For Mechelle Allen, the smell of sweet potato pie evokes Christmas and family.
Along with her husband Ricky Allen, she owns and runs Mechelle’s Baking Company, which will make nearly 600 pies—many of them sweet potato—for clients in the Fredericksburg area during the holidays.
“Everyone thinks their grandma makes the best sweet potato pie,” Ricky Allen said Thursday while the pair made fillings for holiday pies. “But Mechelle perfected her grandma’s recipe. We tell people, just buy one, Grandma will never know.”
Allen started Mechelle’s Baking Company out of her Stafford County home in 2013 after her husbands insisted that she stop giving away her pies. Before then, she was working for the government and daydreaming about recipes at her desk.
And every holiday, family and friends would call her up for pies.
This season she’s offering sweet potato, pecan, apple, blackberry, lemon meringue and peanut butter-chocolate fillings nestled into flaky butter and shortening crusts.
“I always had a passion for cooking,” she said. “Baking evokes fond memories. My best memories are of watching my mom cook.”
Now, she sells pies at farmers markets and to individual customers. An average week sees 300 pies sold, but that increases during her busy season between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
As consumers are increasingly looking for quality, locally made food, “foodpreneurs” like Allen have found an eager market in the last couple of years.
According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees home-based food and beverage businesses, Virginia boasts around 250 farmers markets now, compared to 85 markets in 2005.
Elaine Lodholm, spokeswoman for VDACS, said consumer interest in local foods has not only energized Virginia farmers’ markets, but specialty food manufacturers and producers as well.
The number of vendors in the biannual Virginia Food & Beverage Expo, sponsored by VDACS, has increased since 2010. The most recent event held this past March at the Greater Richmond Convention Center celebrated a record-high number of exhibitors with 160. In 2012, that number was about 130.
Like Allen, Tart Cart owner Georgia Rathje was looking for a change and decided to capitalize on her love of cooking as a way to make a living.
“Food is my way of being creative,” she said. “I’m always looking for inspiration in seasonal flavors. “
Before Christmas, she delivered cranberry-orange cream cakes to one of her wholesalers, The Olde Towne Butcher in Fredericksburg. The cakes, decorated with mint and cranberries to resemble holly, were among her seasonal specials.
Other popular flavors for Rathje this fall and winter have been pumpkin spice and chocolate banana. She also sells wholesale salads, sauces and sweets to local businesses Hyperion Espresso, Forage, Goolrick’s and River Rock Outfitter.
She started the business two years ago after switching to vegan eating for health reasons.
“As a food-lover and avid cook, I had to figure out how to adapt,” she said.
During farmer’s market season she works six days a week to be able to meet customers downtown at the weekly Hurkamp Park market and get feedback.
“People are looking for quality,” she said. “There’s more trust in local people and products.”
Mechelle and Ricky’s son, Marcus, left corporate life to help grow the family company, finding new farmers markets for them to expand into.
The company started selling pies at the downtown Fredericksburg market for the holiday season. They started selling at the market the week before Thanksgiving, and Ricky Allen called it “pie pandemonium.”
“The business and the people were so good,” he said. “We were taking orders and the line was like at the opening of the Apple Store.”
“You find a commonality with people when you get out and meet them,” Mechelle Allen said. “It’s such a rich experience.”