One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about a mother-daughter team who turned a family tradition into a business that has sold over a hundred thousand tiny pies across the country. Success sure tastes sweet to these ladies! -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com
By Lori Weiss
It was a million-dollar moment that took Amanda Bates and her mother Kit Seay, out of their kitchens and into the business of baking pies. Tiny pies. Pies that you can hold in your hand or eat right off a stick -- the kind that a young boy, like Amanda’s son Andrew, could take to school with him without worrying about what a fruit filled slice might look like by lunch time.
“It was actually Andrew’s idea,” Amanda said with a proud smile. “My Mom was over and we had made a pie for dessert. Andrew wanted to take some to school the next day and I was afraid all the fruit would just stick to the tin foil. That’s when he asked, ‘Why don’t you make a pie that you can eat in your hand?’ Mom and I Iooked at each other and we just instantly knew it was a really good idea.”
Amanda had grown up baking by her mother’s side, along with her sister Pam -- a tradition that’s been passed down through the generations. Mom, Kit, learned from her own mother and would spend holidays baking with her grandmother and great grandmother as well.
“We always had something baked fresh every evening,” Kit recalled. “I remember literally coming to blows with my brother over the cinnamon rolls my great grandmother would make with the leftover pie crust.”
“Pam and I followed in that tradition too,” Amanda laughed.
And decades apart, both mother and daughter had thought about what it might be like to have their own pie business.
“I remember,” Kit said, “when the girls were little, we went on a trip to Maine and there was a woman who sold slices of pie through a drive-in window. When she ran out, she ran out, so you had to get there early. And I thought, 'Wouldn’t that be nice, just to bake pies all day.'”
“I was thinking the same thing a few years ago,” Amanda explained, “when I was at a farmers market in Santa Barbara. It was filled with artisanal bakers and I thought how amazing it would be to have a business where you could bring your baked goods to a market like that.”
But each of the women had full-time jobs. At 69, Kit was on her second career, as a house director at the Tri Delta sorority at the University of Texas in Austin, and Amanda, a single mom, was struggling to make ends meet in a real estate career she’d begun after ten years as a stay-at-home mom. Neither of them could afford to invest in a half-baked idea. Yet there was something about the idea of tiny pies that stuck with them and they began experimenting at home.
“We started baking pies with all different kinds of crusts,” Amanda said. “We made them in muffin tins and tested them on family and friends, until finally I convinced my Mom that we should take them to a farmers market here in Austin. I’m not sure this is what she thought she’d be doing at 69, but she jumped right in.”
Yet the two women didn’t start in the way one might expect. They didn’t just pack up their pies and begin selling them. They met with the director of the farmer’s market and once they had her interest, they began building their brand. They had a logo designed, developed a website and created a Facebook page before anyone outside their immediate circle had even taken one bite.
“In hindsight, we were probably a little overly optimistic,” Kit laughed.
“I’m not sure if it was confidence or stupidity,” Amanda added, “but it was the best decision we could have made. We didn’t want to look like a low-end, mom-and-pop shop. You know what they say -- fake it 'til you make it. Well, that’s what we did. With our logo and packaging, people thought we were already in grocery stores.
“It was a risk though, especially for my mother. She needs to have money for retirement and we both tapped into our savings to do this.”
“I figured I’d always have my daughters to take care of me,” Kit teased. “But really, we needed to put fear aside. I was afraid at 40. I didn’t want to be afraid anymore.”
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So on a rainy day in January of 2011, the pair brought 75 tiny pies they’d baked from scratch in the commercial kitchen of the sorority house where Kit was still working, to the Barton Creek Farmers Market in Austin. They brought along samples of the Cinnamon Pie Poppers they’d both grown up on and a selection of something Kit had just come up with – Tiny Pie Pops. They put up a banner, that made it look like they’d been in business for years and stood there, bundled up in down jackets, waiting for their first customer.
“It was pretty amazing,” Amanda remembered. “A woman tasted our Pie Poppers and told us that they were just like what her Nana used to make. Others would talk about how they grew up with rhubarb growing in their backyards. The pies seemed to open up a window into everyone’s life. And by the end of the day, we’d sold every single one.”
It wasn’t long before the mother and daughter were selling at three markets a week and moving into a private commercial kitchen -- increasing their monthly rent from the $100 they paid at the sorority house to $1,000 for the extra space. And they both quit their jobs to gear up for the work ahead.
“We were working seven days a week,” Amanda said, “manning the markets on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays and baking on the other days. And we were hand rolling the dough. It was so labor intensive, Mom thought she was developing carpel tunnel. By June, we knew we had to invest in a sheeter -- a piece of equipment that would roll the dough out for us.”
And that investment was made just in time, because word of their Tiny Pies was beginning to hit the wedding circuit. Suddenly, pie was the new cake and the pair found themselves shipping hundreds of Tiny Pies across the country.
Then one afternoon, as Amanda was going through orders in her home kitchen, she picked up the phone to hear a proposal she wasn’t expecting.
“There was someone on the other end of the line saying they were considering us for the O list in Oprah’s magazine!”
“She couldn’t believe it,” Kit laughed.
But it was true and on August 2nd of this year, Amanda and Kit were at their local grocery store when they spotted the September issue of the magazine on the stand.
“We were in the check-out aisle and there we were!” Kit said. “Tiny Pie’s Tiny Pie Pops had made the list. It was hard not to run around the store and say look at us, look at us!”
But the two pie-preneurs needed to rush home, because with their Tiny Pies in the national spotlight, they not only had to get back to the kitchen, they had to start hiring employees. Their business has doubled in size in just a year and a half. And right now, they’re on the verge of launching a frozen version of their tiny sensations in some not-so-tiny supermarket chains.
“It’s amazing to set this example for my kids,” Amanda said proudly. “Before we started this business, all they saw was a mom who made lunches and cleaned up after them. But now my son brings me to career day at his school.”
“And the boys love to tell everyone, my grandmother has a pie company!” Kit laughed.
“So many women take care of themselves last,” Amanda said softly, “and they forget about their own personal growth. It’s so important to get in touch with what it is you really want to do. And invest in yourself. Who better to bet on than you?”
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