Pie Lab’s Community Chemistry

They are enjoying the life of pie in the tiny west Alabama town of Greensboro — apple, blueberry, key lime, chocolate cream, lemon icebox and all things pecan.

Dozens of these mouth-watering treats are produced every week at an unassuming little Main Street store called Pie Lab. But true to its name, Pie Lab is something of a creative laboratory where much more than dessert is on the menu.

It is an idea that, on the surface, seems better suited to Greenwich Village than Greensboro. Create a community space where people can gather, drink coffee, eat pie and have a conversation. Then use that same facility as a space for activities that benefit the community, such as job-training programs and charitable banquets.

It certainly is an ambitious undertaking in a town of approximately 2, 500. But since it was created in 2009, Pie Lab has far exceeded the initial expectations of those involved in the project. It has grown to the point that Pie Lab now has Facebook fans in other countries and attracts numerous visitors who abandon the interstate and hit the back roads to seek out the store on their way to the beach or University of Alabama football games.

“It’s turned into something way more than we ever thought that it would be, ” says Tyler Pinegar, program manager for the Hale Empowerment & Revitalization Organization (HERO), a Hale County community development organization that helps run the facility. “It’s crazy to see how many people are interested in coming to Greensboro just because they heard about Pie Lab. Everything just kind of exploded. We’re very excited about it, but we’re also all pretty much in complete shock every day that people care enough.”

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An architectural company called Project M, which was modeled after Auburn’s famous Rural Studio, concocted the recipe for Pie Lab. They took a small space that used to be occupied by a pool hall, set up a graphic design studio in the back and placed Pie Lab in the front. Eventually Project M donated the entire space to HERO, which began operating the pie shop.

For some reason that none of the people involved with Pie Lab seem to understand, the store quickly became extremely popular. The pies were delicious, but there also was an important connection to the surrounding community. In a town with limited entertainment options, Pie Lab became the place to go, to meet friends, drink coffee and explore the Internet.

“There’s not a whole lot to do in a small town, ” says Pie Lab Manager John Wilkerson, a native of Greensboro. “We just wanted something that brings people together to have fun. And everyone loves pie. If you come in and sit down and have a piece of pie, you can end up having a conversation with somebody who you might not even have spoken to on the street. We’re basically trying to bring people together through pie.”

In addition to pie, the store has branched out to offer a light lunch that usually consists of a quiche and one other option, such as a grilled sandwich or pasta dish. Wilkerson and three other employees handle the cooking and the daily operations of the shop (Pie Lab is closed on Mondays).

“We’ve gone further than they originally intended us to be as far as food production, ” Wilkerson says. “This is kind of a small place, so sometimes it can be a challenge as far as working space and everything. We’re basically making all this food right there where everybody is eating.”

The pies, of course, are the stars of the show, and they are what bring in visitors from around the country. “If this place wasn’t 12 hours away, I’d be there every day, ” reads a post on the Pie Lab Facebook page from a woman in Columbus, Ohio. “Every single thing I had there was excellent, and I might actually hurt someone if they got between me and the lemon icebox pie.”

But it is the connection with HERO that makes Pie Lab more than just a pie shop. HERO began in 1994 as a family-resource center. Over the years, it has expanded into other areas of community service, including foreclosure assistance, budget counseling, home-repair programs and energy efficiency programs.

HERO has worked with FEMA to help victims of the April 2011 tornadoes and has coordinated projects with Habitat for Humanity.

Many of the meetings involving these various projects take place at Pie Lab. Pinegar says HERO also has a program involving at-risk youth who have dropped out of school or been in jail. They are put into a job-training program at Pie Lab to gain work experience while studying for their GED.

Wilkerson says long-range goals include opening Pie Lab at night (it currently closes at 5 p.m., 2 p.m. on Sunday) to show movies or have live music performances. Pinegar says HERO eventually would like to sell Pie Lab to a local community member. Until then, they will continue to cook up new ideas and marvel at what their little pie-in-the-sky idea has become.

“I’m always in shock at how much things have grown, ” Pinegar says. “It’s definitely crazy. We just kind of go with the chaotic flow everyday. We never know what’s going to happen.”

Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

Cary Estes

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