At Ritchie Hill Bakery in Concord, cofounder Heath Ritchie and his nephew and bakery manager, Charles Ritchie, are in the business of nostalgia — by way of cheese straws.
“We make a food that people remember from childhood,” Heath says. “They’re so local that it’s like good barbecue — every area has a different version or different taste, and it’s ingrained in the community. Everybody had a grandmother or a neighbor who made them.”
And that reminder of Grandma is fitting, since the Ritchie family tradition began with Heath’s own grandmother, Lily Patterson Ritchie, who baked her first batch of cheese straws at “Ritchie Hill,” a circa 1906 family home in Concord, and later passed down the recipe to her son and Heath’s father, Lee.
“It’s been passed down for generations. I learned how to make cheese straws from my dad 40 years ago, and he learned from Grandmother,” Heath says. “Cheese straws are one of those Southern foods that have to be at weddings and church events — it’s a food for special occasions. But very few people make them, and even fewer make them well.”
Our State sat down with the Ritchies to find out more about their cheese straw tradition — and why customers just can’t get enough.
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OS: Can you describe the process for making cheese straws?
HR: You get very sharp Cheddar cheese, and you get a Southern brand of flour. You add your butter or margarine and your spices, and you mix it. Then, they’re pressed through a cookie press in a certain shape, which gives them a special crunch and texture that changes the flavor. Our recipe made in a different shape would not taste the same. It’s very time consuming. After they’re pressed, they’re cut, put into an oven, and baked very precisely. A minute or two difference will change the taste — so that’s the most important part.
CR: It’s a very simple process, but you have to do things exactly the same every time to get the same product every time.
OS: What makes your cheese straws special?
HR: We became known for the old recipe, and we haven’t changed anything. The recipe for the cheese straws is nothing special — it’s been around for years; it’s just that making them the old-fashioned way and sticking to the very strict standards of how you do it makes the difference in the taste.
CR: People get addicted to them. Once you’ve had one, you don’t want to stop eating. I mean, you open a container, and they’re gone before you know it — and you didn’t even share ’em.
OS: How did you turn this family tradition into a business?
CR: My uncle produced the cheese straws for a long time in Concord, and it seemed like no matter how many he made, it was never enough. There was always somebody else wanting more cheese straws.
HR: I’d make them for the family and for certain friends, and it snowballed. People would say, “We’d love to have you come over for dinner club tonight — and can you bring some cheese straws?” After a while, my sister Beth and I started producing them here in Concord. I worked out of my home kitchen for a while, and then I brought along Charles, who has been baking them ever since, and we keep scaling up every year. But growth is slow, and we intend to keep it that way. The family tradition is what’s important — we’re not interested in mass production.
OS: Tell us about growing up with this culinary tradition.
HR: I have some very fond memories of working with my dad in the kitchen. We always had one of our dogs, a Labrador retriever, hanging around, and they would get to taste each batch that came out, and so we claim that the cheese straws are “lab tested” for that reason. That was fun, but just knowing that when we’d take these to a Thanksgiving dinner or give them as gifts for Christmas they were really appreciated … That will always stick with me.
CR: The recipe for the cheese straws has come down the line. I remember my grandfather making them for us when we were going to the beach, and for Thanksgiving, and really anytime the family was getting together. It was just the perfect snack. They’re cheesy, they’re salty, they’ve got a little spice. It’s all rolled up into one package, and it was one of the things that we always looked forward to.
OS: What’s it like to work with family?
HR: Having my nephew here, it’s wonderful. We talk, we kid around with each other. And we enjoy making the product. It’s a very tedious procedure, and it has to be done correctly, but there’s a lot of time for talking and kidding around.
CR: I enjoy the fact that me and my uncle get to spend time together cutting up in the kitchen, having fun — but also making cheese straws and sending that enjoyment and that love of the food to other people to have the same feeling that we can all share together.
OS: What do you love most about this business?
HR: It’s nice to feel like we’re contributing in some small way to keeping everybody’s memories going. I enjoy hearing from our longtime fans, who will write us little notes or tell us they’re taking the cheese straws to a wedding or they’ve taken them down to Charleston for an event. We’re based in North Carolina, but we have friends across the United States who we ship to, and it’s just a nice group of people who appreciate traditions and remember the old home state.
CR: Carrying on the family tradition is everything. I like passing the tradition along to my kids, and I enjoy knowing that I’m doing something that my grandfather did.
Ritchie Hill Bakery
363 Church Street North #195
Concord, NC 28025