By the time the first customers visit her farmers market stand in Knoxville, Tenn., Dale Mackey ’07 has been awake for hours, frying and packaging hundreds of her signature palm-size pies.
Fried pies are a well-known southern treat, but not one that Mackey, originally from Illinois, had ever made before moving to Tennessee via Kentucky following graduation. She began experimenting with them in her home as a novelty for visitors and dinner guests, using her family's traditional pie recipe.
“I simply started making them,” Mackey recalls. “I come from a whole family of bakers. We love food! And these are a food rooted to place — many people here have a nostalgic connection to fried pies.”
Over time, traditional favorites such as apple or cherry also made room for combinations such as bourbon pecan or chipotle mac and cheese.
With both a resurgence of interest in local food production and the growing popularity of mobile food trucks, it wasn’t long before Mackey’s knack for pie-making transitioned into the kernel of a small business idea.
“It all started with a blog,” she quips, describing the process of fleshing out the idea and floating it among her friends. So convincing was her rough vision that people — including many Grinnellians who heard about her blog secondhand through social networks — began sending unsolicited donations to make her dream a reality.
“Grinnellians have been essential to my success from the beginning. It is so crazy how generous and enthusiastic people are [about my business]; I have received an outpouring of support from people I’ve never even met.”
This initial backing spurred Mackey to take the first steps toward selling pies, including construction of an iconic small blue stand. Then, reality struck: Working through necessary but tedious bureaucratic regulation delayed her launch for three crucial months of the 2012 summer market season.
That struggle found Mackey more committed than ever to bringing her pies to the public. She sought more support, and converted a food trailer so she wouldn’t have to rely on the kindness of friends with certified kitchens. It also means a couple hours of extra sleep and less waste, since she will be able to fry her pies on demand rather than before the market begins.
The pies themselves are responsible for only part of Mackey’s success. On market days, she plays a role, donning a vintage-inspired costume, subtly evoking the period many of her customers associate with fried pies. Comfort is built directly into the transaction. It’s a role that comes naturally to Mackey, one that she explored in her independent women’s literary studies major, which culminated in a thesis performance of her own one-woman show critiquing domesticity in the 1960s.
Well aware of the effect that the spark of other people’s enthusiasm and a small bit of funding can have on an idea, Dale’s Fried Pies regularly offers proceeds to young women with their own promising projects, an initiative Mackey calls Awesome Girl Squad. The program cultivates the same support for girls, telling them, “We think you can do this and here’s some money to support your dream.”
Check out Mackey’s blog on food and entertaining.
—Hilary Bown ’11