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Bakery Not So Pie In The Sky

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December 9, 2010 by wcobserver

Orders Flow in Tough Economy

By Susan McCarthy

This Thanksgiving, many of us will enjoy a slice of pie, but for Tim and Rhonda Glenn, pies are never far from their minds every day of the year as the owners of Letha’s Pies at 88 North Centennial Ave. in West Fork.

A year ago Tim and Rhonda Glenn wondered whether their re-born bakery would be able to keep its doors open.  Yet a year later, the couple has been inundated with orders and while working full-time jobs by day they, spend nights and weekends with eight part-time employees making fried pies for restaurants and convenience stores in seven states.

Last Saturday, the kitchen at Letha’s Pies was bustling.  Workers stirred enormous bowls of apple and chocolate pie filling while others scooped filling into rounds of pie crust, moistening the edges with water from a pastry brush and then hand-crimping individual-sized fried pies one after another. Next door, Tim was running a jigsaw, making way for new outlets that would power a 19’ x 29’ freezer that is part of an expansion that will double the bakery’s square footage.

“It’s a fun environment to work in…it’s easy going,” said Amber Baxley, who has worked for the Glenn’s for over a year and also holds the bakery’s record of turning  out 8-10 dozen pies per hour.

Letha’s Pies was born out of a devastating fire that burned Tim’s parents’ bakery, the original Letha’s Pies, to the ground.  Tim’s parents, Tommy and Letha Glenn had operated what Tim describes as a “full fledged bakery” first in Fayetteville and later outside of Branson Missouri.

“My wife and I have been dabbling in this for years,” said Tim who explained that Rhonda and his mother at one point had even taken a concession trailer on the road.

Rhonda can vividly recall the night of the fire.  She said Tim got a call at 3 a.m. and immediately left to go to his parents’ home.  When he called her at 6 a.m. he told her, “It’s over, it’s gone.”

Staff Photographer Brooke McNeely Galligan Brandy Kittrell makes pecan pies Friday at Letha’s pies in West Fork. She and her sister work there part time to help fill and crimp as many as 1200 homemade fried pies in an afternoon.

But Tim said that while there was nothing left of the bakery, Rhonda wasn’t ready to give up yet.

“She wouldn’t let it die,” said Tim.

“My brain couldn’t process it was over,” said Rhonda.  “It can’t be over.  Here’s where we are.  Here’s what we’ll do.  It just can’t be over.”

That’s when, with Tim’s parents, Tim and Rhonda decided to re-open the bakery in West Fork, but as a wholesale fried pie company.

“Tim’s philosophy was if I’m going to do it, I’m not going to do the ‘Mom and Pop’ thing,” said Rhonda They’d watched  the older Glenn’s struggle over 20 years to make a living with their bakery.

“That was the turning point; the decision was made to take it and go in a different direction.”

The couple took the one distributor and a few small wholesale accounts from the bakery in Branson and began making just fried pies for the wholesale market in May 2009.

“We live in West Fork and decided to put it here so we didn’t have to drive,” said Rhonda.

And while the whole concept sounds idyllic, both Tim and Rhonda have continued to work in their full- time jobs; he as an electrician and she as a group representative for an insurance company.

In fact, much of the money earned from Letha’s Pies continues to help support Tim’s aging parents, although they relay this humbly as if every family in America would do the same thing.

There is no sign along Centennial Avenue and a small script identifies Letha’s Pies on the bakery’s glass door.  Most days, the bakery is unlit and quiet.  But late afternoons and on Saturdays, the bakery stirs to life, churning out as many as 1200 pies an evening.

“We had no idea what we were getting into…the certifications, the FDA, liability insurance…the things you have to do to be a manufacturer.  You have no idea,” said Rhonda.

“It’s been a learning process,” added Tim.

Letha’s Pies makes six versions of their homemade fried pies and offers another seven by special order.  The pies are frozen just after they’re made and hand-packed for sale in boxes containing two dozen pies.

The pies are shipped frozen and cooked to order by a variety of businesses including restaurants, convenience stores, nursing homes, and caterers.

“The majority of our recipes are made from scratch,” said Tim.

Rhonda smiled and added, “They’re all secret recipes.”

With the exception of rolling the dough with a machine, Rhonda says everything else is done the old fashioned way.

“It’s Tim’s mother’s recipe.  We do not deviate.  The crust is her recipe…It’s hand done, mixed by hand,”  said Rhonda who jokes that Letha Glenn comes to the bakery every now and then to check to see that the pies are still made the way they’ve always been made.

“She wants them to look hand-made.”

As if getting a food distribution business up and running wasn’t hard enough, two things occurred over the last few months that would change the future of Letha’s Pies quickly.  Tim had disc surgery five months ago and has had to take a leave of absence from work.  And the couple decided to work with a broker in Little Rock to sell their pies.

“He tried to get us to go with him for over a year.  We just didn’t think that was the way to go,” said Tim. “They said they’ve never had a product that’s sold so well.”

Tim reports  that within the past couple months, Letha’s Pies has picked up every major food distributor in the state of Arkansas and is now distributing pies to seven states.

The couple has doubled their leased space to nearly 2500 square feet, purchased new dough rolling equipment, and added some extra staff.

“We need to settle into our expansion before we can take on more…put the brakes on for a while,” said Tim.

“I don’t think any of us envisioned it could go this far.  We knew we had a product everyone liked, but no…no, you just don’t know,” said Rhonda.

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