The Nashville institution known as Mrs. Grissom's Salads celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Co-founder and namesake Grace Grissom is marking the milestone by relinquishing her position as chief executive officer to Kenneth Funger. It's a decision that keeps the business in the family, since Funger, a 32-year employee who most recently served as executive vice president, happens to be married to the younger of Grace's two daughters, Sylvia. Older daughter Herberta has been employed there for 40 years, and nephew Jack McGhee, the new president, for 42.
But when Grace isn't traveling with her husband of almost four years, W. Frank Evans, employees of the company can expect to find the 86-year-old business maverick behind the olive-green French Provincial desk that she has had nearly as long as the company itself. And if Funger can talk her into it, she'll be assuming another role as the centerpiece of a new commercial campaign. "The younger generation and people who have moved here from somewhere else don't realize that there really is a Mrs. Grissom," he explains. "They just think it's a name on a container of pimento cheese."
Make that millions of containers of pimento cheese, which remains the company's best-selling product. Mrs. Grissom's is one of the last remaining examples of a business model that once was common in this region of the country. In Knoxville, there was Mrs. Kinser's Salads; in Birmingham, it was Mrs. Stratton's Salads; and in Nashville, what started as Mrs. Weaver's Salads soon became known as Mrs. Grissom's.
Grace Gass Grissom was the fourth of six daughters born to a homemaker mother and Methodist minister father in East Tennessee. After graduating from high school, Grace began attending Draughon's Business College to become a secretary. While walking there one day, she caught the eye of Herbert Grissom, who was standing outside of his workplace, Acme Mills. When the two married just over a year later, they not only formed a personal union, they set the groundwork for a professional partnership that was rather unusual for its day. The young bride kept her job at General Electric Supply Company while Herb built a career as a salesman at Acme. "It took both of our salaries to make it," she says. "And I enjoyed working." She went from GE to Southern Railway Company, taking three months off when their first daughter Herberta was born; Sylvia was born prematurely, and Grace left SRC to care for her.
A transfer for Herb moved the Grissoms to Nashville in 1955. Grace applied for a job at L&N Railroad, but another opportunity was knocking. "We knew a couple that had moved here from Knoxville," she recalls, "They had started a salad businessMrs. Weaver'swith pimento cheese, ham and chicken salad. They were struggling and asked us if we wanted to partner with them. Herb and I talked it over and decided to do it." Within six months, the Grissoms bought out the other couple. Grace focused on day-to-day business operations, while Herb, a natural salesman, hit the road in the company's one small refrigerated truck and began building a customer base, which at that time was independent markets.
A meeting with banker Herbert Primm and attorney Bob Sturdivant resulted in the name change and a corporate structure that startled Grace. "They recommended that I be president and Herb be vice-president," she remembers. "I was nervous when we left the meeting that he might be upset. He took my hand as we walked down the street and told me how proud he was of me. There was never any competition between us; there was a job to do, and whoever was best at that job did it."
While Grace assumed her place at the desk in the offices of company headquarters (located since 1957 on Bransford Avenue), Herb was selling product. Mrs. Grissom still has the ledger book from those years; the first penciled entry is from April 1955, when the month's total sales were $7,800.37. May brought in $8,068.73 and June leaped to $11,658.68.
"He built sales route by route; he would get one set up, they'd buy another truck and hire a driver, then he'd go out and build another route," Funger says. "Herb was just a natural salesman, one of those people who remembered everybody's name, from the store owner to the stock boy. He always said you never knew when the stock boy might become the manager."
Or the chief purchasing officer. As the company expanded its product line and production capacity, the grocery business was morphing as well, with independent markets being consumed by large chains. Mrs. Grissom's containersfirst cardboard, then plasticwere a familiar sight in H.G. Hill and Kroger stores. Mrs. Grissom's became a sponsor for the Grand Ole Opry; the couple even joined announcer Grant Turner onstage to introduce a jingle, "The Ballad of Mrs. G."
Mrs. Grissom's products are now sold in major grocery chains such as Kroger and Publix in four states, but a new, lower-priced line, under the brand name Grace's, is distributed to Dollar General, Fred's and Family Dollar in 25 states throughout the South, Southeast and Southwest.
Funger says the company is preparing a major multimedia advertising campaign that will put a facebelonging to Grace, of coursewith the product. But there is also another, more far-reaching goal in mind, he confesses. "Pimento cheese is our best seller, but it is still a Southern thing. We think it has national appeal. My father lives in D.C., and every summer, when we meet at the beach, I take pimento cheese to keep him happy. Down here, people put it on white bread and Ritz crackers; he spreads his on a bagel. That works for us."