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The Power of Pie

The Power of Pie
By Jennifer Stewart Kornegay | Photos by Caleb Chancey | Originally published in TLP's August 2017 issue.

A bakery brings hope to a small community in Alabama’s Black Belt

Can a piece of pie save the world?

Probably not. But thanks to the simple sentiments baked into their crusts and stirred into their fillings, a slice from a Pie Lab pie can play a part in boosting the prospects of a small, rural town. At least that’s what Seaborn Whatley, owner of the restaurant and bakery in Greensboro, Alabama, believes. “This place is a bright spot here, and it’s about more than pie,” he says. Elbows resting on a distressed wood table in Pie Lab’s home—an old building outfitted with long tables and chairs in a mish-mash of materials and styles—Whatley absentmindedly thumbs through a beat-up spiral notebook, its dog-eared pages covered in the neat block print of his recipes, as he dishes out his and Pie Lab’s stories.

Pie Lab owner Seaborn Whatley greets a customer.

He grew up in the area, in Havana, an even smaller town about ten miles down the road, but left to go to college at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, thinking he’d become a geologist. But Whatley learned quickly that classes and labs weren’t the places for him. He started working in bars and restaurants and found his calling in kitchens. He and his dad bought an existing Greensboro restaurant called Magnolia, and about two years into his cooking there, he made his “chef” title more official when he accepted a partial scholarship and attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York. After graduation, he spent a few years as the executive sous chef of the Troutbeck Inn in New York. But when his brother died, Whatley came back to Alabama. “I assumed I could find a spot at a restaurant in Tuscaloosa (the nearest city of any size), but I didn’t. I was kinda overqualified for everything that came available,” he says. He found a chef job in Montgomery and then it was back to Tuscaloosa for a bit. In 2012, he heard that Pie Lab, which had opened in Greensboro in 2009, was looking for some new ideas and new energy, so he went home again.

Pie Lab is in Greensboro’s downtown, and when it baked its first pies, was one of only a few storefronts on Main Street not empty and locked up. Sitting in the middle of Alabama’s Black Belt, a stretch in the center of the state marked by rich soil and high poverty, Greensboro (population 2,500) and surrounding Hale County have struggled for decades. A group called HERO (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization) created Pie Lab to help change that. The nonprofit works as a catalyst for community development by offering housing and educational resources. Pie Lab began as a pop-up to raise funds and lift spirits, and it was so popular it never popped back down. HERO opened Pie Lab as a permanent space and decided to use it as a training center for folks in need of employment skills. It worked; people were getting off welfare and bringing home paychecks.

Military veteran-turned-chef Tomas Jackson, one of the main bakers at Pie Lab.

It was inspiring stuff, but it wasn’t sustainable. When Whatley and his wife Kelley (also a chef) stepped in as chefs and managers, they realized the place needed more than an expanded menu and someone to make it. “It had, and has, a broader mission—but it is a business that has to make money to keep doing the good work,” Whatley says. And now, it’s run like one. “They were making five pies a day,” he says. “We’ve already made seventy pies today.”

HERO board members saw the difference Whatley’s changes were making and decided to step back. “We turned a profit for the first time, and the board said, ‘We need to get out of this,’ and they turned it over to me and Kelley,” he says. They now own Pie Lab, and HERO is no longer directly involved, but the Whatleys support the original goals. “We’re still providing jobs and job skills, focusing on the kids in this area,” he says.

Pie Lab employs between eight and ten people at any given time, and in a community Greensboro’s size, that has real economic impact. Whatley knows he can motivate the young people he hires to work hard and thinks a kitchen is the best place to do it. “There seems to be a lack of work ethic in some kids now. I see it in my own kids, and it’s not just here, it’s everywhere,” he says. “It’s not always the desire to work that’s lacking; they just don’t know how. I can teach them that here.”

Jackson serves as a mentor to the bakery's younger employees.

Pie Lab employees learn the basics, things like being punctual and being courteous with customers, but Whatley stresses the specific skills gained in a restaurant environment that are applicable everywhere. “There’s a sense of urgency in a kitchen. You have to get the job done and get it done right, in a way that pleases others,” he says. “In an open kitchen like ours, you also have to work neatly and keep things organized and clean.”

Landon Hassell, 21, has learned all of this and more in his four years at Pie Lab. He started washing dishes and has moved up to manager. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned a lot about being responsible, being organized, and how to manage my time,” he says. “I’ve learned to cook, too. Before, it was microwave-only for me. Now, I make two of our best pies: coconut cream and chocolate cream.” He believes the knowledge he’s acquired will help him anywhere, but he’s looking into culinary classes at a nearby community college. “I could probably get a job at a lot of places now, but I think I’d like to stay in a kitchen.”

