By Beth Mack
August 17, 2016 (updated)
What does one do with spare time after leading a four-year social media campaign with more than 26,000 followers that helped Charlotte bring back the Hornets? For one die-hard Charlottean, you appear on Jeopardy! and pocket enough cash to turn your hobby of making pimento cheese into a business. In 2014, John Morgan, along with the help of his future wife, Myers McKenzie, did just that. Thus Queen Charlotte’s Pimento Cheese Royal was born.
Morgan’s story is definitely an intriguing one. Growing up in Charlotte and eating his family’s Southern cuisine, Morgan was never the biggest fan of traditional Southern staples such as collards, beets, and pimento cheese. However, while in college studying art, he began cooking and playing around with the recipes of the same dishes he once loathed. He’d make pimento cheese and test it out at parties, eventually nailing down his recipe. “Every art student should have some sort of backup plan,” Morgan laughs. “Mine was to start a pimento cheese business, so I always kept it in the back of my mind.”
Fast forward to January 2013 when Morgan, an elementary school art teacher, appeared on Jeopardy! and took second place, securing enough money to really launch his “fallback plan.” A year later in March of 2014 Morgan and McKenzie started selling Queen Charlotte’s Pimento Cheese Royal at 7th Street Public Market on the weekends, just thinking of their enterprise as a part-time hobby. Pimento cheese fans, however, had different plans for them. Their pimento cheese was such a hit that, by June 2015, Morgan stepped down from his position as an art teacher at Prospect Elementary School and turned his weekend gig into a full-time endeavor.
What makes his pimento cheese different from others? Morgan cites his meticulous process. We pulled up to the Carolina Commercial Kitchen at 7 a.m. on a Thursday and was greeted by the energetic man and the hum of the commercial mixer, already working on the base for the first batch of cheese for the day. As a true Southerner, Morgan uses none else but Duke’s mayonnaise as part of the base. To round it out, he uses cream cheese and spices, all of which is cooled to a desired temperature beforehand. Although we only had a chance to see him make one batch of his original pimento cheese, my inner localvore was delighted to see that he uses Texas Pete Hot Sauce and Mt. Olive jalapeños, both North Carolina based companies.
Having more of cream cheese base versus a mayonnaise base, Queen Charlotte’s Pimento Cheese Royale has a thicker consistency and nice strands of shredded cheese to give your chip and taste buds a run for their money.
Next up, was the arduous task of grating the three different types of cheese (cheddar, white cheddar, and pepper jack). All the cheese arrives in five-pound blocks, so Morgan gets his morning workout in by pushing block after block through a revolving grater attachment on the mixer. After this process is complete, all of the cheese is mixed together (by hand, of course) and then scooped into the mixer with the base and pimentos in order to form the final product. After cooling the pimento cheese, it is scooped into containers adorned with the label. Did I mention that this whole process is done in what Morgan refers to as a “luxurious” 272-square-foot space?
To say Morgan is a bit of a Charlotte fanatic is an understatement. First, there was his heavy involvement in “that whole bring back the Hornet’s thing,” as he refers to it, but he proceeded to name his business in homage to his hometown. For Morgan though, his tribute to the Queen City didn’t end there. The entire self-designed label has discrete Charlotte references. If you look closely at the label you can find pickaxes and a hat that tip to Charlotte’s 1799 gold rush after a 17-pound nugget was found in Cabarrus County. A little history lesson for you: North Carolina led the nation in gold production until 1848, when it was surpassed by the California gold rush. Another Charlotte historic icon, a hornet’s nest and hornets can be found on the label, not just alluding to the Hornet’s basketball team, but to Charlotte’s part in the Revolutionary War. After a short stay by British General Cornwallis during the war, he referred to Charlotte as a “A Hornet’s Nest of Rebellion” after finding the locals to be too “hot.” The label is rounded out with the Charlotte skyline, cotton, and panthers for the beloved Panthers.
When he first started, the only cheese Morgan offered was the original Queen Charlotte’s Pimento Cheese Royale. However, he had plans from the beginning to add more flavors. Her Royal Hotness (jalapeño pimento cheese) followed a couple of months after their original launch in March 2014, followed by Black and Bleu Blood (cracked black pepper and bleu cheese) in the summer of 2014, and Baconham Palace (smoked cheddar and bacon pimento cheese) in the winter of 2014.
How’s the product you ask? Well, let’s just say there’s a reason Morgan and team produce around 1,500 pounds of pimento cheese every week to distribute to over 70 locations in five states. You can find them in local shops like Reid’s Fine Foods, Total Wine, NoDa Company Store, Tip Top Daily Market, and many more.
So what’s in store for the future of Queen Charlotte’s Pimento Cheese Royale? Morgan’s plans are to keep growing and to get his product into more major markets, or as he likes to say, “just keep spreading the Queen’s gospel.” As divine as the pimento cheese is, we don’t think he’ll have a problem doing that.
Update: Queen Charlotte’s Pimento Cheese Royale is now available in over 600 locations across 11 states. You can now find the brand at Harris Teeter, Food Lion, Central Market, and a number of independent grocers throughout North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina.