When we need something quick to pick up, we reach for a hot dog. And in eastern North Carolina, we reach for a Bright Leaf — those red weenies that come in a one-pound bag with a tobacco leaf on the package.
We fry them for Sunday supper when we’re still full from a big lunch. We buy them in between innings at the Carolina Mudcats baseball games. We sneak one off the grill while we wait for our main course. And, even if we never tell and swear that we don’t, we eat them cold, right out of the fridge.
They don’t take long to fix, and they don’t last long on the shelf. When they leave the Carolina Packers plant in Smithfield, Bright Leaf hot dogs last only 15 to 20 days. Nationwide companies tout their hot dogs as good for 100 days, but preserving a perishable product that long just doesn’t seem right.
“Once we go to the grocery store, the clock’s ticking,” says Kent Denning, Carolina Packers general manager. Bright Leaf hot dogs aren’t vacuum-packed and lack many of the preservatives found in larger brands. The company is small, with about 100 employees, and small companies work in small batches. Carolina Packers is so small that the weather affects its sales. If it rains for several days, business slows because people can’t get outside to grill, Denning says. When area schools are out, business picks up because kids need a quick lunch at home.
Denning worked at Carolina Packers as a high school student. Then he went 100 miles south to the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and majored in physical education. But when Carolina Packers offered him the opportunity to return to his hometown company to work his way up in the first business that cut him a paycheck, Denning came back to Smithfield.
Something to keep
Carolina Packers started in 1941 as a way to fill an industrial need in this rural community. The company’s founder, John Jones Sr., built Carolina Packers as a stockyard business where area farmers sold their hogs and cattle. Jones purchased the livestock; slaughtered it; and produced ham, bacon, sausage, and hot dogs.
Although the stockyard closed in 1997, the business — now owned by Jones’s wife, Jean — still serves Smithfield citizens as an employer and a badge of identity. The tobacco leaf that appears on every label for Carolina Packers products represents the history of tobacco farming in Johnston County. When Jones started the business on U.S. Highway 301, residents knew that stretch of road as Brightleaf Boulevard because of the tobacco warehouses lining the street. Tobacco no longer dominates the Johnston County economy, but it never hurts to remember where you come from, so Carolina Packers retains its nickname and logo.
The company delivers its products to a few grocery stores in the central Piedmont but not much farther west. Employees pack personal orders and ship them across the country. They send whatever people want: bologna, sausage, chili. But the most requested item is the Bright Leaf hot dog — the red weenie that eastern North Carolina natives crave.
When people move away from here, they might lose their accent, grow apart from their friends, or even start to call some new place home. But taste is something they keep.
And when they need something quick to pick up — or maybe something familiar to pick them up — they reach for a Bright Leaf hot dog.
Leah Hughes is an associate editor at Our State magazine. Her most recent story was “A Place Called Atlantis” (June 2012).