$1 million pie business started in home kitchen
05/20/2008 -Barbara and Michael Turney, owners of Mama Turney's Homemade Pies in Whites Creek, have built a $1 million-plus business since the mid-1990s.
They started small. Barbara began baking homemade chess and pecan pies in her kitchen for friends, branched out into neighborhood sales and then reached for the brass ring as a full-fledged wholesale bakery.
The company now has $1.3 million in annual sales, operating out of a roadside manufacturing plant off Buena Vista Pike, 20 minutes from downtown Nashville. Earlier this year, the U.S. Small Business Administration named the Turneys its Tennessee Small Business Persons of the Year, an honor that won the couple a trip to Washington for a White House reception.
The Turneys discussed the pleasure of hard work, homemade recipes and dreams of more sales with Business Editor Randy McClain.
Tell me about the pie company's early days. How did you get started, and how many pies did you sell that first year?
Barbara: It was always a family operation. We started the business in 1995 in my kitchen. I baked pies for friends and sold some as a way to make extra money. Mike had a friend who owned a barbecue restaurant. We started by putting our pies in that shop, and they started to sell more of my pies than they did their own barbecue.
Mike: The barbecue restaurant was here, in the same space that our pie company occupies today. I had quit a job as a meat cutter with a grocery chain to work at the barbecue restaurant. I was part owner. But it didn't work out very well. People weren't buying the barbecue.
I quit. I thought I had failed my family; that I had let Barbara down. But, actually, we had what we needed right in our hands and didn't realize it. The night that I quit the barbecue place, I went home and talked with Barbara and asked: 'Do you think we might be able to make some money if we concentrated on selling the pies?' Up to then, we hadn't been making enough pies really to get going. It was just a side business.
Mike: I went back to cutting meat for a living at Kroger, but in my spare time I took samples of Barbara's pies to six restaurants, including the old Arthur's restaurant in Union Station, which was a very high-end restaurant; and we went to Dan's Barbecue - on Eighth Avenue North.
Out of the six people that we sampled, three of them bought the product. I got home and I was ecstatic. I sold 50 percent of the customers that I approached. I told Barbara that if we could get 50 percent of the grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants, barbecue pits and so on, just in Nashville, maybe we could make a living selling pies.
Barbara, were you making all these pies in your kitchen at home? How many would you bake in a week?
Barbara: It started off very slowly, but as Mike sold more small accounts, I started to bake more. I must have burned up three or four heating units in my oven, I think, doing this. I was working part time at a day-care center and I would come home at 11 a.m. every day and bake pies, three big pies at a time.
Later, I got the chance to work in the kitchen at a deli on Buena Vista Pike. The owner of the convenience store - the one right next door to our pie operation now - said that if I would do his deli cooking for two-and-a-half hours on Saturday mornings, I could use his kitchen to bake pies. It was a trade, and it gave us a chance to get started rent-free.
How much money did you make that first year?
Barbara: I remember the first week we made $750 and we were ecstatic.
Mike: The first year we probably ended up making $10,000. But it grew very fast. We had some little convenience stores we were selling to. We made 9-inch pies and small 3-inch ones that were hand-wrapped.
Our big break was getting into Kroger stores. We were buying a lot of our materials and supplies from Kroger. I approached the store manager of a Kroger store on Clarksville Highway about selling him some pies. We were still baking at home then. The guy asked if I could make him 50 pies. I lied and said that we could.
Barbara baked all night making those pies, and Kroger sold them in a day's time. That store manager called another manager at another Kroger store, and he stuck his neck out. He ordered 50 or 60 pies and those sold out.
How did you go from selling to a handful of supermarkets to selling pies regionally, as you do today?
Mike: In the late 1990s, we met with the deli merchandise manager of Kroger's - after we had proven ourselves delivering directly to a few of their stores - and he gave us the free hand to take on as many Kroger stores as we could deliver to. I was working as a meat cutter for Kroger again at this time. But we had a vision of how to build the pie business.
As the business expanded, how did you keep pace with production; how did you bake enough pies?
Mike: When we got up to 24 stores, my son and Barbara would bake during the day, and I would deliver - sometimes until midnight or 1 a.m., and then I'd go back to work cutting meat at Kroger as early as I could, so I could put in my eight hours there and then deliver more pies.
The deli manager said we were doing just fine servicing our 24 stores, and the next step was to see if we could take one item and mass produce it. He put us in the warehouse with our pecan pie. He gave us an open purchase order. He told us to make pecan pies until he called up and said, "stop."
The first order was during the holidays for 24,000 pecan pies, and we made those. Over a seven-week period, we made about 77,000 pies. I think it was a test to see if we'd buckle.
Barbara: It was quite a feat. With the ovens we had at that time, the most we could bake was 150 pies at a time. Sometimes I worked all day until
8 p.m. or 9 p.m., really pushing it, always baking, almost never going home.
How many employees do you have today? And what are annual sales?
Mike: We have 10 employees and we can bake 2,500 to 2,700 large pies a day. Basically, we're doing chess, chocolate and pecan, and we do a sweet potato seasonal pie and a lemon chess pie also. Our sales are about $1.3 million a year. Some years we've seen annual sales increase as much as $250,000 or $300,000 a year.
Who are some of your major customers?
Mike: Publix, Piggly Wiggly, Robert Orr Sysco (food services), Charles C. Parks Co. distributors, L.P. Shanks distributing company. We have several restaurants, Swett's, Jack's Bar-B-Que, and we sell to a lot of convenience stores. More than anything it's building relationships and doing your homework.
Barbara: You have to be persistent - not aggressive, but persistent. If one door closes, there are other doors.
Were there any sales you turned down as a young company because you couldn't handle it at the time?
Mike: A few years ago, we did a Pick Tennessee grocers' association food show and Wal-Mart fell in love with our product. There were eight Wal-Mart guys around our table. They sent us new item forms to fill out to get into their stores. But we were also wooing another zone of Kroger stores, and we felt like we hadn't gotten all we could get out of the Kroger (relationship) at that point. Plus, we had heard horror stories about Wal-Mart dictating what you could sell. So, we walked away from it. I didn't formally call them and turn it down, but I did not pursue the business. We let it go.
Barbara: And we knew that even if we got the (Wal-Mart) business we wouldn't have been able to do it. The dollar signs were in our eyes, but we didn't feel like we could produce enough pies either.
What do you consider one of your early mistakes? And what's next?
Mike: At first, I was afraid to increase the price of our product. Today, our pie sells for $10.99; it's one of the more expensive pies out there. But in the early days it was much less. I was afraid to price us out of the market. If I had to do it all over again, I'd probably raise prices earlier. If you have something of quality, people will pay for it. When people taste our pies, they become repeat customers.
Barbara: Now, one of our other goals is to get some automation on the baking side. Today, every one of our pies is hand poured. I don't care if we do 50 or 2,000 (pies) in a day. We hand pour all of them. The next piece of equipment we buy will address that.
Mike: Another goal is to land more accounts. Right now, we are in Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, parts of Indiana and parts of Florida.
We'd like to be more of a national company and not just regional. That's something we're working on.
We're Expanding Our Territory
A few of our newest clients include: Tree of Life/Publix in Kennesaw, GA, Lapari Foods, Inc.located in Warren, MI, the Kroger grocery chain of Cinncinati, OH, and the Aramark Corp. of Dunton Wagner, located in Virginia.