On Mother’s Day, Amanda Bates and her mother, Kit Seay, are attending the Austin High School baseball banquet. It’s a tradition, since Amanda’s son Lucas plays for the school, and her younger son Andrew will soon follow in his footsteps. As they look at the desserts, the women naturally start talking about pies.
Five years ago, they might have discussed them as a mother and daughter who enjoyed baking at home. Now, as co-founders and owners of Tiny Pies, they tend to talk business: marketing, expansion, personnel, finances. Having established themselves online, in high-end Texas food stores, in their own retail space and in catering, they plan to open another store in Houston later this year. Their small endeavor is growing mighty big.
Amanda has always wanted to create something of her own. She had been a stay-at-home mom to her two boys, then a divorced mom at 40, trying her hand as a real estate agent. Kit, also divorced, was thinking about retiring at 69, after serving as a house mother at a Tri Delta sorority for a decade. As Amanda tells it, they bake a pie for dinner one weekend. Andrew takes a slice to school for lunch, but it crumbles into a sticky mess. “Why can’t you make a pie that I can hold in my hand?” he asks.
The next time she bakes, Kit uses a muffin tin, and the classic three-inch Tiny Pie is born. Although she doesn’t have any training or experience developing a consumer product or a business, Amanda seizes on the concept. It becomes that illusive “thing” she is determined to undertake.
They have no illusions about interesting investors in their little pie idea. Kit laughs when she imagines “a man in a gray suit” rolling his eyes at two older moms pitching a baking business. Instead, they use their own money -- Amanda’s savings and Kit’s retirement funds -- to hire a graphics and packaging designer. To make it seem like a well-established brand, they create a clever logo, slogan and highly professional marketing materials. In reality, Kit is renting the kitchen at the Tri Delta House for $100 a month to make pecan, apple and strawberry rhubarb pies -- all family recipes that have been passed down from her grandmother. “It was a gutsy thing to do,“ she says of the start-up.
In January 2011, they convince the manager at the Barton Creek Farmer’s Market to let them pitch a tent for their pies. They remember shivering in their down jackets on a cold Saturday morning, waiting for their first customer. By the end of the day, they have sold all 75 pies they have on hand.
Michael Bates, a longtime business executive in the energy field, marvels at Amanda’s tenacity. After meeting in 2003, they become friends who grow closer after her divorce. Although he well understands the enormous risks of entrepreneurship, he feels he needs to support her dream. “Amanda is a very determined person,” he says. “Her drive to create something of her own was like a force of nature. I couldn’t rain on her parade.”
He jokingly says that he first contributes to the cause as a “taste tester.“ Then when they join the farmer’s market, he would get up at the crack of dawn to pitch their tent.
To build their brand, they need to appear at the farmer’s market every week. One gusty Saturday, Amanda is too sick to get out of bed. Mike has some sort of vertigo himself, but goes to put up the tent anyway. The other vendors look on in amusement and curiosity as he stumbles around in the wind, looking like a kid who has jumped off a fast-spinning merry-go-round.
By summer 2012, they have outgrown the farmer’s market. Amanda pushes them into catering events, wholesaling to food stores, and retailing online. In the midst of growing on all these fronts, she is also moving forward personally. She and Mike get married in June 2012.
At around this time, Kit and Amanda are hired to cater a fundraiser in a park to support a children’s charity. Thinking that there would be a lot of kids in attendance, Kit makes “pie pops” in animal shapes. These tiny pies on a stick are so cute and popular that the O List of Oprah magazine features them in September 2012. In turn, the producers of Katie Couric’s daytime talk show see that story and invite Kit and Amanda to appear on a Katie segment about mom inventions.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to walk out on stage,” says Kit, “but Katie makes you feel so at home, so relaxed. You forget that you’re going on TV.” She is also excited to see that Helen Mirren, one of her favorite stars, is also a guest on the show that day. As they wait nervously in their dressing room, an assistant knocks on the door with a delightful request: Helen asked if she could try one of their strawberry rhubarb pies. They happily give her two. Katie Couric also eats two pies during the show, as does Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, who also appears on their segment. These turn out to be invaluable on-air endorsements.
Up until late 2013, they manage the business on paper, jotting down orders on butcher paper or whatever else is handy. Kit would draw a chart on a big sheet to keep track of how many different flavors they needed to bake. Miraculously, they only miss one order in their first four years with this system of handwritten notes. Now they have an accountant and computer software to keep track of everything. As a result, they discover some astounding statistics.
On one April weekend, they cater 11 weddings (making 150 pies for each) and sell 3,500 pies at the Austin Food and Wine Show. During the holidays, they ship out 950 packages at a time.
They now have a staff of 10 people who still make pies by hand. Kit thinks the dough cutting would go faster if they weld together six rounds. So she has these beautiful stainless steel tools made, but their dough maker still prefers cutting one circle at a time.
When they open their storefront in March 2014, Kit worries about running out of pies. What if they don’t have enough to last the day? Their solution is simply to put up a sign saying they are sold out and closed for the day. Jay Willems of Sue Patrick, a Brighton retailer located a block from Tiny Pies, has encountered that sold out sign. If he wants tiny pies for store events, he knows he needs to order them well in advance. They’re trying to find a larger facility in time for this holiday season.
After shipping out thousands of Thanksgiving orders last year, Kit, Amanda, Mike and the boys all travel to San Francisco where Kit‘s other daughter and her family live. Her 14-year-old granddaughter bakes tiny pies for the occasion, and they kid her about opening a franchise in the Bay Area. As they hold hands around the table and gave thanks, they think about all the families around the country who are also having tiny pies for Thanksgiving dinner. It's a powerful feeling of accomplishment that brings tears to their eyes.
When they were designing their retail space, they created a “measure up wall” on the side of the building. It features a life-size outline of their logo -- a man named “Tiny” holding a big pie over his head. It has become somewhat of a local attraction, as customers -- kids in particular -- take pictures of themselves positioned inside the outline to see how tall they are compared to Tiny. Painted on the wall are two messages: “Who’s Tiny now?!” and “How do you measure up?” For Amanda and Kit, there’s no need to stand against that wall. Wherever their lives take them next, these two women have succeeded beyond measure.