Bob Crutchfield had tried everything to save his family-owned grocery store.But for years, he'd felt like a diamond under tons of rock, crushed by bigger competitors that could offer better selection and better prices than Musten & Crutchfield ever could. ``We fought these chain stores for years,' he said, chomping on a cigar.

Finally, in 2000, Crutchfield told his customers goodbye, laid off his loyal employees and shut the doors of the business his grandparents had opened in 1938.

Then came the last-minute reprieve, the kind that dying businesses hope for but rarely receive. Lowes Foods of Winston-Salem wanted to sell Musten & Crutchfield's locally famous pimento cheese in its stores.

Within days of closing, Musten & Crutchfield reopened, this time as more pimento cheese factory than grocery. The family business, in its new incarnation, is thriving. There's even talk of adding more employees and selling the pimento cheese and other products in more stores.

``Once they try the product, they keep coming back,' Bob Crutchfield said.

Lowes Foods carries Musten & Crutchfield pimento cheese in 17 Triad stores. And Bi-Lo last week began selling the company's signature product in seven Triad stores, including three in Greensboro.

``They make this pimento cheese, which people in the Kernersville area just loved, and we'd heard about it,' Lowes spokeswoman Dianne Blancato said. ``We brought it into the stores, and it just started selling like crazy.'

Bi-Lo, which recently offered a buy-one-get-one-free special on the pimento cheese, has experienced a similar customer response. The cheese sold out in some stores, and Bob Crutchfield and crew had to make extra batches.

``We have product request forms, and we listen to our customers when they ask us for certain products, and that seemed to be a very popular local product,' Bi-Lo spokeswoman Joyce Smart said. ``We decided that it was something our customers would enjoy, so we're pleased that it's working out so well.'

Bob Crutchfield and his small staff now produce about 16 batches, or about 1,920 pounds, of pimento cheese every week. They make the spread every Tuesday for delivery to Bi-Lo and Lowes stores on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. ``Unless we need more - then we make it whenever,' his son John Crutchfield said.

Musten & Crutchfield pimento cheese has only three ingredients: cheese, mayonnaise and tiny red pimento peppers. But the creamy spread is distinctive among competitors, John Crutchfield said, because of how it's blended and the cheese that is used.

``It's not cheddar,' he said, but that's all he will reveal about the secret recipe that originated with his great grandmother Elvie Musten and is known to only three people.

``What makes ours different is we don't add preservatives. Everything is fresh,' he said. ``Preservatives can change the flavor.'

The company sells regular pimento cheese and a hot variety that is spiced with jalapeno cheese. The pimento cheese sells for $3.99 a pound for the regular variety and $4.19 a pound for the hot. John Crutchfield, who came up with the jalapeno recipe, also is trying to cook up a reduced-fat pimento cheese because so many grocery store customers have asked about a lighter version.

George Johnston, a longtime customer, likes the original version best.

``They've been known for pimento cheese for years and years and years,' said the 71-year-old Kernersville resident. ``This is good to just make a sandwich with a bowl of soup.'

It's also good on hotdogs, hamburgers and Doritos, John Crutchfield said. His father likes his pimento cheese on a sandwich with sweet pickles.

Musten & Crutchfield still maintains a storefront at 245 N. Main Street in Kernersville, where it sells pounds and half-pounds of pimento cheese, chicken salad, ham salad, homemade chili, liver pudding, bread, snacks, candy and some deli items.

But most of the store is empty; the tiny kitchen is the only busy place.

\ It's 9 a.m. on Tuesday. Bob Crutchfield, smoking a cigar and driving an old car with the windows open, pulls up in front of the Musten & Crutchfield store. He rolls a shopping cart from his car to the store and back again, unloading boxes of potato chips and other inventory.

It takes a while to finish the unloading, then to cut and grind meat for the butcher case. But finally, about an hour later, it is time to make the first of many batches of pimento cheese.

Bob Crutchfield slices block after block of cheese - about 60 pounds total - into small cubes. His helper, Jason Lambert, feeds the cubed cheese through an electric grinder. The cheese makes a popping sound as it emerges from the machine in long, orange strands that look the yarn hair on a Cabbage Patch Kid.

Next, the ingredients are dumped into a large electric mixer and left to blend for just the right amount of time.

Lambert and his boss repeat this process 15 more times, while two other helpers spoon the finished pimento cheese into clear plastic containers. Here, they call this dipping the pimento cheese.

``I can just about do this with my eyes closed,' said Bob Crutchfield, who tastes every batch before he will sell it.

But so much has changed since 1938. And change is what helped this family business survive.

What was once just a small part of the business, a special homemade treat for customers, now drives the business and is the key to its future.

``It has definitely increased business,' John Crutchfield said, remembering a time not long ago when grocery sales were top priority. ``The pimento cheese business has definitely increased the bottom line.'

John Crutchfield, who works in computer support at Novartis Animal Health in Greensboro, would like to take over the family business from his father someday. And he may be able to do that sooner rather than later if the business grows as projected.

The Crutchfields are focusing on boosting pimento cheese sales at the 24 Lowes and Bi-Lo stores. They would like to have the product sold in more outlets and more markets eventually. And that could mean bringing on more employees to help with production and deliveries.

``We could get all the stores in the district, but logistically we don't have the manpower,' John Crutchfield said. His father, Bob, still makes most of the store deliveries and supervises the production of each batch of pimento cheese.

``If Bi-Lo does what we think it will, we're going to have to hire more people,' John Crutchfield said.

Although the pimento cheese is Musten & Crutchfield's signature product, customers also have always gobbled up its chicken salad. Eventually, the company could begin selling its chicken salad to grocery stores, too. But before that happens, John Crutchfield said, the kitchen would have to be renovated to meet state and federal food preparation guidelines for meat products.

``We're focused on what we know, what we can sell,' John Crutchfield said.\ \ Contact Amy Joyner at 373-7075 or ajoyner@news-record.com.

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