Local Pie Maker Strives To Keep Business Shipshape

Every mom has unique challenges, especially around the holidays. Avis Renshaw is no different.

She's the mom of Mom's Apple Pie, a four-store chain in Virginia. Each year she must cope with shipping shenanigans and overeager customers, especially during the holiday season when her business sees a huge spike in the amount of pies it ships across the country.

When Renshaw began a baking business, she didn't envision that her pies would be a "must-have" for customers for the holidays.

"I never wanted to be a big business," said Renshaw, who embarked on a career as an entrepreneur baker by cracking eggs with her husband and one-year-old daughter (now 27). "I don't have designs to conquer the earth. I want to be a really damn good small business in my region."

Although the demands of fulfilling end-of-year orders can be frantic, this holiday season has been an improvement, she said, because she's been able to sleep under her desk for three hours each night.

An improvement?

"Oh, yes, previous years I didn't get to sleep in my office at all," she said.

The pies have no preservatives so the company ships via Federal Express to get them delivered within two days. "We pack the pies tight and send them via two-day ground or two-day air. I couldn't give them to a customer after two days," said Renshaw.

For pumpkin and sweet potato pies, she has to package them with special cold packs and insulating silver-sided bubble wrap.

Shipping is a key part of the business, noted Renshaw. So, she worked with her Web site developer to build-in calculations on the site that determine shipping costs for each pie and different combinations of products.

"We were able to set up a schematic on our back end and tie it into FedEx," she said. "If there's an order of pie, cookies and a loaf of bread, the site has to tally the weight and handling charges and then calculate the total."

Laurie Tucker, FedEx senior vice president of marketing, said that the company enjoys working with small businesses to create services tailored to their needs. "We also have developed software solutions that save steps for business owners," she said.

Renshaw also has learned not to list any products on the Web site that she can't ship, although she said she's "finding that more and more people are using the Web site for ordering locally."

"I'm almost 50 and I'm still shocked by this whole computer thing and how many people go to a Web site instead of the Yellow Pages. We still barely have a phone at the farm and we don't have cable."

The Season of Good Cheer, And a Tear or Two

Renshaw characterizes the "emotionally charged holidays" as somewhat of a "downfall of the business."

"You can almost always make it happen for people, but when it doesn't it just gets weird," she said. "And the fact is you have to get your customers that pie on their table."

She recalls recently when a shipment got waylaid the day before Thanksgiving. FedEx had been trying to locate the pies all day and called her at 10:15 p.m. to let her know that they had arrived at the Dallas terminal. "I cried tears of joy when they called," she said.

Her customers agreed to drive out to the depot where the FedEx manager waited for them and dropped shipping charges.

These same customers wrote her thank you notes for getting the pies to them. "I guess they were happy they didn't have to have an inferior pie," she said.

From a Simmer to a Boil

The small family firm initially sold its pies wholesale to Virginia farmers' markets, but when a regulation prevented them from selling pies in the commonwealth, the company lost about 90 percent of its business, said Renshaw.

She went to the Safeway grocery store in McLean, Va., in the early 1980s and asked if the store would be willing to sell her wares. "There were no bread bakers like Marvelous Market back then and Safeway went nuts over us," she said.

After additional success with the Potomac, Md., Safeway, Mom's Apple Pie ran into problems because of the cost of drivers and trucks to get the goods to the stores. Additionally, "sales were flattening because I couldn't always be at the store to let people know that these pies were fresh and grown locally," said Renshaw.

When the family bought a farm in Leesburg, Va., there was an opportunity to run a retail store. "I thought this would be a good thing, but my husband was convinced we should do more volume and more Safeways" said Renshaw, who adds laughingly that "it almost caused our divorce."

The Renshaw family operation now has four Virginia locations - Sterling, Occoquan, Leesburg and Warrenton. Her middle daughter does bookkeeping for the company and her youngest runs the Occoquan store. There are about seven bakers at the main facility in Sterling and six part-timers at each store.

Their "truck farm," as she refers to it, supplies the berries for the pies and the company gets its apples from an orchard in Winchester. The apples are primarily the York variety, Renshaw notes, because she likes their flavor and "tremendous staying power," which factors into the pies' transportation.

Today, the "pies go everywhere," said Renshaw, with Californians and Texans the biggest consumers of Mom's Apple Pie. The company also has corporate customers "who we've had for 10 to 20 years who order the same pies every year."

The company's business began booming late last year when it was featured on the Food Network's Paula Deen spin-off show Road Tasted starring her sons, Jamie and Bobby.

The show's airing was delayed several times and so it was just after Renshaw's grandmother died that she learned the piece would air during the funeral. Renshaw recalls how her entire extended family went into a bar in the middle of the ceremony and asked the bartender if they could watch the show. It was a poignant moment, she said, "and fitting" because her grandmother had helped start the business with seed money.

"Everything I have is in this business. Everything I have is mortgaged for this business," she said. "For anyone thinking about starting their own business - if you don't have a passion for what you're going to get yourself into, go work for someone else."

By Sharon McLoone |  December 24, 2007; 8:00 AM ET How Do I... , Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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