The story of Eugenia Duke reads like a tall tale, one that began as a humble sandwich-making business in an apartment kitchen in 1917 and later gave rise to two business legends.
One is a regional brand, Duke’s mayonnaise, a condiment that has the kind of brand loyalty of which Grey Poupon can only dream.
The other, Duke Sandwich Company, is a wholesale and retail sandwich enterprise that is a local landmark. Customers have been returning daily for their favorite sandwich spread, sometimes for decades. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
As legend has it, on a single day many years ago Eugenia Duke made 10,000 sandwiches — chicken salad, pimento cheese, and egg salad. She sold them for 10 cents each to soldiers at northern Greenville County’s Camp Sevier and to others in town, earning two cents per sandwich. The profit, the tale goes, helped her buy her first delivery truck.
Duke’s great-granddaughter Laura McGinnis doubts this often-told tale. “Realistically, unless she had an army of people working for her, she could not have generated 10,000 sandwiches in a day,” says McGinnis, a resident of Charlotte, N.C.
In 1923, Eugenia Duke opened a mayonnaise bottling production in an old coach factory building by the Reedy River in downtown Greenville. During this time, she also continued to sell her sandwiches through drugstores, the Ottaray Hotel’s Duke Tea Room, and textile mill “dope” wagons (named for the common nickname for a bottle of Coca-Cola, a “dope”).
There is something else that is remarkable about Eugenia Duke’s story. She started the business by herself, eventually getting help from her husband, an electrician. Despite the fact she sold her recipes and name brand in 1929 and relocated to California to join her married daughter’s family, her place in the company’s history has not been lost over the years.
Eugenia Duke easily could have been forgotten. As Bill Donohue learned when he was researching Duke’s story through ancestry and historical archives, newspaper reports in the early 20th century obscured her role in the company.
“What was interesting was how much society and other people in media at that time and place gave credit to her husband,” says Donohue, director of marketing for Duke Brands.
Duke sold her booming mayonnaise bottling business to C.F. Sauer of Richmond, Va. C.F. Sauer still has a Duke’s mayo plant in Greenville County. It produces 2.3 million cases of Duke’s mayo per month.
She sold her sandwich spread recipes, along with the Duke name, to her bookkeeper, Alan Hart, who — from 1929 to 1964 — operated Duke Sandwich Company as a wholesale supplier of sandwiches to drugstores, restaurants, textile mills, and other places around Greenville.
When Hart was ready to retire from the business, he looked for someone who had good business sense and could keep it running. And since he had worked at the beginning of his career with a female boss, he recognized talent in another woman he knew: Estaleen Smart, who was married to his brother-in-law, jeweler Loran Smart.
“Alan always appreciated that Estaleen had a very good business sense,” says Estaleen’s daughter-in-law, Cheryl Smart, who retired in December 2016 as president of Duke Sandwich Company.
Estaleen saw potential in Duke’s and pushed her husband to go from cutting diamonds to making sandwiches, says Andrew Smart, chief executive officer of Duke Brands, which is the newly developed parent company of Duke Foods and Duke Sandwich Company. Smart is the grandson of Estaleen and Loran Smart and son of Cheryl and Richard Smart, successive owners of the family business.
“My father [Richard Smart] told me they grew up poor, but my grandmother was driven to be a businesswoman,” Andrew Smart says. “I think my grandfather would have been happy staying in the jewelry business.”
The couple quickly divided up the business to suit each of their personalities. Loran was a front-of-the-house person, and Estaleen ran the books and helped in the kitchen.
“He worked the operational side, out front, while she ran the back of the house,” Andrew Smart says. “She was the more mathematical mind.”
Richard Smart, who died in 2002, would tell his son that Estaleen was the brains behind the company and the one who helped it grow in the 1960s and 1970s. Her husband had other skills.
Loran Smart “could build anything,” Smart says.
For instance, he adapted machinery to mechanize wrapping sandwiches, setting up the company for expansion.
“But he’d give everything away, too. So businesswise, he wasn’t the greatest businessman, and she was a great businesswoman, although she wasn’t formally educated,” Smart says.
There also are family stories about how formidable grandma Estaleen could be. “She was a very strong woman,” Andrew Smart says. “There was a time when a man came into the store to rob her, and she looked him in the eye, staring him down, and said, ‘What would your mother think of what you’re doing right now?’”
The legend has it that the would-be robber lowered his head in shame. Estaleen gave him a sandwich, and he left.
‘A Hard Day’s Work’
Duke Sandwich Company remained faithful to Eugenia Duke’s original sandwich spreads, but Estaleen Smart had a few of her own favorite recipes to add to the menu. Her cream cheese pineapple and pecan sandwich and her ham, pepper, and onion spread still are customer favorites.
Growing up in the Augusta Road area of Greenville, Cheryl Smart loved Duke’s pimento cheese and deviled egg sandwiches. As a teenager, she’d pick one up at Campbell’s Pharmacy after the bell rang at Greenville High School.
“I never imagined I’d be making the sandwiches one day,” she says.
