Joye B. Moore is a sixth-generation sweet potato pie baker.
Her recipe was passed down from her great-great-great-grandmother, Susan-Mae Howell, the last woman in her family to be born into slavery.
Last October, Moore turned the family tradition into a family-run business called Joyebells Sweet Potato Pies.
“I’ve always had a dream of having something that was my own,” the Henrico County woman said. “I always wanted to own my own business.”
Within a month, business was booming.
“We sold more than 300 pies the week of Thanksgiving. When we got to Market @ 25th with the pies, there was a huge crowd waiting for us,” she said. “We rounded the corner and they yelled, ‘There she is.’”
A few weeks later, Moore was nominated to compete in a live pie cook-off on NBC’s “Today” show.
“I couldn’t believe it when I got the call,” she said. “When Al [Roker] said, ‘You’re on,’ my heart was pounding, but I just felt my energy come alive.”
Moore’s family began helping her with the business in December to keep up with the growing demand. Her sister works as production supervisor. Her husband is the chief operating officer. Her son is the company’s chief brand strategist as well as a production assistant to help bake the pies. Her daughter also works as a production assistant.
Besides the Market @ 25th in Church Hill, her pies are sold in Good Foods Grocery in the Stony Point Shopping Center in South Richmond, Little House Green Grocery on Bellevue Avenue in Richmond, and through curbside pickup at Hatch Kitchen RVA on Maury Street in South Richmond.
And starting in September, Joyebells Sweet Potato Pies should be available at Food Lion stores in Virginia initially and then at the supermarket chain’s stores in 10 other states.
Another Richmond-area female baker could be selling her sweet potato pies at a national chain.
Mary D. Lee of North Chesterfield started her sweet potato pie business, Mary D. Lee’s Kitchen, in 2011.
In late 2017, Lee traveled to Walmart’s headquarters in Arkansas to pitch her sweet potato pie during the retailer’s annual product pitch event. She was offered a deal on the spot, but she is still working through the details with Walmart.
“I promised my late mother that I wouldn’t stop until her pies were in every store in the United States,” Lee said. “She worked so hard as a janitor at a hospital in Long Island, and she’d come home and bake sweet potato pies. As kids, we used to get to lick the spoon and help her.”
Lee, who is a social worker, decided to start Mary D. Lee’s Kitchen after she won a cooking competition at work with her mother’s sweet potato pie recipe.
“From that moment on, everyone kept asking me to bake a pie,” she said. “That’s when I decided to take it a little more seriously and get the pies into the stores.”
Right now, she bakes 20 pies a week with her daughter in her home kitchen. But she plans to work with a manufacturer so she can increase production to supply the Walmart stores.
Landing a deal with Food Lion is a game changer for Moore.
“I always thought that I could do it, and I always wanted to do it. But now I know that I can, despite how hard it is and despite the obstacles,” she said.
Moore’s pies will be sold in Food Lion’s Virginia stores first and then eventually in other states.
Right now, Moore and her family bake about 320 pies each week at Hatch Kitchen RVA, a coworking kitchen space for food businesses in South Richmond. Hatch Kitchen opened in the Clopton Siteworks complex in early 2019 to serve as a business incubator for startup companies in the food industry.
Moore will have to significantly increase production by September once her pies are sold at Food Lion.
“We’re trying to work out logistics now to be able to produce that in a shared kitchen space,” she said. “We’re probably going to have to bake through the night.”
She hopes to secure funding so she can scale production to prepare for her Food Lion account, move into a larger space within Hatch RVA and hire more employees.
Hatch Kitchen RVA is working with Moore to help her as she continues to increase production, said Austin Green, co-founder and executive director of Hatch Kitchen RVA.
“Right now we are exploring different production equipment and ways to scale Joyebells in the near term with our eyes on the future,” Green said. “We are focused on optimizing current processes as they ramp up sales, while considering dedicated space within the overall Hatch expansion.”
Hatch Kitchen has been planning to expand its space in the Clopton Siteworks to include additional storage space and a co-packing operation designed to help its members with production.
Moore started Joyebells Sweet Potato Pies after her position at NextUp RVA was eliminated because the nonprofit, which provides after school programming, restructured.
She was devastated when she lost her job because she had a personal connection to NextUp RVA’s cause. Growing up, her mother had an untreated mental illness, and Moore faced abuse at home. She was homeless from age 14 to 17 and relied on an after-school program in Dallas for meals and structure.
“There was a teacher at the YMCA after school program who always asked me, ‘Have you done your homework?’ I would credit her and the YMCA with helping me stay in school and graduate on time, despite being homeless and living in abandoned houses,” she said.
At age 56, Moore switched gears and decided to start her business — something she had always dreamed of doing.
“I had to pull myself up out of wallowing and say, ‘What are you going to do now?’ I said I’m either going to have to start over and prove my worth all over again, or am I going to know my worth and start my own business? So that’s what I did,” she said.
Her pie business has grown significantly in less than a year, Moore said.
But she has faced many challenges since starting the business — and she knows she will be facing more.
“The most difficult thing has been being a startup that is owned by a minority female,” she said. “It is real that I’ve been handled differently and viewed differently than another startup of my peer who happens to not look like me.”
Moore wasn’t eligible for any federal stimulus funding during the coronavirus pandemic.
She received grants from the Metropolitan Business League, the Virginia Local Initiatives Support Corp., the U.S. Small Business Administration and the ChamberRVA.
Melody Short, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Business League, which serves small, minority- and women-owned businesses in central Virginia, said many women and minority-owned businesses struggle to secure funding.
“A lot of women and minority-owned businesses didn’t have the necessary things in place to be able to take advantage of PPP [the Paycheck Protection Program, which provided forgivable loans for small businesses] ... because of the stipulations that were put in place to be able to access these loans, which is so unfortunate because it really cut out so many minority-owned businesses,” Short said.
Over the next few months, Moore hopes that people will look past the fact that she’s a startup and “see the potential, see the value in the product and see the value in our hustle every day.”
She also plans to launch an internet cooking show called Joyebells Kitchen.
“We’ll be featuring local Richmond chefs and up-and-coming chefs. I really want to support the ones who are like me, who need a little extra support or for someone to put a spotlight on them,” she said. “It will be on YouTube, the website and Instagram — until Oprah or Food Network picks it up.”