Made From Scratch

In Knoxville, Dale Mackey serves fried pies with a side of girl power

by Jed Portman

Dale Mackey likes to help other people.  She has worked for non-profits all of her adult life, first in eastern Kentucky and now in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she serves as the outreach coordinator for a public-access television station. When she founded Dale’s Fried Pies in the summer of 2012, she incorporated community service into the business model.

A lifelong cook whose knack for do-it-yourself crafts is well documented on her blog, Mackey had begun serving fried pies to friends and family at get-togethers several years before.

“I was drawn to fried pies because you can put anything in them,” she says. “People around here know what a fried pie is. A lot of people have really good memories of them. But within them, I can get funky.”

She began to think seriously about selling fried pies in the wake of her wedding last spring. After months of planning and crafting, Mackey had free time on her hands. Restless, she blogged about her idea for a fried-pie truck, adding a ‘Donate’ button on a lark. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” she says. “But my friends saw the button and started donating.” Within a week or two, she had five hundred dollars. “I thought, ‘Well, I can’t waste my friends’ money.’”

She invested the money, which was not quite enough for a food truck, into the raw materials for a fried-pie stand, modeled after an old-fashioned wooden lemonade stand. After clearing a series of bureaucratic hurdles, Mackey attracted a following at Knoxville’s Market Square Farmers’ Market last fall. Traditionalists took to flavors like apple and cherry. The more adventurous came for fried pockets of spicy chipotle macaroni and cheese, green-chile chicken, and curried sweet potato.

While most new small-business owners cling tightly to their dollars, Mackey set out to spread the wealth. So she founded the Awesome Girl Squad, which plans to induct three Knoxville-area girls between the ages of eight and twenty every year. Each Awesome Girl receives a day of fried-pie revenue to pursue a creative or community based project. “It’s money that you might have been able to get together yourself, but might not have,” she says. “It’s someone saying, ‘I think this is a good idea, and here’s the money to do it.’

“The Awesome Girl Squad is something that, when I get worn down by making a million pies, or worn down by all the bureaucracy involved in selling food, I look to as one unquestionably great thing,” says Mackey. The first two Awesome Girls are using their money to record a folk album and to put on a community health fair. A third will be inducted this spring.

When Mackey isn’t thinking about other people, she tends to her own growing business and makes plans for the future. She just purchased a trailer in which she’ll fry her pies on-site at markets and special events, and she is now renovating it for the upcoming busy season.

Dale’s Fried Pies is, for the moment, a nights-and-weekends operation. Mackey works at the television station four days a week, which doesn’t allow her enough time in the pie stand to make a living—or to satisfy her growing customer base. With a boss who supports her part-time vocation, no one is forcing her hand. But the pies have her heart. “At some point,” she says, “I am going to have to take a leap of faith.”