Food & Drink

Reviving a Retro Lunchbox Classic

Two North Carolina cheese whizzes put a Southern spin on the Handi-Snack

Photo: Courtesy of Red Clay Gourmet

With their well of technicolor orange cheese, a red plastic stick to spread it with, and four buttery crackers, all tucked into a pocket-sized, plastic-wrapped package—Handi-Snacks were pure lunch-hour gold for children of the 1980s and 90s. Michele Sawyer, however, was not like most kids. “I didn’t like them when I was little,” she says. “I’ve always loved really good cheese—I was that weird kid eating Parmesan straight off the block.”

Clockwise from top left: Michele and Lance Sawyer with their two children, Ellye (nine) and Maddock (seven).

So it’s only natural that she grew up to become a cheese professional. Sawyer parlayed her palate into Red Clay Gourmet, a small-batch pimento cheese company she and her husband, Lance, founded in 2010. The Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based operation, just seven folks strong, still mixes and packs its spreads entirely by hand, even now that it’s carried by big-time grocers in forty-two states. About a year ago, the Sawyers closed their restaurant, First Street Draught House, to focus their full attention on the flourishing cheese biz, having just added a trailblazing new product to the lineup: the pimento cheese snack pack.

Nostalgia played a role in the creation. “This is definitely a bit of a throwback,” Sawyer says of the packs. “Originally we even tried sourcing a bamboo spreader to dye with beet juice as a modern-day version of that red stick Handi-Snacks came with. We didn’t end up doing it, but ours will still remind you a little of the original.” With an elevated twist, that is, and yes, really good cheese, hand-shredded from forty-two-pound blocks of sharp cheddar. The packs are available in Red Clay’s four signature flavors (Sharp Cheddar, Flame Roasted Jalapeño, South Meets East Sriracha, and Hickory Smoked Cheddar) and include a stack of Italian flatbread-style crackers by La Panzanella.

Courtesy of Red Clay Gourmet

“We wanted to create something that would fit in a lunch box and be kid-friendly, but also be something that if you saw it in the airport you’d think, Heck yeah, I’m picking that up over, say, McDonald’s,” Sawyer says. The snack packs are sold in most Southern Whole Foods and Earth Fare locations, and she believes they’re just the beginning of a boom in the gourmet snack market. “People are so mobile now,” Sawyer says. “We were one of the first to do this, but I think we’ll only see it continue to grow.” In the meantime, it’s now easier than ever to get your pimento-cheese fix anytime, anywhere, and perhaps once again be the lunchtime envy of your peers.