The founder of this Chapel Hill small business reflects on a decade of sharing her family’s heirloom recipe
By Renee Ambroso | Photography by John Michael Simpson
As a girl, Samantha Cheek Swan often visited her grandparents in Chapel Hill during the summer. She would watch her grandfather, Junius Paul Cheek, harvest a bounty of cayenne peppers from the backyard of his house on Cottage Lane. He’d then pull out a meat grinder and clamp it to the edge of the kitchen table; in went the peppers, crushed together with sweet onions, bell peppers and spices. The mixture simmered in apple cider vinegar on the stovetop before he canned it. The result was a spicy condiment that was ever- present on the family’s table and eaten with collards, pinto beans, hot dogs, hamburgers and – Samantha’s favorite – piled atop slices of pizza.
Four generations of the Cheek family learned the relish recipe, which is credited to Samantha’s great- grandmother, Elizabeth Durham Cheek, and all prepared it in the kitchen of the home in downtown Chapel Hill. “It probably goes further back in the family than [her], but she’s the last one that anyone can ever remember making it in the kitchen at Cottage Lane,” Samantha says.
Samantha, who was born in South Africa and had lived in three different states by the time she graduated high school, periodically made her way back to Cottage Lane for visits and went on to study art history at UNC. She was there with her grandfather in 1990 when he canned his last batch of pepper relish. The jars held her over for a while after his death, but when the supply got low, it was time for another Cheek to step in. After working for several years in Houston and at commercial art galleries in London, Samantha returned to Orange County in 2010. She found herself right back in the family kitchen, working alongside her father, J. Paul Cheek Jr.
“Nothing was ever written down,” Samantha explains. “[The recipe] was always an oral tradition or passed down through making it together. So I asked my father to help me learn how. … He eyeballed everything. I was weighing and measuring everything and writing it all down.”
The recipe took shape with the same ingredients her family had always used – chile peppers and onions, plus apple cider vinegar and sugar to balance out the heat. “When we cooked it down, it was as delicious as I remembered it,” she says.
Samantha’s husband, Roby Swan, was the one who first suggested she jar the condiment for others to buy. With no food production experience, Samantha began Cottage Lane Kitchen in 2011. She sold the relish, called “Get Me a Switch,” at farmers markets and to friends before expanding through retail partnerships and pop-up demonstrations. She credits the Got to be NC Agriculture’s annual trade show, “Flavors of Carolina,” for connecting her with grocery retailers.
This October will mark the 10th anniversary of the first commercial batch of relish. Cottage Lane Kitchen now offers a habanero-based version of the spicy sauce called “Cape Fear” with pineapple and orange oil, which won a 2021 Good Food Award – presented by the Good Food Foundation – in the pantry category. In total, Samantha’s products have received more than 30 international and local awards.
The latest addition to her product line is a Louisiana-style, vinegar- based hot sauce called “Hissy Fit,” which Samantha developed last year. “I don’t know what mild is,” she jokes. “I’ve thought about [selling] a mild one, but I’m not so sure it fits our ethos.”
To fulfill higher demand and bulk retail orders, she’s hired a co-packer and works with fulfillment and distribution centers to make and sell the relish on a larger scale. This frees Samantha up to focus on face-to-face interactions with customers during demonstrations.
The Cheek family still owns the house on Cottage Lane. These days, Samantha grows peppers for her own use in the backyard of her Chapel Hill home near Meadowmont. Her green thumb, she admits, isn’t as strong as that of her grandfather, but she thinks of him fondly when she puts on her gardening gloves.
Food for the Soul
When Samantha served as the president of the NC Specialty Foods Association a few years ago, she met a kindred spirit in fellow Chapel Hillian Sue Ellsworth at one of the organization’s conferences.
Sue managed LunaPops out of the commercial kitchens at Piedmont Food Processing Center in Hillsborough. Five years in, she joined the center as a manager. Sue met dozens of entrepreneurs over the years in PFPC’s kitchens, but after following up with them in her new role, she learned that many women didn’t maintain their food-based businesses for long. “There were a lot of different reasons,” she says. Together with Hillsborough resident Dani Black, owner of Bigger Tables Culinary and Service Consulting, the concept of a female-focused food entrepreneur organization took shape.
“When Sue and I first sat down over tacos and margaritas to lament the closing of yet another outwardly successful woman- owned business, we knew we had to start digging into [the] root causes,” Dani says. Sue and Dani conducted roundtable discussions among entrepreneurs, elected officials and other members of the community for six months, brainstorming a process to help women who wanted to start or were struggling to manage their own food-based businesses.
They launched WE Power Food in 2017, operating out of PFPC, and began hosting monthly meetings that offer support, networking opportunities and a chance for women to share resources and experience to aid one another. Sue says that many women at PFPC test recipes or develop products solo, so WE Power Food offers a vital sense of community.
Membership is now more than 100 strong, including Annette Council of Sweet Neecy all-natural cake mixes and Samantha of Cottage Lane Kitchen. Members’ artisanal food products are sold in combined sets on WE Power Food’s website; profits from these sales are slated to fund a scholarship to help a female food entrepreneur get her business going.
Sue says that many members have struggled to maintain their operations for various reasons during the pandemic – from a shortage of glass jars for packaging purposes to dealing with financial stress. “Women just need a safe space to talk about their issues and people to network and collaborate with,” she says.
A major step for the organization is filing for nonprofit status, which they completed in mid-August. “Some of our bigger goals are focused on the reasons why women are closing their businesses, and we will need to bring on a staff member,” Sue says. As a nonprofit, WE Power Food will be able to solicit needed funds through grants and donations.
“When we work together to change the systems that can hold people back, we all benefit from vibrant, healthy, eclectic business communities,” Dani says. “WE Power Food is uniquely positioned to do this work.”
The hope is for WE Power Food to expand to chapters in other regions to accommodate membership across the state. Branching out will help address the specific needs members have, accounting for varying access to resources. “Ultimately, the goal is that we’re forming an ecosystem [of support],” Sue explains.