Supporting Community Development One Business at a Time

Neil Smith shows off a mini-pie.

by James A. Bacon

New Zealand-born Neil Smith was on tour with Nine Inch Nails seven years ago, serving as personal chef for the industrial rock band, when he found himself in Richmond. There he met Nikki, a local woman hired to help out for the day. One thing led to another and before long they got married. After 10 years on the road, he figured that Richmond was good a place to settle down. The city reminds him a bit of home, he says, and he’s made a lot of friends here.

And, it so happens, when he needed help launching a new business venture, the Proper Pie Co., he found ample community support. His start-up was one of four to receive funding last year from the Supporting East End Entrepreneurship Development (SEED) program bankrolled by the Bon Secours Richmond Health System.

Kiwis love pies — meat pies, vegetable pies, dessert pies. They devour them like people wolf down burgers and pizzas here in the States, says Smith, a stocky man with a buzz cut and tattoo-stitched arms who could pass for a rugby player. He started thinking about the idea several years ago. When he noticed that a couple of pie restaurants had popped up in New York, L.A. and other U.S. culture hubs, he figured the idea might fly in Richmond, too. The community funding helps underwrite his plan to open a pie shop in a targeted commercial-residential corridor in the Church Hill neighborhood.

In the launch phase, says Smith, he will start small, concentrating on perfecting the product and drawing customers to his restaurant, where guests can order coffee and comfort food like mashed potatoes with the pies. If all goes well, he’d like to add some outlets around town.

Proper Pie Co., which hopes to open in August, served as the setting for a press conference Monday held by Bon Secours to highlight the winners of its 2011 grant competition and to announce the grant of a second $50,000 to stimulate the development of businesses in Richmond’s 23223 zip code. Bon Secours, which operates Richmond Community Hospital, launched the program as part of its outreach to Richmond’s east side. The Catholic health care system partnered with the Virginia Local Initiatives Support Corporation to identify potential recipients.

Other entrepreneurs to receive funding included Evrim Dogu, who is opening a bakery that will make bread from indigenous and locally grown grains; Jodi Burton, who is starting a hauling and disposal business; and Karen Wilson,who is using the funds to develop classes for her natural beauty company.

Smith’s meat pies are delicious. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Kiwi pies sweep the nation as the next big culinary fad. On the other hand, the flame-out rate for small business is scarily high. Whether or not Smith and his co-recipients survive the ruthless winnowing of the market place, I’m willing to bet that community-based micro-grants like these will create a lot more jobs per dollar than when the federal government indiscriminately air drops dollar bills around the country. Moreover, the grants will help bring vitality back to an urban area that had been significantly depopulated by the white flight of the 1960s and 1970s — an area well served by existing infrastructure that won’t pose an added burden to the region’s transportation system or to taxpayers. The program doesn’t just create jobs, it creates jobs in the right location. Kudos to Bon Secours and the City of Richmond.

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  1. DJRippert Avatar

    My Grandmother from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan used to make meat pastys. Unbelievable. If your man can make something like this – – I’ll be down to have a few.

  2. Yeah, Smith served the same thing… only a slightly different shape. So yummy! Great comfort food.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Delicious indeed. However, Ma Ma Ma finally had to ‘fess up as to why it tasted so good –

      Suet –

      850 KCal for every 3.5 oz!

      Now, you don’t have to use suet and I have no idea whether Mr. Smith uses the stuff or not.

      It was intentionally used as a source of energy for the mines in the UP of Michigan. It’s also intentionally used by arctic explorers for the same reason. Whether blog-masters or software executives need that same KCal laden energy kick – maybe not. After all, sugar free Red Bull will probably be sold in the Proper Pie store too.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Jim B: What are you having for lunch, Don?
    Don R: A tongue sandwich.
    Jim B: That’s disgusting. Who would want to eat something that came out of a cow’s mouth?
    Don R: Well, what are you having for lunch?
    Jim B: Egg salad.

    Don’t knock suet until you’ve tried it. Or, mutton, tipe, caviar or a big dish of fiddlehead ferns.

    1. 850 calories per serving? I don’t need to try it — I don’t care how good it tastes!

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        How about some chitlin’s? 52 calories an ounce. 416 per half pound serving. You say you’re a southerner – let’s have a nice plate of chittlin’s and turnip greens some time.

  4. larryg Avatar

    either DJ has never actually “enjoyed” chitlins or he is weirder than I thought.

    just cooking them in your house should be a Federal offense.

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