Like most Southerners, I learned early in life how to make a quality lunch. It’s an easy recipe that I fall back on as often today as I did when I was young enough to have grubby, fumbling fingers.
Take two slices of your favorite white bread—whether that be Merita or Bunny is a matter of opinion—from that damp plastic bag in the cupboard, then open the refrigerator and rummage through its shelves; look past that jar of Duke’s, push aside the crock of pickled okra, and wrap your suntanned fingers around that flimsy, plastic dish of vibrantly-orange Ruth’s Pimento Cheese. Click open the perforated edges of the lid, scoop out a hefty spoonful and slather it over your white bread. Put the slices together and you’ve got yourself a luscious lunch worthy of a (Southern) king.
Ruth’s Salads has been providing us Southerners with quick, easy, and positively delectable salads and sides for decades. Our grandmothers stocked their salads to satiate the never-ending hunger of hoards of grandchildren; our dads favor their chili to top their fresh-grilled hot dogs; and we descendants still like to whip together that old childhood favorite, pimento cheese sandwiches perfected with the Ruth’s recipe.
The original Ruth’s Salads emerged from the convenience foods revolution of the mid-twentieth century. In 1953 Bob Miller sensed a gap in the ever-expanding supermarket, well, market. Bloated aisles filled top to bottom with easy-to-make, easy-to-eat options—but where were our Southern favorites? Miller’s family, and families just like his, had been making traditional dishes like pimento cheese, cole slaw, and meat salads for generations. These weren’t exactly dishes that forced them to slave over stovetops and in front of steaming ovens for hours—but they did require time and a long list of ingredients. Miller realized he could condense those recipes into simple, convenient salads, lightening the loads of shoppers—and making a pretty penny for himself too.
Miller invested in a tiny kitchen on Wilkinson Boulevard in Charlotte and started producing small batches of Ruth’s Salads (purportedly using recipes purchased from the original Ruth, Ruth Ross). At first, the delightful dishes were only delivered to small, independent grocers around town. But as word spread and the salads gained popularity, Ruth’s Salads found a place on the shelves of local supermarkets, like Food Town (what would become Food Lion), Ingles and Harris Supermarkets (later, Harris-Teeter). Miller’s concept flourished locally, but could it expand to a greater market?
In the early ’60’s, Miller and his wife June purchased an old Kraft Foods facility just west of downtown Charlotte to help keep up with the increasing demand for their salads (a location from which many of their products still hail today). The salads weren’t just popular locally anymore—they were gaining traction across the border in South Carolina and onto the shelves of supermarkets like Bi-Lo and Piggly Wiggly. The family could hardly keep up with the pleading public.
Within a decade of their humble beginnings in a small kitchen in Charlotte, Ruth’s Salads expanded into an additional production facility in Chester, South Carolina. And the growth only continued, the special spreads seeping into the cultures of nearby Georgina and Tennessee in the ’70’s, and even Virginia and Alabama. Today you’d be hard-pressed to find a family in the mid-South without a vat of Ruth’s somewhere in their fridge.
Not only has Ruth’s Salads reach increased, so has their line. You can now get their famous, favored pimento cheese in a variety of flavors, including Original, Old Fashioned (with an extra kick of black pepper), Hot Pimento (for those looking for a little heat), Lite for the health conscious, and Three Cheese. If you’re looking for something a little meaty to add to your signature sandwich, you can try their Ham Salad, Original Chicken Salad, or, for the refined palate, Premium Chunky Chicken Salad. If you’re scrambling for a side to take to the family dinner, pick up a dish of their Cole Slaw, Hot Slaw, Mustard Potato Salad, or even their Chili. And if you’re looking to complement all their savory options with something sweet, if you can track it down, try their Cream Cheese Pineapple-Pecan Spread.
Like those who enjoy their products, Ruth’s Salads is still a family thing; the company continues to be run and operated by the descendants and extended family of the Millers. Just as generations of Southerners have savored the saucy salads of Ruth’s, generations of their own family have enjoyed making them. And we have a feeling these family traditions are here to stay.
SEE MORE RUTH’S SALADS PHOTOS HERE