Joye B. Moore kept pinching herself in the past week to make sure she wasn’t dreaming as her Joyebells Sweet Potato Pies landed on the shelves of area Food Lion stores.
“It has been amazing. It’s surreal. I’m sitting here and I still can’t believe it,” said Moore, who turned a family tradition of baking sweet potato pies over six generations into a budding family-run business.
More than 40 area Food Lion stores last Friday began selling the 9-inch deep dish pies made from a recipe passed down generations by the last woman in her family born into slavery. Depending on sales, Joyebells Sweet Potato Pies possibly could be available at all Food Lion stores in Virginia in the next year or so, and then at the supermarket chain’s stores in other states.
Sales have been good so far, she said. She stocks each store with 10 pies. One store sold out the first day and a couple of others sold out soon after.
“I’m so grateful, so thankful to our RVA family and customers that they just have been awesome, super supportive. It’s just been awesome,” she said.
“But of course you know I’m nervous because I’m human,” she said. “I believe in the pies so I knew it [the support] wasn’t far-fetched. But at the same time, I was nervous. What if they didn’t sell? What if everyone was slow to come in?”
Then she started to get word about those stores being sold out. Fans were emailing or posting on social media photos of the pies in their grocery basket or holding the pie up in front of the Food Lion store.
“It’s just beautiful,” she said of the excitement she’s received over her pies.
Moore credits the success to the recipe handed down over the years from her great-great-great-grandmother, Sarah Mae Howell.
“I think she would say, ‘Praise God,’ because our family is very religious,” Moore said about her great-great-great-grandmother. “And I think she’d be very, very, very proud.”
The Richmond woman has significantly increased production. Her business is baking about 700 pies a week to supply the area Food Lion stores and a handful of independent grocery stores, including the Market @ 25th in Church Hill, Good Foods Grocery and Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market. Last year, she was producing about 300 pies a month.
She expects to generate about $350,000 in revenue this year, up from $53,000 last year. Food Lion charges $10.99 for one of her pies.
Moore readily admits that she has faced many challenges, noting the hard work, long hours and perseverance to overcome numerous obstacles is paying off to get her to this point. But she knows she will be facing more challenges.
“She’s really put a lot of sweat equity into this business,” said Austin Green, co-founder and executive director of Hatch Kitchen RVA, the coworking kitchen space for food businesses in South Richmond where Moore bakes pies.
“The bottom line is that she and her team work really, really hard, and Joye has been really smart about making these business connections and continuing to broaden the distribution,” Green said. “It takes a long time to close a deal with somebody like Food Lion and she stuck with it.”
Moore had expected to have her pies in area Food Lion stores last fall. Despite the delays, she kept pursuing the opportunity.
Rick Hall, Food Lion’s local merchandising specialist in the deli-bakery areas, said he’s excited that the chain can now sell Joyebells Sweet Potato Pies.
“We have strong partnerships with many local vendors near our stores and are always looking to carry more great local products,” he said. “Partnering with local vendors is a great way for us to help nourish our neighbors while also helping to grow the towns and cities we serve.”
Moore started her business making her sweet potato pies after her position at a local nonprofit organization was eliminated in May 2019.
She was devastated when she lost her job, but she regrouped and switched gears. Getting into the sweet potato pie making business was something she had always dreamed of doing.
For decades, she made dozens of pies at Thanksgiving and Christmas to give as gifts to family and friends.
The 56-year-old remembers as a very young child watching her great-great-grandmother make pies on the family farm.
“My sister and I would sit at the table with our biscuits and butter and molasses and watch her make sweet potato pies,” Moore said.
Then she later helped her mother make pies. “The kitchen was the happy place. The music would be blasting while we got the potatoes going to make the pies,” said Moore, whose family nicknamed her “Joyebell.” (The “B” in her middle name stands for her maiden name Berry.)
The first break for her budding business came in the fall of 2019 when she started selling her pies at The Dairy Bar restaurant in Scott’s Addition and then at the Market @ 25th on Church Hill. A few weeks later, Moore appeared on a live pie cook-off on NBC’s “Today” show.
She got word late last summer about the Food Lion deal being in the works. Moore was ecstatic.
This week she’s pitching her pies virtually with buyers from other grocery chains and food providers.
To grow her business, Hatch Kitchen, the business incubator for startup companies in the food industry, is in the process of expanding its space in the Clopton Siteworks to include a co-packing operation designed to help its members with food production.
When Hatch Packaging begins the co-packing operations later this year, it will be able to produce Joyebell’s Sweet Potato Pies for Moore using her recipe and baking techniques, Green said. Moore and her family are making the pies at Hatch Kitchen themselves.
Like other co-packing operations, “we would work with her to make sure that the quality control is where she needs it to be. She’ll still be involved in her own product, but we would be basically helping her by producing the higher volumes,” Green said. “That would free her up to be able to really work on scaling the business. Right now, she’s in there baking all the time. It’s time for us to give her some help on the production side, so she can get out there and really sell the product.”
Moore said it will be better for her to grow the business by having a relationship with a co-packing operator rather than trying to produce the pies herself.
“It’s more nimble that way. The only thing to put in place is a distributor and as we build our funds we’ll be ready rollout throughout the southeast region,” she said.
Her business is going to self-fund its expansion program.
“We will use revenues generated from being in the initial stores to exponentially fund our rollout throughout the Food Lion stores first in the state and then rolling out from there,” Moore said. “If we do get a partner [an investor] along the way, that would be awesome.”