Pies With Purpose
May 01, 2020 10:20PM
By Nancy DeVault
Gainesville resident Jennifer Dempsey flourished as an exceptional student education teacher, but over time, the ring of the oven timer sounded much sweeter than the school bell. The self-proclaimed “stress baker” was accustomed to whisking away worries using pantry ingredients, but she admits there was a lengthy learning curve to mastering pie baking. In fact, it took her a full year to perfect buttery, flaky, crack-free crusts.
“About four years ago, when everyone else was making new year’s resolutions to lose weight, I made a resolution to bake a pie a week,” Dempsey recalls. She even surpassed that goal and baked 54 sugary sensations within the year. “I fell in love with the versatility of pies and the creativity of making them,” she explains. Somewhere along the way, her 8-year-old daughter Joscelyn inspired her to close her textbooks and open the recipe books.
At 13 months old, Joscelyn had a hemispherectomy, a complicated neurosurgery. “Doctors had to take out the entire left side of her brain because it was malformed, and she was having catastrophic, life-endangering seizures that didn’t respond to medication,” Dempsey says of her youngest of five children. Once engaged in the disability community, Dempsey noticed an alarming gap. “I didn’t recognize the need for more employment opportunities for adults with disabilities until I started talking to other parents and thinking about Joscelyn’s future and what she would do when she grew up.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, adults with disabilities account for one-fifth of the population, yet are unemployed at a rate twice that of peers without disabilities. In January, Dempsey literally rolled out a plan for change using her rolling pin. She launched PiesAbilities, an artisanal business stirring up both baked goods and inclusivity through skills-based training and employment opportunities for persons with differing abilities. “I’m relying on my background as an exceptional education teacher to help me develop the training component,” she says. The vision to combine pies and workplace diversity is sweetly symbolic. Like people, no two pies are alike, so the subtle differences are what grant each and every person or pie unique flavor and flair.
Dempsey was able to get cooking without a storefront thanks to the incubator program at Working Food, a nonprofit that works to nurture the food community of North Central Florida through collaboration, economic opportunity, education and seed stewardships. PiesAbilities rents one of their commercial kitchens and Dempsey also receives entrepreneurial guidance. Plus, she engages with Working Food’s likeminded partners such as GROW HUB, a nursery business cultivating disabled adults through sustainability-focused work initiatives.
PiesAbilities has invested in specialty equipment geared for bakers with physical disabilities; for example, an adaptable hand pie maker. “Instead of having to roll out the crust, fold it in half and crimp it, this simple machine turns with one crank and does it all for you,” Dempsey describes. “Joscelyn loves to do the hand pie maker!” And her cutie-pie sidekick also enjoys meeting customers at farmers’ markets. PiesAbilities staffs a booth at Thornebrook Farmers’ Market and occasionally at Tioga Community Farmers’ Market, Union Street Farmers’ Market and other locations. Dempsey makes sure to shop fellow vendor stands for fresh produce.
“For the past few months, I’ve been getting strawberries. Roger’s Farm is a great local suppler,” Dempsey says. Blueberries, blackberries and raspberries are also go-to ingredients when seasonally available. But Dempsey isn’t afraid to incorporate the unexpected, like Florida-grown grapes and roselle, a nutrient-rich hibiscus flower. “I actually started experimenting with a sugar-free keto [diet] pie. Instead of apples, I’m using chayote squash. It’s always interesting to take vegetables and turn them into a sweet pie,” she says.
While the menu is dependent upon seasonal crops, PiesAbilities bakes classics like apple streusel, banana cream, bourbon pecan, buttermilk chess, chocolate cream, coconut cream, key lime, lemon meringue, peanut butter and razzleberry (mixed berry), as well as next-level showstoppers such as chocolate-covered strawberry pie, Elvis pie and more. She also offers bites of yesteryear with vintage flavors such as butterscotch, mince, rhubarb, shoofly, sugar cream and vinegar.
Aside from market sales, business is heating up through catered events and custom orders. Samantha Roughton and Paul Watts hired PiesAbilities to cater dessert for their Pi Day wedding (March 14, or 3/14, the first three digits of this mathematical constant). Opting for a pie buffet instead of a wedding cake was an obviously choice.
“We were trying to do a decent amount of nontraditional things for our wedding, so it became important to us that we have delicious pies for our big day,” Roughton says. The local lovebirds were delighted with PiesAbilities scrumptious goodies and divine mission. Dempsey baked an assortment of 16 pies to please every palate. “We had apple, blueberry and key lime, but the pie with the most personality was chocolate chess pie with chocolate whipped cream and shaved white chocolate on top,” Roughton attests.
Pies come in different sizes and shapes—whole, mini, slab (baking sheet), hand pie and, exclusive to PiesAbilities, pieholes (similar to a donut hole) and puffin (pie-filled muffin). “The pieholes are a great way to sample the pies we have. They’re popular for catered events and weddings, too, because they’re conveniently two bites, so you don’t need a knife and fork like a regular slice,” Dempsey explains. “Puffins are a gateway to pie. Cupcakes are so approachable and puffins look like and are frosted like cupcakes, but when you bite in, there’s a piehole! It’s fun and unexpected.”
Dempsey is now taste-testing a new chocolate-orange pie recipe. Customers already craving fall flavors can also count on PiesAbilities to bake fresh interpretations of pumpkin pie and other holiday classics.
Place an order at PiesAbilities.com.