College Town profiles East Durham Pie Company owner Ali Rudel as she prepares to open the company's first retail location this summer in Old East Durham.
Ali Rudel, owner of East Durham Pie Company, looks out from where her business’s retail location will open this summer at 406 South Driver Street. Photo by Kaylee Sciacca.
Seven years ago, Ali Rudel was a barista for the acclaimed Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie shop in Brooklyn. This summer, she’ll be opening up East Durham Pie Company — her own neighborhood café and bakery — in Old East Durham.
“I got the job (at Four & Twenty Blackbirds), but I planned to keep my options open and keep looking,” she explains. “But then it turned out to be this lovely new place with these two sisters (owners Emily and Melissa Elsen) who were super awesome to me.
“I would stay late nights just to watch them in the kitchen and promise not to touch anything,” Rudel says with a laugh. “Eventually, they let me touch things, and this passion (for baking) came out of nowhere, even though I’d worked in food service before then.”
Moving down to Durham was a way for Rudel and husband Ben Filippo to get connected to agriculture, especially as the farm-to-fork movement was picking up speed in New York. With their first daughter on the way, despite never having visited the area before, the couple took the plunge in early 2011.
“I just feel so incredibly welcome here,” she says of the different atmospheres between her current and former homes. “Working in New York, there is creativity, but it’s not as collaborative as it is here (in Durham). People are more protective, more secretive, and it’s more competitive. Here, even if you’re doing similar things, people will reach out or you can ask for help or advice and people will let you know.”
The decisive moment for Rudel to start East Durham Pie Co. in October 2015 came during her recovery period from an aggressive form of thyroid cancer.
“The stress was just eating me alive. I had been talking about doing this thing, so I decided to just do it,” she says. “Having cancer kick my butt in gear gave me a push to make some life changes.”
What was originally going to be a side project turned into the life change Rudel needed, taking her fledgling company from just “this thing” to an Indy Week Best of the Triangle 2016 “Best Pie in Durham County” finalist in under two years’ time.
She explains that it was easier for her to begin because of how connected she and her husband became with the local food and agricultural community in the four years since they moved down to Durham from New York City.
Both Rudel and her husband served on the board of directors of Benevolence Farm, a farm-based transitional living program located in Alamance County for women leaving prison, during its initial days. Rudel has also worked as the manager of the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market, while Filippo worked for the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and was the manager of the South Durham Farmers’ Market.
Working so closely with the agriculture community helps her choose flavors for her pies, which change with every season.
“I’m always thinking ‘what’s in season, what can I get right now,’” she says. “In winter especially, there aren’t a lot of fruit options available, so I get to do a lot of the more interesting flavors like chocolate or lemon. I wouldn’t do a strawberry pie right now. It’s all about what I can get locally or as locally as possible.”
Locality was important to Rudel in terms of choosing East Durham Pie Co.’s retail location as well: 406 South Driver Street is less than five minutes away from her home kitchen (which is certified as a home bakery).
“For me, opening up (in) downtown (Durham) wasn’t even really on my radar,” Rudel says of her decision to move into the two-story brick structure. “I definitely wanted to open up in my neighborhood.”
The location she has chosen in her neighborhood has a lot of history. In the past, the building on the southwest corner of South Driver Street and Angier Avenue has played host to businesses on both levels including multiple drugstores, a physician’s office and a watch repair shop.
She does note that she feels like Old East Durham itself currently doesn’t lend itself to outsiders coming in.
“There’s a barbershop, a mini-mart … Joe’s (Diner) closed down two years ago,” Rudel says of what’s left of businesses in the area. “That’s a big part of why I wanted to open a business here, because there currently isn’t much going on. If I want to get coffee with my neighbor, I have to go downtown. There’s a little space over here where a coffee shop could go.”
Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign launched in July 2016 totaling over $24,000 in backers’ donations, that will happen this summer with a variety of hot drinks, seasonal breakfast and lunch items, and of course, pie baked fresh in-store.
A full list of locations of where to find East Durham Pie Co. mini-pies and pie by-the-slice around the Triangle area can be found here.