"Black Belt" businesses seek inspiration from Pie Lab

Apr 9, 2013

There's no shortage of folks trying to fix what ails Alabama's Black Belt. The region running east to west across the lower third of the State has Alabama’s worst jobless rate. You’ll also find big gaps in healthcare and education, and a high infant mortality rate. It's been dubbed "Alabama's Third World". But rather than pack up and leave, some are taking the road less traveled. We’ll take that up in this week’s episode of Alabama, Inc. on WVUA-TV with a story from host Gigi Douban. Summertime means triple digit temperatures in Alabama. It also means the blueberry cobbler and peach pie is on the menu at Pie Lab in Greensboro. If you can’t wait for summer, you can get chocolate pie pretty much year round. It was meant to be a gathering place for people who lived in town. Soon word spread. Pie Lab got some attention in the local and national media, and visitors from other cities, even as far away as the west coast started dropping in. Shae Hill bakes pies there. “Most of our customers are really from out of town. Everybody wants to know what the Pie Lab is about,” Hill says. “You've got California, San Francisco, New York. We even had a guy who he was riding his bike down here from NY. When they first hear about the Pie Lab, it's like 'Whoah'.” See, it wasn't just the pie that they came for. There are lots of places you can get that. But it was this sense of being a part of something bigger that drew in a lot of people. Pie Lab became a place where all sorts of folks from the community could gather and talk about ideas over pie. Greensboro, a town that just begged people to unplug, have some pie, it seemed the perfect setting. And people did stay awhile. Matt Davis has seen Pie Lab’s success, and he’s a fan “You just gotta bring, a lot of people here, they go out of town to eat and stuff like that, eat and shop and things like that,” he says. Davis recently opened up Side Porch Sandwiches, a restaurant on a big corner lot in downtown Selma, part of Alabama’s black belt. “But you've gotta keep them here in town. Keep the tax dollars here,” Davis adds. “Not in Montgomery or Prattville or wherever else they might go.” Most of Davis's friends moved away just as soon as they finished school or stashed away enough cash. He took a risk in staying. He says he has no regrets. But when he's surrounded by so many shuttered storefronts, he wonders what it's going to take to get others to take the leap and open a business in Selma. “I guess they've gotta see something here for them to invest in it,” Davis says. “People just gotta have, if you don't see anybody else doing it, nobody's going to make a move and you're gonna continue on the same path. Just can't do anything about it.” A few blocks away, Jackie Smith is struggling to keep her coffee shop afloat. Because for the last two months for sure, I have had to supplement my coffee shop income with my personal income,” Smith says. “I mean, almost 50 percent to keep my doors open.” She comes in early to open up and often doesn't leave till late. Recently she took on a second full-time job. “You know, I have that job, I get off at 4:45, most days at 5 o'clock,” Smith says. “I keep a change of clothes in the car, because I'm in here sweeping and helping the ladies get closed for the day. And Saturdays, this is my shop.” She puts the money she earns at her day job back into her shop. It's taking a physical toll. “My hands were aching, my wrists, I was just physically wearing myself down,” Smith says. “But I was just that determined. You know? I gotta go, gotta go, gotta go to the coffee shop” Smith says she'll keep going. She's hoping that ultimately it'll pay off, and her doors can stay open. If she and Matt Davis are successful, it could help a better economic climate in Alabama’s Black belt--one “open for business” sign at a time… Alabama, Inc. airs Sunday at 4 pm on WVUA=TV.