"I bake and sell the best sweet potato pie on earth," Johnathan Dye tells me as we sit comfortably at one of the hi-top tables at Ashley’s Que in Walker’s Point. "And I’m serious about it."
But serious doesn’t even begin to describe it. Biting into a slice of his original sweet potato pie is a near religious experience.
The pie is sweet. Buttery. With just the right balance of spices.
"What’s your secret?" I asked.
"For me a great sweet potato pie is one that lets the sweet potato talk," Dye replies. "Get out of the way of the sweet potato. Don’t overpower it with too much sugar, or too many spices."
And his description was right on. The pie wasn’t super sweet, and the spices settled neatly in the background, right behind the big bold sweet potato flavor. I had to admit, it was truly the best sweet potato pie I’ve ever had. The same was true for the pecan delight, a sweet potato pie with a crisp pecan topping that was just begging for a dollop of cool whipped cream.
Dye, a cum laude graduate of UW-Parkside, says he grew up in the kitchen.
"I’ve been baking since I was five or six," he tells me, "I was in the kitchen with my grandmother, and she didn’t kick me out … and that’s the long and short story."
Milwaukee owes a real debt of gratitude to Dye’s grandmother, who not only shared her baking secrets and techniques with her young progeny, but also instilled a real passion for the art and craft of baking.
It’s a passion upon which he built the foundations for his steadily growing pie business, Mr. Dye’s Pies.
"I think if there was a theme to my pies, it would be soul food … that old style baking that reminds them of their grandmothers, that’s a lost art. It’s really rewarding."
Dye sells eight different pies including Classic Sweet Potato, Pecan Delight (sweet potato pie loaded with pecan topping), Nawlin’s Pecan and Key Lime.
He also sells something called the Purple Monster, which he was fairly secretive about.
"It contains two special ingredients that turn the pie purple and give it a more sophisticated flavor than the classic sweet potato pie," he says.
Dye says some customers see the pie as a novelty item. "Purple people buy it because they like purple," he says. "But others buy it because of the flavor. It’s something you just have to try."
He makes each and every one of his pies from scratch, from recipes he’s developed over the years. He’s even developed sugar-free versions of his sweet potato pies, in which he uses a custom blend of Splenda and Truvia sweeteners.
"I have high blood pressure," he says. "My brothers have it too … it runs in my family. And a lot of people in the community are diabetic. I wanted to give them the option of enjoying the pies."
Dye, who worked in the financial industry for ten years before launching his pie business in 2011, says he’s learned a lot from that experience.
"I think too many businesses try to be everything to everybody. But, that doesn’t work," he says. "I learned that taking on too much can lead to failure. I wanted to focus on one thing and do it really well. That thing just happens to be pie."
Dye has grown his business slowly – organically – relying on word of mouth as his primary marketing tool, along with Facebook and distribution of flyers around town. So far, he says, they’ve gotten along without a web site, though that will be one of the next steps they’ll take in the future, along with figuring out how to ship pies across the country.
"Business is going well," he says. "In fact, we doubled the number of pies we sold for the holidays this year. I’m pretty much a one man show, but we sold over 160 pies."
He says he’s been fortunate for partners like Jimmy Jackson, of Jackson’s Grill, 3736 W Mitchell St., who lends out his kitchen to Dye during the day to bake his pies.
"I’m thankful for my ability to grow slowly," he says. "To do things right. At this point, though, I’m ready to get the phone call from someone who wants to buy my pies in larger quantities."
In addition to taking special orders, Dye also sells his pies to restaurants like Ashley’s BBQ, Ashley’s Que, Double B’s BBQ, Loucci’s NY Pizza and One Sports Lounge – each of which offer pie by the slice.
Dye might keep the secrets to his delicious pie under wraps, but he was quick to admit an even bigger secret.
"I grew up just blocks away from Ashley’s BBQ," he said. "But, I’d never tried their food until I started selling them my pies."
Fortunately, he says he’s rectified that matter.
In fact, his favorite dish at Ashley’s is their pork shoulder… second only, of course, to that delicious sweet potato pie.
Mr. Dye’s Pies are priced between $18 and $28. For a complete list of pies, as well as more information, visit the Facebook page at facebook.com/dyespies. To place an order, call Johnathan Dye directly at (414) 759-4992. Although pie orders generally take 5-7 days to fulfill, Dye says orders placed the weekend before Christmas can be accommodated.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.