When a fan-favorite at Lance and Michele Sawyer’s restaurant/bar proved too popular for one single location, Red Clay Gourmet (RCG) was born. In just seven short years, the company has grown from a menu offering at the couple’s local restaurant to a full line of retail-ready pimento cheeses—offering small-batch artisan craftsmanship and taste in an impressive package to a growing group of enthusiastic consumers.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Michele and learn more about Red Clay Gourmet’s history, its ethos, and its exceptional products.
Q: Tell me a little about Red Clay Gourmet: When was the company founded and by whom?
Michele Sawyer: Red Clay Gourmet was an idea that began to grow legs in the Spring of 2010. My husband, Lance, and I own a little restaurant/bar in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and we've had pimento cheese on the menu there for years. Over time Lance continuously tweaked the recipe, trying to find the perfect balance of flavor and texture. Our customers increasingly called him to order a pound or two for a party, a tailgate, or their vacation to the beach. He realized that our pimento cheese was unlike anything you could buy in the grocery store...that maybe there was something special there. So, he started working on some new flavor profiles, and we pitched a tent at a small, five-vendor farmer's market up the street. We sold 8 oz deli containers of our Classic Sharp, Hickory Smoked, and Flame Roasted Jalapeno—with a rudimentary sticker slapped on the lid.
Meanwhile, we were working with a local marketing firm on creating our brand and our retail packaging. Over the next year we started using a new labeled container, created the Goat Cheese & Sun-Dried Tomato flavor, pitched a tent at some larger farmers' markets, sold our cheese into some local shops and some shops in other North Carolina cities, added a new baby to our family (our son Maddock, now six, in addition to our daughter, Ellye, now eight), ordered our first IML packaging for each flavor, and landed a deal with our local Whole Foods Market.
We officially incorporated in September 2011 and delivered our opening order to Whole Foods on December 21, 2011.
Q: What would you say is the mission of Red Clay Gourmet?
MS: Our mission is to create delicious, unique, uncluttered food that brings people together, and that you can feel good about eating. We still make all of our pimento cheese by hand because we haven't found machines that do the job as well. Red Clay Gourmet will never compromise on the quality of the finished product or on the integrity of our raw ingredients. We are constantly refining our process and working with the specialty food community to innovate and to educate. But we are also working to build a business for our community—providing fun and fulfilling jobs for our friends and neighbors.
We chose to build our own production facility rather than finding a co-packer. So, we borrowed a bunch of money from our bank and built out a production kitchen and a small office in a 2,400-square-foot commercial unit.
It was a huge gamble—and one of the best decisions we ever made. We have total control of the process and the recipe. We can alter our ingredient ratios depending on the moisture content of a new batch of cheese. We can produce only what we need to fill our orders, thus preserving as much shelf-life as possible in our all-natural cheese spreads. We can detect an issue before it becomes a recall. Over the last five years we've tripled that space, and we're still bursting at the seams, so we're working with a developer on a new 20,000-square-foot facility that will be ready later this year!
Q: What distinguishes Red Clay Gourmet from other products on the market?
MS: Red Clay Gourmet offers three main distinguishing factors—flavor, texture, and quality. We buy the highest-quality ingredients to get the best flavor and texture. All of our cheeses are growth-hormone free and perfectly aged for optimal sharpness and moisture content.
We are the only national brand to use a non-GMO, cage-free egg mayonnaise, made without artificial preservatives, and we only use enough to keep the pimento cheese spreadable. The mayo is a binder in our recipe—not a filler or a flavor component. The majority of people who "don't like" pimento cheese are not fans of the mayo-to-cheese ratio—those are the people that we win over every day!
We get our jalapeños in fresh, from North Carolina farms, and roast and process them by hand. Using a fresh roasted pepper imparts tremendous flavor that you cannot achieve using pickled jalapeños. It's a lot of work, but it's totally worth it!
And while mixing and packaging 35-pound batches of cheese by hand is exhausting and time-consuming, we are able to create the perfect texture and consistency—where the cheese shreds are still intact but the other ingredients are well-incorporated. Our pimento cheese is not pasty or mealy or chunky; it is just right.
Red Clay Gourmet currently offers five unique flavors of pimento cheese, including:
And Michele tells me the company is constantly looking for new flavor profiles and testing new recipes. And with a new package debuting this spring and a new product line later this year, the future is looking bright for Red Clay Gourmet.
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