Baker built her business from scratch
Richmond entrepreneur Joye B. Moore makes 70 homemade sweet potato pies at a time — 700 a week. Starting this fall, that number will more than double to 1,500.
Using a recipe passed down for generations from her North Carolina great-great-great grandmother, Moore launched Joyebells Sweet Potato Pies less than two years ago.
Moore touts her pies as “smooth, homemade, backwoods country, creamy deliciousness with a burst of flavor.” Her pies’ light, creamy filling is a “family trade secret,” she said.
One secret she’ll share is this: Key to a successful sweet potato pie is “de-stringing” it to eliminate lumps.
Rocketing to success
Moore — an artist, author, actress, producer and entertainer — founded her dessert company at age 56.
In November 2019, only one month into the pie business, she entered the NBC Today Show’s “pie-off,” was chosen as a finalist, and traveled to the network’s New York studio. She essentially won the contest when host Al Roker declared her and her fellow contestant, a pecan pie maker, both winners.
Even with the pandemic’s disruption, Moore won additional accolades in 2020: Richmond magazine named her one of “Five Fav Female Entrepreneurs,” Virginia Living magazine put her on the 2020 “Made in Virginia” list, and the Virginia Food and Beverage Expo nominated her pie as a best new food product.
Before launching the company, Moore researched product acceptance by offering free samples and monitoring tasters’ reactions.
When you offer someone a piece, she said, many instantly gripe, “I don’t like sweet potato pie.” But she set out to prove them wrong. “When they come back for seconds, you know you are doing something right,” she said.
A difficult childhood
Moore’s early years were anything but sweet. Her name is derived from childhood taunts. As a child, her head was large in proportion to her body, and some kids called her “Bellhead.” “The rest of me eventually caught up,” Moore laughed.
Her aunt once told her, “You make people happy all the time. You bring everyone joy.” So she became Joyebell.
Moore’s mother suffered from untreated schizophrenia, and zigzagged from happy to violent moods and back. Their home in Dallas, Texas was full of abuse.
At age 14, Moore ran away. For three years, she lived in abandoned houses, ate out of dumpsters and stole to survive. Somehow, she managed to attend school every day and graduated from high school.
She credits a woman who ran a YMCA after-school program with giving her grounding. “Miss Tina was the first Caucasian I knew, and would always ask if I had done my homework.”
Moore hopes her 2016 memoir, titled Hopefully Beautiful, will inspire young people to persevere and overcome obstacles. She donates to charities that support youth who have experienced traumas.
Making music, too
Moore not only creates delicious pies; she makes music. It started in her home when she and her sister sang with their mother in the kitchen. That evolved into living room performances, where she learned to harmonize and add dance moves.
As an adult, she sang alto in her church choir, which gave her the confidence to enter singing competitions. She scored two wins on “Showtime at the Apollo,” the television talent show that films at the legendary Apollo Theater in New York City’s Harlem.
After her 1997 Showtime performance, she wrote her first song, “Project Butterfly,” inspired by a dream. Then she started her own production company, Joyebell’s Productions, as a “do-it-yourself” undertaking.
Today, she loves to sing jazz and gospel and to scat, especially at festivals like the Richmond Jazz Festival. She has performed on Black Entertainment Television (BET), TVOne and The Word Network.
“As long as I am creating, I am happy. And that’s one of the reasons I love making the pies,” she said. “We get to create all day!”
All in the family
In addition to singing, Moore spent her first decades as a social worker. In 2019, NextUp RVA, a nonprofit that provides afterschool programs, eliminated Moore’s job.
She had always wanted to start a business, so she asked herself, “What can you do and be happy?” The answer: “People love pies 365 days a year.” So she launched Joyebells Sweet Potato Pies.
The Joyebells team produces pies in a professional production space with restaurant-scale equipment at the culinary incubator, Hatch Kitchen RVA, in the former Clopton Ironworks.
Using jumbo Virginia sweet potatoes, they stir the orange pie filling in 60-quart stainless steel bowls, add ingredients, ladle the filling into pie crusts, and cart them to a six-by-eight-foot oven.
It’s truly a family business. Moore’s husband, Eric, is chief operating officer; her sister, Cassandra Wheeler, director of production. Son Lynden manages quality control, and son Adonis is the brand strategist. Moore has three children and four grandchildren and has lived in Richmond since 1982.
When pandemic shutdowns began in the spring of 2020, grocery stores were deemed “essential” — fortunately for her. The slowdown gave her time to get to know current and potential customers.
One of those customers is Karen Geter, who often serves Joyebells sweet potato pies to her family of three. Geter became a fan after she won a pie in an Instagram giveaway that Moore hosted.
Raving about the creamy texture, Geter said, “We love her pies because they are the closest to my grandmother’s pies.”
Where to buy them
Joyebells’ pies are sold at the Market at 25th, Elwood Thompson, Good Foods Groceries, Union Market, Common Eats and Little House Green Grocery.
In May, Moore landed a game-changing deal with Food Lion, selling her pies in the chain’s Virginia stores for now, and eventually with plans to do so in 10 other states.
Food Lion sells each nine-inch pie for $10.99. The deal means that Moore’s weekly pie production is rapidly accelerating.
“We produce pies every day,” Moore said, “and now that we are officially in Food Lion, we are a scene straight out of ‘Forrest Gump,’ when he first took off running out of his driveway and up the road.”
Customers also can order pies online for mail delivery or curbside pickup at Hatch Kitchen.
While Joyebells’ signature product is the sweet potato pie, by 2022, she hopes to diversify, offering homemade peach cobbler, blueberry cobbler, pineapple upside-down cake, coconut pineapple cake and peanut butter cake — all based on her great-great-great grandmother’s recipes. She will also make a vegan sweet potato pie without dairy ingredients.
Joyebells’ glistening, melt-in-your-mouth sweet potato pies have a loyal following that will no doubt grow in years to come.
Moore’s motto: “Who has time to bake?” Fortunately, she does.
For more information, visit joyebells.com.