Southern Living and USA Today sang the praises of the little snack that could.
Palmetto Cheese became a novelty for foodies, revolutionizing the common grilled cheese sandwich, serving as a game-changer in grits or scrambled eggs, and playing a starring role in Southern recipes like fried green tomatoes.
Pawleys Island Specialty Foods offers three Palmetto Cheese (Original, Bacon and Jalapeno), three dips (OMG Onion, Buffalo Chicken and Jalapeno Popper) and three bundt cakes (Cinnamon, Hummingbird and Pawleys Island).
A new line of chicken salad is the most recent venture, using HPP (high-pressure processing) to avoid the need for preservatives. It’s the latest example of spreading a little bit of Pawleys Island love to the country.
“We have been serving these things at the inn for years so we know when we have a winner,” Sassy said. “It’s really rewarding to take something you believe in and have millions of people love it too.”