How A Kind Gesture From Lena Waithe and Pitch Competitions Helped Grow This Pie Business
Courtesy of Jennifer Lyles

Jennifer Lyle experienced difficult times and great moments as a business owner in 2020. She owns Lush Yummies Pie Company, a Detroit-based dessert brand that has received national attention this year from the signature pie, Lemon Butta.

For the first time this holiday season, she is finally starting to feel the fruits of her labor of love for the company she built back in 2016. The company sold around 5,000 pies for Thanksgiving that were shipped or picked up in the local Detroit area. “That’s the most we’ve ever done, especially in like a very short period of time,” she explained. 

This year many of us learned about the Lemon Butta pies, a mix between a cheesecake and a lemon meringue pie. Celebrities like Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, Lance Gross have been gushing over them on social media. “It’s funny because someone actually like wrote on my Instagram page, ‘Like how does it feel to be an overnight success?’ And I was like, ‘I’ve been working really hard for years. Like this isn’t overnight.” It’s been a four-year journey for Lyle, who has been anticipating her company’s current momentum from the help of celebrities and word of mouth this year. 

Lyle credits Lena Waithe as a big part of Lush Yummies’ growth in 2020. Lyle’s sorority sister – a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Incorporated – introduced Waithe to her pies. “I messaged her. I said, ‘Hey, would you be willing to post a review?’ She was like, ‘No, but what I will do is help you sell these pies.'” Waithe bought 65 pies from Lyle to send to her friends to help spread the word. Those celebrity friends included Tracee Ellis Ross, Reese Witherspoon, and Niecy Nash. Waithe did not want a discount or free sample; she wanted to pay full price. Waithe encouraged Cynthia Erivo to also gift pies to her friends, including Oprah, which led Lush Yummies to be featured in O Magazine twice in 2020.  

Courtesy of Jennifer Lyles

Lyle’s pies are from a four-generation family recipe, passed down to her by her grandfather, who learned to make them from his mother. When she visited her grandparents and stayed with them for the summer, making the pies was her grandfather’s favorite thing to do, and she developed a love for baking. It would be years before she would remember her passion for baking and turn her family’s recipe into her dream. 

The Howard University alumna was a ninth-grade English teacher with the Teach for America program that sent her to Atlanta to start her post-graduate career. During that time, she became a junior varsity cheerleading coach at the school and needed to raise money for the team in 2010. She remembered her affinity for baking and was inspired to pivot her career and attend culinary school. In 2011, she completed a year at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Miami in the patisserie and baking program. “My dad got really sick, so I ended up moving back home after a year,” she said.

Her time back in Detriot led her to become a development director who helped write grants for Michigan’s local schools. “I knew that I was good at getting into grants and things like that, but I really wanted to be able to start my own business,” she shared. That’s when she started baking and selling the pies around the city and soon became a vendor at the historic Eastern Market. The 150-year old, 24-acre market attracts around 45,000 people every Saturday that it’s opened. As demand grew, she knew that she could no longer make the pies from her home or bake them by herself. “I started renting out church basements to make my grandad’s pie. I started out with two churches here in Detroit. One of the churches didn’t even have an elevator, so I had to like haul these 40-pound boxes of lemons up and down the stairs,” she recalled. Eastern Market later presented Lyle with an opportunity to rent out a shared kitchen with another Saturday vendor. “The kitchen was right across the street from the vending shed, and so I took that opportunity, but the kitchen was maybe like 500 square feet. I was there for about three years,” she explained. In February 2020, Lush Yummies moved into its production facility that is 2,300 square feet and has seven employees. “We have a shipping area, and now, of course, I have an office; I’ve never had that before, so we’ve had a lot of growth just in 2020,” Lyle said.

When Lyle became a full-time entrepreneur, she was unsure what route she would take to help scale and fund her business until she was offered her first grant through Eastern Market. The grant they offered required her to do crowdfunding and the market would match what she raised. They also had an additional grant for branding worth $10,000 that sets the winner up with a branding agency to help with logo design, website, and other marketing materials like her pies’ packaging. “I did a crowdfunding campaign [for the market grant], and I raised like $5,000. I really didn’t like how it felt. It felt like I was kinda just like begging for money,” she shared. She also attempted to get a loan for her business during that time and was denied. From exploring different funding options, she thought grants would be a better funding option for her. She won the branding grant and started looking for pitch competitions to win more grants. A local business program that she participated in hosted a contest. She applied and won second place. “I’ve competed in about 15 more after that in Michigan and other states.” Lyle has now won over $250,000 from pitch competitions and grants. She even won $15,000 from ESSENCE + New Voices Entrepreneur Summit!

“You have to go into the competition knowing that it’s a win, win, no matter if you win cash or if you win exposure,” she explained. She recalled the times she did not win a competition but won the audience over with her pitch, which turned them into consumers or invitations to pitch at different competitions. “I’ve lost four competitions. Every time I lost, I wanted to make sure that I spoke with the judges. I wanted to talk to them personally because I want to know what I could have done differently to win your vote,” she shared. 

The pandemic created a space for Lush Yummies to pivot from their local vending and grocery story sales to embracing e-commerce and creating efficient processes to ship their pies nationwide. With a growing fanbase and a better way to meet the demand, Lyle and her team are ready to continue to scale and win more grants.