For JaWanda Jackson, baking sweet potato pies is more than just a business—it’s a calling.
“I look at myself as a servant,” she said. “When you think about food, it’s very much like music. It warms the heart. It allows you the opportunity to get in where sometimes you wouldn’t be able to … to get to know people, to talk to people, to warm up to people, to share with people. JaWanda’s Sweet Potato Pies gives me the opportunity to do that.”
Jackson’s seven-year-old business, JaWanda’s Sweet Potato Pies, is located in the Inverness Village Shopping Center in Hoover, and its roots are in Jackson’s love for cooking and memories of her mother.
“I’ve been cooking since I was 9 years old. My mother, Gwen, taught me how to cook,” she said. “My mother’s gone on to be with the Lord now, but she was a fantastic cook. I would get in the kitchen with her, and she would show me how to do certain things. [The] peach cobbler that I do in my shop is actually her recipe.”
While Jackson, 50, has always had a passion for cooking, the catalyst for her business was her husband, Eddie.
“He loves sweet potato pie. It’s his favorite dessert. Because he enjoyed them so much, I wanted to make them and … master them,” she said.
When family and friends asked her to prepare more pies, she realized she’d stumbled upon an opportunity.
“They started telling me, ‘I think you should do something with the pies’ … so I did,” she said. “I moved from just [making pies for] family and friends to taking pies to sell at markets. Then I moved from markets into stores.”
The Cowboys convenience store on Highway 280 was the first store that sold Jackson’s pies in 2010. From there, her pies took off. Now, they are available in Piggly Wiggly locations in Homewood, Clairmont, Bluff Park, River Run, and Crestline, as well as the Raceway gas station on Highway 280. She also sells pies during the summer months at the Market at Pepper Place in downtown Birmingham and the Mount Laurel Farmers’ Market.
“We had to get a processing site, so now I have my own brick-and-mortar, [which has been open since 2015],” Jackson said. “And it all started, with my husband’s love for sweet potato pie.”
Finding a Niche
Despite Birmingham’s booming food culture, Jackson’s business fills a niche market that has gone overlooked.
“There’s not a pie shop in Birmingham or the surrounding areas,” she said. “… We were the first really to tap into the sweet potato pie [market] and start a pie shop, particularly in the Hoover area. I knew it was a niche, and I knew it was something … that would prosper because there’s nothing like it. Oftentimes, people are looking for something that’s different.”
JaWanda’s sells several flavors of sweet potato pie, but the customers’ choice has always been Jackson’s original sweet potato pie. There are two new varieties: S’Prize, which is a sweet potato pie with orange cream cheese and topped with pecan praline; and S’Prize 2, a sweet potato pie with pineapple cream cheese and topped with toasted marshmallows.
Jackson’s favorite: “Chocolate pound cake. That’s my favorite, above anything that I do.”
Food and Faith
Running a business requires hard work and sacrifice, said Jackson, but there “was never a challenge” with her business because of her faith.
“That’s the thing about being in the will of God,” said Jackson, who has been the pastor of the House of Prayer Evangelistic (HOPE) Church in the Inglenook community for 18 years. “When you’re in the will of God, you don’t have to pay your own fare. It’s when you step out of the will of God that you have to pay your own fare. That’s when there’s the challenge, there’s the stress, there’s the struggle, there’s the strain.”
There was one time Jackson said she did step out of God’s will, however.
“That was in the beginning of us opening the brick-and-mortar,” she said, explaining that she’d originally set the store hours for Tuesdays through Saturdays, and, eventually, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Neither schedule was what her she knew in her heart that she should do.
“Originally, God spoke to me to open the shop on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays—this was from the very, very beginning—but I overrode when I thought, ‘Oh man, I’m a new shop. I probably need to be open longer, so people can get to know me,’” she said. “It cost me by way of just being more fatigued, more tired. … [Also,] because I’m a pastor and doing business as an entrepreneur, that can be very, very taxing. I had to get balance there.”
“Finally, after a year of it being open, God reminded me, ‘What did I tell you? I told you to be open on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. You wouldn’t be so fatigued, and you wouldn’t be having the problems that you’re having,’” she said. “So, when we came back this year, the second year [of having a storefront], … I decided to go with what the Lord told me to do originally, and it has been so much better. It’s just hearing and obeying. That’s the key. It’s hearing God and obeying God.”
For Jackson, success comes with equal parts faith, self-belief, and community service.
“It takes perseverance,” she said. “[You have to] believe in your product, believe in the goals you are setting out to accomplish, and believe that you’re going to make a difference. That’s the whole thing for me. … I believe life is about having an assignment, so I consider [my business] to be a ministry. Your job, your profession … when you take those things and use them for His glory, that’s a ministry. That’s what we’ve chosen to do with JaWanda’s Sweet Potato Pies.”
For more information …
JaWanda’s Sweet Potato Pies
Address: 5291 Valleydale Road, Suite 11, Birmingham, AL 35242