Ali Rudel felt good about life last summer.
The married mother of two daughters had decided to return to the mainstream workforce, taking a job in July with a nonprofit whose mission she respected. When she asked if she could start work a day later than expected in order to keep a doctor's appointment for her annual physical, the new boss didn't mind. But when she went into the office the next day, it was only the start of a very short stint.
"They found a nodule on my thyroid but made it sound like it was nothing to be concerned about," Rudel says of the doctors. "I've learned that's what they do: keep things really positive until they know for certain you have cancer."
So began the surreal odyssey that resulted in the removal of Rudel's thyroid in September, ongoing therapy to ensure that that cancer is gone and, unexpectedly, a pie company that is shaping up to be a success for the Durham baker. Just a few months after launching East Durham Pie Company, and while still battling cancer, Rudel is already talking about a storefront.
Weeks of uncertainty, surgery and recovery made a full-time job impossible for Rudel. She worked, however, to identify a manageable career that would make her happy. After numbing fatigue finally lifted, she decided the perfect occupation would allow her to both exercise her creativity and engage with the Triangle's local food movement, which she had once done as the manager of the Chapel Hill Farmers Market. She wanted to do it all from her Durham home, too, a requirement meant to minimize time away from family. The answer was the one-woman business she started in October.
Before her diagnosis, Rudel had already corralled her entrepreneurial ambitions and established East Durham Pie Company as an LLC in March. Her plan was to build the business slowly, developing it as her new job allowed.
By April, the kitchen of the family's current home was certified for food production. She and her husband, Ben Filippo, were familiar with the rigors of getting a home kitchen certified by the state for production of food to be sold wholesale or to private consumers. They'd gone through the process in 2012 when they launched the erstwhile This & That Jam, the Triangle's first jam subscription service. But making preserves was Filippo's thing; Rudel's jam, so to speak, is pie.
"I figured I'd start the business when I had the time and resources. I had made a lot of great connections with farmers and producers, which would make things easier," she remembers. "But then everything changed."
Rudel devoted herself to learning about her thyroid and what life would be like without it. Still, during her treatment and recovery, she found baking the occasional pie to be comforting. The act of turning flour and butter into flaky dough was a welcome distraction from her situation, and it allowed her to be creative with seasonal ingredients and to repay friends and family members who were helping her.
"I love the baking, but it's hard right now because I'm on a diet for my treatment where I can't have any dairy—no butter, no eggs, no iodized salt. I can't event eat my own pies right now," she says with a wry laugh. "But I'll make up for it soon."
Rudel learned her craft at Four & Twenty Blackbirds, the renowned New York bakery where she took a job after college. She began as a barista but quickly became fascinated by the pie-making process. After her shifts, she'd stick around to watch and learn. She eventually asked to help. Several years later, her recipe for Salt Pork Apple Pie landed in The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book.
"I wriggled my way in and started baking full time," says Rudel. "It was my introduction to working with farmers and cooking with seasonal ingredients. I ate a lot of fast food back then, and it really opened my eyes to the importance of healthy food grown by local farmers."
In fact, she and Filippo felt such a connection to the idea of local foodways that they decided to move to the Triangle, sight unseen, in 2011. They'd heard of its burgeoning reputation as a hub for sustainable farming. They have both since built careers connected to that passion: Filippo, formerly with the USDA and Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, was director of sustainability at Foster Caviness, a leading supplier of wholesale produce; last week, Preservation Durham named him as its new executive director. And now, Rudel hopes to grow East Durham Pie Company into a storefront pie-and-coffee shop.
"That's my ultimate goal," she says. "If things continue to go well, I may have to shift operations to a commissary kitchen before opening a shop."
Rudel launched the business just before Thanksgiving so she might leverage her reputation in local food circles to score orders for her 10-inch, $28 pies. It worked. The maple sweet potato, ginger apple, malted pumpkin and bourbon pecan pies also caught the attention of The Parlour in Durham; the ice cream shop invited her to bake a few more for a ticketed "dessert flight" night in early December.
The sold-out event boosted awareness for Rudel's brand, helping her build toward that storefront dream. Until then, her single-serving pies will remain at Respite and Cocoa Cinnamon in Durham. She's in talks with other potential providers, but, right now, she's got smaller concerns—dozens of them, actually.
"Right now, I'm taking orders for mini-mincemeat pies for Christmas Eve delivery. I'm planning to add something with chocolate and citrus for New Year's, but I haven't completely decided," she says. "My life is a bit manic right now, but it's all good."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Life of pie"