Amanda Wilbanks stood on Washington Street Northeast in Gainesville under a canopy tent wearing a skirt and high heels, pearls around her neck and a leopard-print jacket.
She started handing out business cards in the October air during the 2012 Mule Camp Market, hoping people would notice her and try her made-from-scratch buttermilk, chocolate chess, apple and pecan pies.
They did. Wilbanks said they probably just felt sorry for her. But it didn’t matter because a line formed, and her business, then Buttermilk Pie Co. and now Southern Baked Pie Co., was off to a promising start.
Southern Baked Pie Co. book signing
When: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17
Where: Southern Baked Pie Co., 302 Broad St. SE, Gainesville
“I was in shock,” said Wilbanks, who moved to Gainesville with her husband, Alex, in 2010. “I had no idea we would be able to sell pies. I just thought it would be something fun we’d try. When we started creating a buzz, that’s when I thought this could be something really fun to do and also profitable.”
After six years in business and five with an actual storefront, Wilbanks has expanded and now has storefronts in Gainesville, Alpharetta and Buckhead along with an impressive online business, all selling sweet and savory pies.
Williams-Sonoma selected her as a vendor this fall and will offer her pies online and through its catalog. She’s even written a cookbook, available in her own shops and online. To celebrate, she’ll be holding a book signing from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17, at her Gainesville location on 302 Broad St. SE.
Wilbanks said she never saw something like this happening in her life. As a senior at Habersham Central High School, fellow students selected her “most likely to not hold down a steady job,” a senior superlative she didn’t like. She went on to graduate from the University of Georgia, sell insurance for a year and ended up leaving that job after things weren’t progressing as she wanted.
“At the time, it hurt my feelings,” Wilbanks said of the senior designation. “But I think things like that are what gave me the determination and the drive to prove people wrong.”
But she said she never forgot what her high school classmates said about her. And she never forgot what her grandmother, Bonnie Martin, told her either.
“I would sit on her back screen porch with a newspaper in my lap, stringing green beans,” Wilbanks said. “And one day, I was pitching a fit because I hate being outside in the heat and I said, ‘I cannot do this anymore.’ And my grandmother, who is very quiet and sweet, she looked at me and said, ‘Amanda, I don’t think you could hold down a job tasting pies in a pie factory.’”
And that’s exactly what she’s built her life on.
Her first store opened in Gainesville in the fall of 2013 as Buttermilk Pie Co., because that’s how it all started. Wilbanks’ mother-in-law came into town from Denver and convinced her to help make Alex’s favorite pie. Years later, when the company started to expand, Wilbanks realized she would have to change the name since another pie company with a similar name was opening in the area.
She said it’s one of the best things that could have happened.
Alex was the one who signed her up for that first event at Mule Camp, where she said they “could not slice pies fast enough.” Almost three years ago, he left his job in logistics to join her at Southern Baked Pie Co.
“I knew with her drive and ambition, and with the product being top-notch, there was no way it could fail,” said Alex, who handles most of the operations for the company. “I never had any doubts. I mean, there were plenty of sleepless nights and all the hurdles and obstacles you go through in owning a business, but I never doubted her drive to make it happen.”
Because of that determination, the small business has grown year after year. Wilbanks thinks it’s due to the location of her flagship store.
“There’s a great sense of community in Gainesville,” Wilbanks said. “People feel like it’s really big, but once you get down to it, it’s a small place and people want to see small businesses succeed.”
And in her mind, she has succeeded. Wilbanks remembers telling her mother when she first started the company that if she made it into Williams-Sonoma, she’d feel like she “made it in this world.” When she found out she did, she said she was in shock.
Then there’s the cookbook, “Southern Baked: Celebrating Life with Pie,” she spent a year gathering recipes for and writing. Each chapter is based on a pie for a certain holiday or time of year, along with side dishes, appetizers and more to pair with it.
Each dish, passed down through her family, is “literally from scratch,” and “very Southern.”
“I’m one of those people who never says ‘no,’” Wilbanks said. “So the opportunity presented itself, and I thought if I said ‘no,’ that’s just showing I’m afraid of failure. So I thought I’d just say ‘yes.’”
With the success, Wilbanks is careful not to forget the struggles. She remembers seeing other companies and thinking owning a business is glamorous. She said it’s not.
“In the beginning it was hard,” Wilbanks said. “You’re just begging people to buy your product, and it’s not like you’re making a lot of money. I think years later we now say it was completely worth it, but looking back, there were some extremely difficult times.”
Through it all, she’s learned about herself, the kind of person she is and all she’s capable of. She’s learned to let go of her fear of failure — one of the reasons she thinks Southern Baked Pie Co. is where it is today. She’s learned she’s able to handle more stress and pressure than she ever thought and she’s learned a lot about working with people, like Autumn Nguyen, who’s been an employee with the company since the beginning.
“This company has grown exponentially, and to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have stopped going to school to be a teacher if I didn’t feel like it was something that was going to happen,” Nguyen said. “I believe in Amanda. ... I truly believe in her.”
A small pie company, which started under a canopy tent on the downtown Gainesville square is now a business with three locations, 30 employees, a 6,000-square-foot bakery and warehouse, pies available through Williams-Sonoma and at home through a cookbook the owner wrote.
And that owner truly loves her job, which is why she still makes pies at home in her Viking oven. Whether it’s a squash, bacon and caramelized onion pie on a Sunday afternoon, a simple berry pie during summer or a pie she takes home from the shop, her family’s life is all about pie, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love what I do,” Wilbanks said. “If someone offered me $1 million to do something else, I would say, ‘No way.’ It’s just because I love the people I work with, I love the product and I love being able to be an entrepreneur and be creative.”