Durham Small Business Owner, Ali Rudel, stumbled on to her passion for baking very much accidentally. Find out how a life-changing diagnosis inspired her to follow her heart.
Small Business Owner Discovers Passion for Baking Accidentally
Ali Rudel stumbled on to her passion for baking very much accidentally. After college, she moved to New York City to take an internship as a writer. Struggling to make ends meet, she took a job as a barista at a small cafe, but she soon found herself more interested in baking pies than slinging coffee. She watched and learned from the bakers in the shop. Eventually she asked to help and soon moved full time to the bakery. But Rudel later moved on to a career working with non-profits, thinking the pie-baking slice of her life was over.
Then in April 2015, she formed East Durham Pie Company, never dreaming in less than a year, Indy Magazine would vote it best pie in Durham. Last year, all she knew was she was feeling unfulfilled with her nine-to-five job and struggling to spend time with her husband and two young daughters. But the idea of leaving behind a steady paycheck to dive head first into her new company was a daunting proposition. She decided to stay at her current job and build her business slowly, hoping maybe one day it would become a full time gig. Just months later, life would prove to have different plans.
Life-Changing Diagnosis Puts Priorities Into Perspective
At her annual physical that summer, her doctor told Rudel she had thyroid cancer. She would need surgery, time to recover, and ongoing therapy. It was during this time she began to think more and more about what was important to her in life. She wanted to be able to spend more time with her family, fully express her creativity, and be her own boss. If there was ever a sign this was the time to pursue her dreams, she thought this was it.
By October, Rudel was cancer-free. And although still recovering, she felt a new energy as East Durham Pie Company fully launched from her certified home kitchen just in time for Thanksgiving. There was no question Rudel had a winning product. Anyone who tried her pie was impressed. The problem was getting the product to the people. She had launched with a very small investment: nothing more than a few pie tins and some ingredients. Rudel hit the streets, taking her pies to every coffee shop in Durham. She shook hands, gave out samples, and made deals with cafe owners all over the city to have her pies sold in their stores.
Early Beginnings Breed Creative Marketing
Still not willing to let lack of a storefront hold her back, she began launching pop-up events at local bars. Rudel describes them as a food truck without the truck. Every Tuesday evening from 5 to 9 p.m., a mini chalkboard on a table at Ponysaurus Brewing Company in Durham lists the homemade pies she’s brought to sell by the slice. Other popups happen weekly across the area. She strives to make her pies unlike any others with flavors like spiced chocolate, ginger lemon chess, blueberry crumble, and s’mores. Rudel, who worked for a time as the manager of the Chapel Hill Farmers Market, is passionate about showcasing fresh, locally-sourced ingredients in her pies.
With a killer product and a place to sell it, Rudel started to focus on getting the word out about her pies. For that, she turned to social media. Rudel says 90% of how she has been able to reach people is Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. She keeps a lean advertising budget, but strives to make every dollar count. She typically buys several $5-10 ads per month on Facebook, something she recommends to other business owners. To be sure her strategy is effective, she experiments with both paid ads and free posts on Facebook and has found that the extra couple bucks really pays off in turnout and ultimately sales.
Overcoming Online Challenges
Admittedly, getting people excited about food is tough online without the benefit of smell and taste. That’s why Rudel focuses on aesthetics online. She says having really good, well-lit pictures and videos is one of the most important parts of social media success. If a pie doesn’t photograph well, she leaves it out. She also likes to let her customers in on all the behind-the-scenes action. She often documents her trip to local farms to find fruit for her pies.
Local Farm To Pie Ingredients Set Her Apart
You’re much more likely to find Rudel picking her ingredients off a tree than a store shelf. She is very proud of her strong ties to the local food and farming community. She has a long list of mentors and partners she looks to for support. For example, she and a fellow food industry friend buy butter together in bulk to get a better price. Rudel says she never sees anybody as a competitor, just someone who can help her or who she can lend a hand to.
Taking Care of Employees Top Priority
Rudel’s focus on taking care of her community begins with taking care of her employees. East Durham Pie Company is part of the Durham Living Wage Project, and she pays her staff significantly more than the industry standard. She says with nearly one in five Durham residents living in poverty, it is impossible to ignore the role business owners can play in solving the problem. Although she is always thinking about how many pies she has to sell to be able to make payroll, to her it is worth it to know her employees are happy and can pay their bills.
Now, she hopes to add even more employees as she looks to open a cafe of her own. She says she plans for her shop to have an open kitchen and bakery. There will be locally-roasted coffee, tea, her famous sweet pies, plus savory pies, soups, salads, and other baked goods. She is currently in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign with a lofty goal: $20 thousand in just one month in order to get the financing necessary. She is hoping the Old East Durham neighborhood, which doesn’t currently have anything like it in walking distance, will come together to make the dream a reality.
Padgett’s 3 Wise Questions
- If you could bake a success pie, what would the ingredients be?
- If you could go back in time to the beginning, would you do anything differently?
- If you could have lunch with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Research, mentorship, and a solid support system of people who will not only encourage you, but let you know when you’ve gone off course.
I wouldn’t have waited so long being scared to pursue my dreams.
I would love to have lunch with the owners of the New York cafe I started out in. I was one of their first employees and now they have hundreds. Now I don’t get to talk to them as often as I would like, but I still keep up with them and look to them as an example.
Please consider contributing to East Durham Pie Company’s Kickstarter campaign.
To find out more about Ali Rudel and East Durham Pie Company, visit their website at www.eastdurhampie.com.