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Fallback career gives rise to pies

There’s nothing easy about the pie business.


MILWAUKEE — There's nothing easy about the pie business.

Johnathan Dye's world headquarters, as he jokingly puts it, is wherever he and his cellphone happen to be. His delivery van is his car. He bakes at a friend's restaurant.

But Dye, schooled in the kitchen years ago by his grandmother and now an accomplished baker of sweet potato, pecan and Key lime pies, has been slowly building his following and is hoping to increase production soon.

His one-man, 3-year-old business, Mr. Dye's Pies, reflects the rising interest in artisanal, locally produced food that has spawned a growing number of small ventures.

Milwaukee-area grocery operations say they are seeing more local producers of food items seeking shelf space.

"Local is what people are looking for," said Jim Neumeyer, co-owner of an area market and deli. "Smart people are seeing that and they're going for it."

Another possible factor contributing to the surge in food entrepreneurship: the sharp economic downturn and subsequent slow recovery.

"I think a lot of it comes from the recession and people really deciding that they'd rather take their own chances," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic Inc., a food-industry consulting and research firm in Chicago.

Dye, 39, knows about that. A business graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, he turned to baking after losing an investment sales job.

As a child, he had spent hours in the kitchen with his grandmother. He started out watching and asking questions. Then came stirring, and chopping vegetables.

By age 10, he was baking sugar cookies. By 12 or 13, he said, "I knew my way around the kitchen pretty good."

He continued to cook as an adult, and started to get requests from friends, particularly for his sweet potato pie.

"People were always calling to get them," Dye said.

So when he found himself out of work, baking seemed worth a try. He's been making as many as 40 pies a day. He sells them at a handful of restaurants and to people who call in their orders.

The pies get high marks from restaurateurs Alisha Hayes and Darnell Ashley, who sell Dye's pies at their establishments.

"They sell because that's a Southern thing, a nice good dessert," Ashley said.

Dye's marketing efforts have been a mixture of the old — papering the city with fliers by the thousands — and the new. He has 4,400 Facebook fans and 11,700 Twitter followers, who get notified when he makes a new "pie drop" at one of the restaurants.

Dye also sells at farmers markets and events, and recently landed an upscale, suburban grocer as a customer. He is thinking about opening a shop, possibly this fall.

"My brand is strong enough where I think we'll be able to carry a retail spot," he said.

He has found somewhat slow-going, though, in his effort to raise money to buy a convection oven.

Such an oven would greatly expand his baking capacity. To secure the several thousand dollars the equipment would cost, Dye has a campaign on Kiva Zip, a microlending program that recently launched a Milwaukee operation.

Kiva, based in San Francisco, uses the Internet to connect the smallest of small-business owners with people willing to make no-interest loans to support entrepreneurship and local enterprise.

Borrowers initially are limited to $10,000. Individual loan amounts can be as modest as $5, so the system depends on attracting lots of small lenders.

Borrowers post descriptions of themselves and their businesses on the Kiva Zip website, typically along with endorsements from an approved organization in their community. They get 45 days to raise the money.

Sixteen Milwaukee-area businesses have hit their fundraising goals since January, and Kiva Zip director Jonny Price said the pace here has been particularly fast.

Dye stands at 38 percent of his $10,000 goal. With about a month left to go, he's confident he can pick up the rest of the needed pledges.

"I think we'll get it done," he said.


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