The realization that she’d be part of an all-consuming family enterprise first struck Cheryl soon after she married Richard Smart and he left his career to work for the company, helping out his aging parents.
“In December 1973, I was working at Greenville Tech, and we were closed for two weeks for Christmas, so Richard recruited me to come out there and help them make sandwiches,” Cheryl Smart recalls. “That is the busiest season for sandwich making, and by Christmas Eve, I was in bed, sick with a fever from fatigue because I had stood on my feet for 10 days from early in the morning until night.”
Together, Cheryl and Richard Smart expanded the business to several restaurants, with its main site on Poinsett Highway near what later became Cherrydale.
“My dad stayed at the Poinsett store,” Andrew Smart says. “He was smart like his mother, businesswise, but he had a big heart and wanted to give away sandwiches, too.”
Staff and customers were very loyal to Richard Smart.
“Richard made work fun,” says Jerane Mote, who began working for Duke Sandwich Co. in 1986 and now is the director of training for Duke Foods in Easley.
“People loved him,” Mote says. “Richard Smart appreciated a hard day’s work, and still is instilled in this company.”
When Mote started working for Duke’s, she delivered sandwiches to local drugstores and took Richard Smart’s two sons, Andrew and Eric, to school. Andrew became her boss a couple of decades later, when he promoted her to running the production floor. Then, in 2017, Andrew Smart asked Mote to head the training department.
Crisis Management, Customer Loyalty
Customers’ loyalty to Duke Sandwich Company was tested in September 1996 when local health department officials discovered that dozens of people had become ill with salmonella poisoning. They each had eaten a Duke sandwich.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. Twenty-one years ago. It was Sept. 13, 1996,” says Andrew Smart. “I was a senior in high school and had just finished playing one of my best football games.”
By the end of September, there were more than 130 confirmed salmonella cases, and an elderly woman, hospitalized with heart disease, died after eating a sandwich a caregiver brought to her hospital bed, according to a Sept. 27, 1996, article in the Greenville News.
“We’re a different company today than from back then,” he says. “For my dad, this was a true test moment — not just a business. This was our community. These were people we knew, friends and family. It couldn’t have been more personal.”
The elder Smart visited customers who were sick. He wrote them letters and welcomed anyone who wanted to talk with him about it.
An investigation discovered the cause was infected eggs used in the homemade mayonnaise. News reports at the time reassured the public that the contaminated food had been destroyed, all equipment was sterilized, and that the contaminated mayonnaise was not from C.F. Sauer’s Duke’s mayonnaise plant.
Duke Sandwich Company had been making mayonnaise the same way for 80 years — handmade, based on Eugenia Duke’s original recipe. What changed was that the egg supplier had changed its operations to produce eggs more quickly. This created an environment in which salmonella could mutate in at least one egg, which contaminated an entire batch of mayonnaise. Once the salmonella outbreak occurred, Richard Smart switched to C.F. Sauer’s processed mayo, Andrew Smart says.
“My father didn’t run from this. He faced it. That was his character. It was his toughest moment, and we saw people rallying around him,” he says. “I remember so many attorneys who would not take cases against him.”
Customers also remained loyal. “There was the initial shock, and then the business just came back,” he says.
Spreading the Tradition
After Richard Smart died in 2002, Cheryl Smart took over the sandwich company’s operations, serving as president until the end of 2016. Her sons both helped out early on, but Andrew was the one who stayed. In 2006, he started Duke Food Productions — now known as Duke Foods — to provide grocery private labeling and grow the Duke brand.
“We saw that grocery and food service was where the focus needed to be,” Smart says. “Today, we’ve become one of the premier food manufacturers in the Southeast.”
The company produces private label products for companies that have very popular recipes, but have outgrown their own manufacturing capacity. One example is Palmetto Cheese, created by Pawley’s Island Specialty Foods. Duke Foods produces the pimento cheese spread in its 80,000-square-foot Easley facility, and it is sold in more than 75,000 locations in 38 states.
This year, Smart formed Duke Brands and opened headquarters offices in downtown Greenville, overlooking Falls Park on the Reedy. In all, Duke Brands’ businesses have about 250 employees.
One hundred years since Greenvillians first tasted Duke’s mayonnaise and sandwiches, the brands Eugenia Duke started are thriving.
The sandwiches, which she sold for a dime each, still are a bargain at $2 to $2.50. The mayonnaise recipe has stayed exactly the same with a tangy taste. Eugenia Duke had left out sugar, which was scarce in the war years. This decision was fortuitous, as her same mayonnaise recipe a century later is lauded by chefs and customers for being sugar-free.
After Eugenia and her husband, Harry, moved to California, she started over, forming the Duchess Sandwich Company. They followed their daughter Martha — their only surviving child — who in Greenville had been called “the sandwich queen,” says Martha’s granddaughter (and Eugenia’s great-granddaughter), Laura McGinnis.
“All of my mom’s friends went to school with a bagged lunch, and my mom was always embarrassed because each day a Duchess Sandwich Company truck would drive into the town center and deliver her lunch to her,” McGinnis says. “So her grandmother had a presence in her life.”