When the Musten & Crutchfield Food Market announced its closing in late 2000, people in Kernersville mourned the passing of an institution.
It was the kind of place where pictures of the founders looked down from the wall. People could run a tab and pay for their purchases later.
And they could buy some of that good old homemade pimento cheese.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the memory album when the store was on the way to closing.
An official from Lowes Foods called co-owner Bob Crutchfield and asked if the grocery chain could carry Musten and Crutchfield pimento cheese.
As a result, said Crutchfield, who had worked in the family business since he was 14, “we never closed.”
“We got rid of the grocery store part of the business,” he said.
Cashier Helen Lookabill was laid off on a Saturday, but Crutchfield called her back the following Tuesday.
“Helen, you just got to help me,” she remembers Crutchfield telling her.
Most of the grocery store's original stock was sold out, but the pimento cheese began hopping off the shelves at Lowes. Musten and Crutchfield stayed open to sell the pimento cheese and a few other deli items at the source. Crutchfield hired back Brenda Beeson, a former employee whose husband had died in the year 2000. And Jason Lambert, 20 returned to make pimento cheese. Crutchfield himself spends a lot of time each week on the road tending his store deliveries.
Starting out in the Lowes in Kernersville, the Musten and Crutchfield brand of pimento cheese is now sold in 17 Lowes stores.
Crutchfield estimated he is selling twice as much pimento cheese as he ever did in Musten and Crutchfield's heyday as a grocery store. “We used to make five or six batches (a week), and now we are making 11 or 12 batches,” Crutchfield said. Each batch is about 100 pounds.
The pimento cheese is sold in stores in Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point, King, Thomasville and Archdale, Crutchfield said. And he can put the cheese in more stores if he wants to, he said.
Sales are still highest in the Kernersville Lowes, Crutchfield said, but he recently found out that the Robinhood Road store in Winston-Salem has tripled its sales of the pimento cheese. The other day, Crutchfield visited a store on New Garden in Greensboro, where the cheese was being offered to customers as a sample. “Once you try it, we've got you,” Crutchfield said.
The word hasn't gotten around to all the old customers that Musten & Crutchfield actually never closed, store employees said.
The part of the store on North Main Street still in use occupies a back corner near the meat counter, but the rest of the building is an expanse of flooring. Customers who wander in find they can buy meat, the famous pimento cheese, the store's trademark chili, liver pudding and chicken salad as well. And because you can't have all that without bread, the store started stocking bread. And milk and soft drinks. So after a complete downsizing, the store has crept out a little from its pimento cheese core.
The employees still greet many customers by name. One shopper, Bob Schuck, said he stopped coming by the store for awhile when the business “closed”.
“And then I rode by and saw that it was still open, so I came in,” he said. He might pick up hot dogs or chili or some of the other specialties. He said he doesn't miss the regular grocery store part of the business, because he didn't do his regular shopping there.
While pimento cheese lovers can get their fix at any Lowes, the other homemade foods can only be bought at the Musten & Crutchfield store because of health regulations regarding the distribution of food products.
Inez Day said she comes for one reason.
“You can't get chicken salad like this anywhere,” she said. “I thought they were closed until somebody told me they were selling chicken salad, so I started coming back. And the help is super-nice.”
A spokeswoman for Lowes siad that Musten and Crutchfield is the only local brand of pimento cheese selling in any of its 102 stores in North Carolina and Virginia. “There were a lot of people in that community who really liked it and were concerned about not having access to it any longer,” said Diane Locado, a Lowes Foods spokeswoman. “We put it in our Kernersville store and then added it to others.”
Crutchfield and his brothers Everett and Richard own the family business, although Bob Crutchfield is the only one involved in the day-to-day operations of the store.
The pimento cheese recipe is secret and was developed by the Crutchfields' grandmother, Elvie Musten. Her husband, John Musten Sr. founded the business in 1938.
Bob Crutchfield said he worked in the store since he was 14. “It is all I have ever known,” he said.