Perhaps no dessert in the world is as quintessentially American as pie, yet the best pie in Charlotte has roots in the Congo. Though not exactly known as a key producer of bakers, it was the birthplace of Agnes Mbiya, the energetic and infectiously cheerful proprietor of Divine Pies. Step into the bakery, which sells fruit, cream, meat and vegetable pies, and you are guaranteed to have a bit of a dilemma. No worry, she offers free samples daily to help you decide. A favorite is her strawberry-rhubarb pie, the heavier crust perfectly balancing the mouth-wateringly tart, sweet filling. But as the seasons transition to fall, her sinfully rich pumpkin pie takes over sales, even beating out sweet potato in this Southern delight capital. You'll need to get on her holiday list early if you want it in time for Labor Day, Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations.
Mbiya (pronounced em-BEE-ah) had a talent in the kitchen, even as a young girl, that her family recognized. But when she was ready for college, her family sent her to Tuskegee University, a private, historically black university in Tuskegee, Alabama, to pursue a business degree instead. However, her calling could not be denied, and for the last six years she's built up a steady following at her southeast Charlotte bakery.
Creative Loafing: How did you become known as the Pie Lady?
Agnes Mbiya: I had a job that I hated. I'd gone to college but when I graduated, I couldn't find a job in my field, so I took a job at a small factory to pay the bills. It only had 40-50 employees, so we became like a family. The last Wednesday of every month, we'd have a party for all the workers who'd had birthdays. One day, one of the ladies brought a pecan pie. At the time, I didn't really eat American food, but I took a bite and it was delicious! She told me it was easy, she'd give me the recipe, but I said "No, let's get together and you show me how to make it." After that, if there was a party, everybody knew I was bringing pecan pie. I became known for it.
I made so many that people began requesting them, buying them from me. After a while, I decided I would no longer feed my customers frozen pie crusts; I would learn the best way to make my own. I watched Martha Stewart, Emeril — sometimes to me, the dough looked like fufu [a starchy West African dish of pounded yams]. I finally hit on my recipe and I still remember, that first apple pie crust looked so beautiful to me.
Where did you get your start in Charlotte?
I started selling apple pie, pecan pie and sweet potato pie at Yorkmont Farmers Market. At first, I was afraid because of my accent; I thought people would not be able to understand me. But then a woman stood there and bought three pies. In a day, I made $150 in my hand. That's when I seriously started to think, "Wow, maybe this could be a business for me."
You sold pies informally for a long time before establishing a brick and mortar location. What's been the biggest surprise since opening the shop?
I thought the business would take off right away, but it takes time. I wish someone would have told me to be ready for a lot of hard work. Some days I stay until 2 or 3 in the morning and come back at 7 a.m. But it's OK, I don't mind hard work. And I get help when I need it. My sons help out baking on the weekends, and Rashid [age 14, the youngest] mentioned he would like to learn the business.