By Vanessa Wolf
In a red brick building in downtown Bennettsville sits a slice of classic Americana. Surrounded by Queen Anne, Neoclassical and Colonial Revival-style architecture, the simple glass-front shop hails from simpler times.
But make no mistake, the market occupying 133 Broad Street is no gimmicky throwback. It is an enduring testament to character and community.
Breeden’s Quality Meats opened its doors in 1926, and has been owned and operated by just four families. Current proprietor Cam Stone’s tenure began early. While still in high school, he began working for his grandfather and then- owner, “Papa” John Thompson, who had been a Breeden’s Quality Meats employee long before buying the shop.
In 1988, having just graduated from Western Carolina University, Cam was considering graduate school. However, once his grandfather made the request, Cam and his wife, Cindy, agreed to buy the store. At the time, they figured they would run it for a few years. Thirty-three years later, they’ve owned it longer than anyone in the shop’s 93-year history.
“Selling it to someone else wasn’t really an option,” Cindy recalls with a laugh. “No one is going to buy you out to work 70 hours a week.”
This is particularly true of the butcher business, where small mom-and-pop ventures fell on hard times for several decades. In the 1990s, as consumer hab- its veered more toward cost-cutting and microwaveable convenience, the demand for quality meat from locally known sources dwindled.
“When Walmart came, it was bad,” Cindy says. “We realized, ‘We’ve got to find a way to make this work, or we’ve got to go find other jobs.’ We were really struggling.”
Faced with losing their business, as well as a long-held family venture, the Stones found a way.
A large part of what helped to carry Breeden’s Quality Meats through those tough times involved their now-famous sausages, handcrafted from South Carolina-certified pork.
These days, shoppers can buy Breeden’s freshly made Southern, hot, bratwurst and dry-age sausage varieties from the glass case at the Broad Street shop. While people come from all over to do so, it’s also possible to enjoy them on the menu at local establishments such as Pizza Time in Bennettsville. But what today is a well-known and celebrated local product was not so simple to achieve.
As it happens, the process of moving from butcher shop to sausage fabricator is complex. To start, the Stones secured the adjacent building space to satisfy the terms laid out by the South Carolina Meat and Poultry Inspection Department. Much like United States Department of Agriculture rules, these include safe and sanitary space for meat processing, plus adequate lighting, ventilation and refrigeration units. In addition to storage areas for employees’ belongings and a suitable break area, the specifications also stipulate the need for a dedicated inspector’s office and a bathroom.
If all of that sounds like a lot of red tape, it is. However, when compared with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service process and related bureaucracy, it’s the faster, simpler route.
While South Carolina-based certification only allows for sales and distribution within the state, South Carolina Meat and Poultry Inspection Department regulations ensure Breeden’s sausage-making process is safe from start to finish.
Arriving in 60-pound boxes of 70% lean boneless pork, the Stones and their staff break the meat into manageable cubes. This is done to ease its entry into the large, stainless steel Hobart commercial meat grinder.
The chunks of meat are tossed with a proprietary mix of herbs and spices, which have been tweaked over the years to suit local tastes. Breeden’s customers particularly love sage, and the Stones’ current recipe reflects that. Local palates also prefer a kick, resulting in a custom spicy link with a heat level notably outpacing most commercial offerings.
The meat is added to the grinder and run through the process twice to ensure uniformity. Then, the actual sausage-making begins.
Chief sausage engineer—not an official title—Freddie, a familiar face to Breeden’s customers, oversees the production. In practice and relative layman’s terms, it’s a process that falls somewhere between running a sewing machine and filling balloons with helium.
To start, while seated facing the giant grinder, Freddie feeds a long length of natural pig casing onto the grinder’s metal spout. When he is done with his preparations, his foot finds its spot on the adjacent floor pedal.
The balance between both foot and hand pressure is a gentle one. Too much pedal, and the sausage comes blasting from the spigot like a proverbial fire hose. Whether too intense or skittish, an imbalance of hand pressure—the ideal, once eventually discovered, could best be described quite contradictorily as “firm, gentle guidance”—results in a funky- looking link that is either too narrow or lumpy. Freddie, like any master, makes it look easy.
Along with being made by hand, another key distinguishing factor of a Breeden’s sausage link is that it’s just meat, herbs and spices. Devoid of preservatives, additives or fillers, Breeden’s sausages, no matter which flavor, result in tender, juicy links every time.
Along with their ground meat and freshly cut steak options, Breeden’s Quality Meats also arrive with definitive shelf lives.
“Ground beef should not be pink for days on end,” Cindy notes. “If you grind a very lean piece of beef this morning, it will have a brown spot in it tonight, period. We grind ours in the morning, and we drop it in the freezer for a spell before putting it in the case. We don’t put any preservatives in it, and we don’t put any fillers in it. The color variations are natural. When beef or sausages starts looking all the same—especially several days later— you’ve got a problem.”
While this change in the nature of American meat products happened slowly, it’s now well-known. A December 1, 2016, study by Pew Research Center found that four in 10 Americans favor organic and non-GMO foods, while 55% of U.S. adults believe organically grown produce is healthier than conventionally grown varieties.
As a result, propelled by a young, health-conscious generation of consumers seeking food produced without antibiotics and hormones, many specialty meat markets have started to crop up in urban areas. These markets have added to their viability by carving out a niche and offering local products, particularly those with traceable sources.
“Two-thirds of consumers feel clean eating is a path to better eating,” says Darren Seifer, a food and beverage analyst at the New York-based consumer market research company NPD Group. “That means that ‘I want to know what happened to this livestock before it hits the shelf.’ By going to the local butcher, consumers have a tighter connection to the supply chain than at larger stores.”
While hardly a new endeavor, the Stones recognize this favorable trend.
“The store, well, we didn’t build it to look old, if you know what I’m saying,” Cam says. “This is real. But what we have here—this authenticity—I guess you could say it’s kind of come back into fashion.”
Also in style are local, small business products, another trend Breeden’s Quality Meats has embraced. Along with fresh meat, sausages and poultry, as well as house-made pork cracklings and a line of branded spices, the grocery offers a wide array of area products.
Shoppers can expect containers of Stony Gap coleslaw, Farmer Jim’s smoked sausages and Cape Fear pirate candy— pickled jalapeños—from North Carolina, plus flavored Appin honey and plenty of Stanton’s pit-cooked barbecue.
But while house-made products and unique local offerings are a big part of the draw, what truly seems to be the key to Breeden’s Quality Meats’ near century-long endurance are the people. The door opens every few minutes and Cam, Cindy, Rita and Fred seem to know almost everyone by name.
Along with the cheerful greeting, there’s a comfortable, inviting vibe in the shop. With low shelves and warm lighting throughout, every nook and cranny offers something new to discover. All of this comes together in a way rarely seen in modern, technologically distancing times. In this small-town community, Breeden’s Quality Meats and its caretakers are a destination, a touchstone and a part of its very heart.
Having just celebrated the shop’s 93rd year in business, its longtime stewards and staff are as much a part of that legacy as the vintage building itself. While Cam and Cindy may not have initially set out to take over, upgrade and ultimately become an integral part of a local institution, it’s a stroke of luck they were willing. From fresh sausages, local products and a greeting that feels a bit like coming home, Bennettsville and the surrounding area is no doubt better for them.