Restaurant is incubator for positive social change, and the pies are delicious, too!
By Jennifer Kornegay
Some of the best conversations are shared around tables, usually tables topped with food and drink. Proof of this can be found at PieLab in Greensboro, Ala., where bright ideas come out of mouths as readily as bites of pie and sips of coffee go in.
Opened in 2009, the restaurant/coffee shop sports sleek, contemporary furnishings in an old, wood-floored building on the main street of downtown and is not what you would expect to find in the “small-town” South. It is as much an incubator for positive social change as it is a place to eat. The “lab” portion of its name hints at this broader purpose, and the pie? Well, there’s some real power in the pie, as Pam Dorr, director of HERO Housing and a founder of PieLab, explains.
A Re-Energizing Recipe
“I work with a group in Greensboro called HERO (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization), a non-profit that works as a catalyst for community development,” she says. “As a housing resource center, HERO provides community resources, housing education and youth programming.”
A few years ago, HERO was working with a group of creative folks in Maine called Project M that creates platforms for collaboration and projects that contribute to communities in need. “One day we were sitting around discussing some projects and feeling a bit down. The economy was getting bad, and things just seemed bleak,” Dorr says.
To lift the mood, the group shifted topics and began talking about things that made them happy. “One girl started sharing her love of pie,” Dorr said, “and it just clicked. Everyone loves pie.
Project M decided to head down to Greensboro with Dorr and do a pie “pop-up” shop in a downtown building that HERO had recently renovated. “We had $600 to do it and figured it would just be this temporary thing, a neat way to spread some joy and bring the community together.”
But the pop-up shop proved so popular, it never actually “popped” back down. Today, three years later, PieLab is still baking and serving its pies to folks from both near and far.
Success in every slice
If you get down to its basic ingredients, PieLab is a welcoming spot for anyone and everyone to come eat and chat over what’s been heralded by the likes of Southern Living and other national media as some of the best pie anywhere on earth. It’s a community gathering place designed around the idea that the more folks talk to each other, the more likely they are to find common ground and do some common
good. “In just the last two weeks, we’ve had 47 volunteers come through to do projects for others in the community, people like designers and architects, and they all use PieLab as a home base,” Dorr says. “They get to enjoy good pie and good coffee, which we believe fosters conversation and ideas.”
But what’s happening behind the counter at PieLab is as important as any pie-fueled epiphanies sparking in front of it. In keeping with the mission of HERO, PieLab is staffed by a diverse mix of area residents who have one common denominator: They could use some job training, and PieLab is providing it.
“We employ young teen moms, prisoners on work release, seniors through the area aging council and others, and there’s a real emphasis put on job training so they are ready to get and keep a job somewhere else at some point,” Dorr says.
Don’t forget the pie
While it’s obvious that PieLab is about much more than the first half of its name, the sheer deliciousness of the pie should not go without note. Flavor offerings change regularly and range from pecan and blueberry to pina colada icebox and mandarin orange chess. Some of the recipes came from a bake-off and cookbook produced when the restaurant first opened. Others are submitted, often with heartfelt pleas attached. “We get things like, ‘please try my mom’s pecan pie recipe,’” Dorr says. “And we often do. If it’s good, we keep it in the rotation.”
Dorr’s personal favorite pie, at least right now, is, “homemade blueberry topped with homemade vanilla ice cream.” PieLab also serves some tasty lunch items, but whatever you do, don’t fill up on a burger or barbecue sandwich. Save some stomach space for a piece (or two) of pie.
Visit www.pielab.org to learn more and get directions and operating hours. You can also order a PieLab T-shirt or even design your own pie and have it shipped right to your door.