In contrast, Amanda Stuber has taken the tools gained during her time at Pie Lab to pursue a career as a pharmacist. The 20-year-old Greensboro native only spent a year at the restaurant but considers the experience invaluable. “I learned so many things, including how to cook, which helped me get a job at a hospital cafeteria in Tuscaloosa while I wait to start pharmacy school,” she says. “But what really comes in handy is knowing how to talk to so many different kinds of people,” she says. “Dealing with folks from all over at Pie Lab really improved my customer service.”

Pie Lab's tender, flaky crust is its claim to fame.

Pie Lab is also an incubator for ideas, a spot where pie fuels conversations and connections. On any given day, the open, airy space warmed by reclaimed wood and exposed brick hosts grandmas, teens, and everyone in between. They chat, refill mugs with hot joe at the self-serve coffee station, ogle the pies in the glass case up front, or can be found already digging into the pie of their choice. “We are definitely a gathering place,” Whatley says. “We have community tables, so you don’t sit by yourself. Folks from all walks of life, all ages and races, come here to sit and talk and stay in touch with each other and what is going on in the town.”

When Whatley talks about what’s going on in Greensboro, what Pie Lab has done and what he hopes it will continue to do, his emphasis is less on job training and thought sharing and more on the attention it’s brought to the area. “Pie Lab put Greensboro on the map. The word spread fast, and we’ve become a tourist attraction, with people from all over going out of their way to come here,” he says. Those visitors are eating pie and then looking around, spending money in other local shops, putting tax revenues into city coffers. “By bringing that traffic here, other businesses have been able to open and prosper, and that’s more jobs,” he says. And the visitors are going home and telling their friends. “It just grows. We are a good face, an ambassador for the whole town. I want folks to come to Pie Lab and then go look at the rest.”

Pie Lab regular Larry Burt agrees. He’s been in Greensboro most of his life and spends a half hour or so in Pie Lab three to four times a week. “The food and pie are great,” he says. “It’s a neat place to hang around, with people coming in from all over. But it’s really nice to see the young people there working.” Just having a job is a win. “Jobs are hard to come by here,” Burt says. But he’s also watched area teens grow up. “I’ve seen them come to Pie Lab in early high school and then leave to go be nurses, get into business, a few have gone to culinary school. By teaching them how to communicate and deal with the public, Pie Lab is preparing them for all kinds of futures.” And the restaurant is seen by many, like Burt, as a ray of sunshine spreading light and warmth. He slows down and adds emphasis when he says, echoing Whatley, “Pie Lab is a bright spot we need.”

But Whatley refuses to take sole credit; he gives it to other native sons and daughters who are now coming back like he did. “My generation is continuing the progress that Pie Lab helped get started,” he says. “We don’t want to see our town die. I sure don’t. My family has been in this area since 1814.”

'It takes me back to being a kid and pulling Oreos apart to lick out the center,' Whatley says of the spot's Oreo pie.

Pie Lab’s initial success keeps expanding as Whatley works to make its pies more available outside of Greensboro. He’s currently taking about one hundred pies each weekend to the Market at Pepper Place in Birmingham and always sells out. You can get Pie Lab pies at other markets and shops around Alabama— in Tuscaloosa, Montevallo, Demopolis, and Selma, and he’s looking for a spot to sell them in Montgomery. “We make about 300 to 400 pies each week right now,” he says. In the three days leading up to Thanksgiving last year, he and his staff turned out almost 1,500 pies. Pie Lab also offers lunch: a mix of salads, sandwiches, soups, and savory pies, like an array of quiches that changes daily.

And while Whatley sees Pie Lab as more than pie, those numbers make it clear that the pie is still key. Flavor offerings change regularly; each day’s options are listed on a chalkboard behind the counter and range from classics like key lime, pecan, blackberry, and peanut butter to brown sugar buttermilk, chocolate espresso chess, and carrot cake pie, a treat Kelley came up with last spring. Whatley’s chocolate bourbon pecan pie is the best seller, and he jokes that he could probably get away with only serving it. “I mean it’s got chocolate and bourbon in it, so that’s pretty much all you need, right?”

Pie Lab's spinach quiche.

No matter the filling or topping, the crust is the foundation that Pie Lab’s prosperity is built on. Buttery and tender but with a little bite in each whisper-thin layer, “It’s a major part of what makes our pies popular; Kelley and I came up with it, playing around with ingredients and techniques until we got it just right,” Whatley says. It’s a proven recipe that he won’t divulge, although he did offer a tip. “No matter what pie dough you’re using, the trick is to not overwork it. You’ve got to know when to let it be, or it will get tough.”

Whatley may use a light touch with pie dough, but he’s going heavy on his commitment to the future of his community. “This is God’s country here. It’s beautiful,” he says. “You get to know everyone, and it’s just a nice place to be and to raise kids. The main thing needed is more jobs.”

He summed up why something as simple as pie can make a meaningful difference. “Food in general brings people together, and everyone loves pie,” he says. “It’s communal. It conjures childhood memories and makes people happy.” And he believes there’s power in Pie Lab pies, or at least in the passion behind them, that’s yielding results. “Greensboro is coming back, I see a real future for it.”