Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Building communities easy as pie

Deep in the heart of Greensboro, just 45 minutes south of Tuscaloosa, traditional business models are a thing of the past. For PieLab, this means blurring the line between restaurant and design studio, and more importantly, the line between for-profit business and non-profit organization.

It all started when 14 designers, graphic artists and industrial engineers from the Northeast packed their belongings and moved to Alabama’s Black Belt. They had a vision. They wanted to change the community surrounding Greensboro, and they planned to do that by serving free pie and using design in creative, humanitarian ways.

The designers became inspired after they served free pie to passers-by in downtown Belfast, Maine, where they were working at the time. They realized the power of pie to bring people together, and soon PieLab was born.

“Conversation plus design – that has always been PieLab’s motto,” said Cate Powell, who coordinates PieLab’s sales and marketing. “We believe in bringing community members together. You come in, you get pie and you sit at two long tables with complete strangers.”

Though its mission is the same as it was when it first opened, PieLab has undergone significant changes since its establishment in Greensboro in 2009, Powell said.

Initially a non-profit organization run by “outsiders” of the town, PieLab served free pie, provided a space for locals to gather, and engaged in projects ranging from giving locals running water to designing websites.

The founders meant for PieLab to be a quick project that would eventually grow into a sustainable business owned and operated by Greensboro citizens, and it has done just that, Powell said.

“We’ve transitioned from being a graphic design studio to a sustainable, locally operated business,” she said. “It’s nice to think about non-profit work, but unless customers are coming through the door, the business just isn’t sustainable.”

Now, as a for-profit business that’s backed by the non-profit Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization, PieLab sells cheap pie while also providing job-training to locals.

PieLab itself employs several Greensboro citizens and is also very active with YouthBuild, a national program connected to HERO that offers job-training to high school students. PieLab also employs two incarcerated prisoners.

“They help me a lot,” said Deanna Lucky, the head chef and manager of PieLab. “They’re allowed to work during the day, and they are involved in everything. They wash dishes, cook, clean… everything.”

Another employee was working as a cashier at a grocery store before she came to PieLab and another hadn’t ever had a job before coming to PieLab. Neither knew anything about cooking.

For the last five months, Lucky, who attended culinary school, has been teaching her employees and giving them culinary experience, hospitality training and business skills. She said she didn’t hesitate to take the job when it was offered to her.

“I’ve never been in a position to be able to teach,” she said. “I was excited about it. People who come in here aren’t trained, and I teach them and get to see how their learning progresses and evolves.”

Powell said PieLab’s main focus is to provide jobs and job training, but its other goal is “to sell the most delicious, high quality pies with the most creative flavors.”

She also sees the importance of promoting PieLab outside Greensboro.

“I see my job as spreading the story and our mission,” Powell said.

This past Tuesday at the Bama Theatre, Powell provided free pie to moviegoers before the screening of the last film for the Bama Art House Winter Film Series. In 2010, the Bama Theatre hosted a fundraiser for PieLab called “Black Tie Pie,” which featured singer-songwriter Amy Stroup and several groups from the University’s department of theatre and dance.

“Tuscaloosa is the closest big center and hub of not only great art but great networking opportunities,” she said. “Events like these are great opportunities for PieLab to expand its customer base.”

But Tuscaloosa is not the only place where PieLab has received recognition. The New York Times published an article about PieLab last year, and out-of-towners from places like Tuscaloosa, Atlanta and even New York stop by all the time, Powell said.

“It’s gotten a lot of national press, and I think it has to do with our mission,” she said. “That’s what American business needs right now – local communities creating jobs and outlets for community development.”

Even Powell was immediately attracted to PieLab’s mission. Though she grew up in the South, she fought her roots for most of her life.

After going to school in California, studying abroad and receiving her master’s in international affairs from Georgia Tech in Atlanta, she began asking herself, “How can I get back to the South? That’s where I really want to be.”

She said, “For some reason, pies kept entering my mind. I initially thought I’d open a pie shop with my father, who is a lawyer by day but cooks as a hobby.”

And then she visited PieLab.

After driving 12 hours round-trip with her parents, being in Alabama for only 12 hours and buying six slices of pie each, she knew PieLab was the place for her.

She volunteered with PieLab a few weeks later, and after devising a shipping program that would allow PieLab to ship their pies throughout the country, the director offered her a six-month position to promote sales, and she’s been doing that for the last three weeks.

“I fell in love with this place and the idea of social business,” she said.

Lucky said, “It’s a great place. I like what they’re doing here.”

PieLab, which is located just 38 miles south of Tuscaloosa on Greensboro’s Main Street, is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit

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