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By Wm. Shawn Weigel
Two weeks ago, Molly Johnson had to turn customers away from her food truck at the Kennett Farmers Market.
“I’m sorry, I’m all sold out,” she told an elderly couple, who insisted that they had driven all the way from Philadelphia to buy one of her homemade pies. “I sold 65 pies in two hours.”
Exasperated, the couple had no recourse but to head home and try again next week – which, Johnson said, they did, when they walked away with $70 worth of pies.
“When they showed up, I said, ‘yeah I have plenty, it’s been kind of slow.’ And you could see that she felt a little guilty,” Johnson said. “So she gave me her cell phone and said to call her if I had extra at the end of the day. I didn’t call, but she still showed up and bought a lot of pies.”
Looking like a mix between Dawn Wells of “Gilligan’s Island” and “Seinfeld” star Julia Louise-Dreyfus, the 23-year-old Johnson is the owner of Nomadic Pies, the bright purple truck from which she sells her assortment of sweet and savory pies and quiches.
Only in business since May 17, Johnson said that the response to her new venture – her first business on her own, in fact – has been overwhelmingly positive.
Originally from Wallingford, Johnson relocated to Coatesville as a teenager, eventually moving to Baltimore with her high school sweetheart and now husband, Dan Johnson.
There, she worked for Dangerously Delicious pies, a small, private-owned franchise that she said running gave her the confidence to start her own business.
“I wound up opening up a second store for them, where I was a partner,” she said. “I never knew anything about savory pies until I worked there; I’ve made fruit pies my whole life, but this was definitely an interesting experience.”
When she decided to start her own business, Johnson bought the exclusive rights to distribute Dangerously Delicious pies in the tri-state area. She now features his savory pies, in combination with her own sweet pies and quiche, but is planning to launch her own line of savory pies in the near future.
“I’m actually meeting with Irie Jamaican restaurant in Coatesville this week to develop a jerk chicken pie,” she said. “I’m really excited about that. And I’d like to make a lamb curry pie as well, so there’s lots in the works.”
Johnson joins a rising tide of new would-be restaurant owners who are choosing a mobile kitchen versus a permanent one.
“It’s definitely less overhead, and I get to go to different places every week. If had fixed location and I wasn’t doing well, I’m stuck there. If I’m in my truck and not doing well, I can go somewhere else and give it a try there,” Johnson said. “I didn’t have a lot of start-up capital, so if you can do a lot of it yourself, then do it.”
Johnson bought her truck from the Allentown News last fall, converting it to her needs and giving it a snazzy paint job with help from her husband and father.
Keeping her truck’s amenities at a minimum – a small fridge, a warming oven and a small workspace is all she needs – Johnson does her actual preparation and baking at Highland Farms Dairy, whose cheese often makes its way into her recipes.
Using those ingredients, she said, is all a part of her mission to follow the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” ethic, bringing fresh locally grown meats and vegetables into her pies.
“I’m a big fan of ‘farm to table,’ so this is like, ‘farm to truck to table,’” Johnson said. “It is a little more expensive, because you’re buying ingredients at a premium for fresh and local, but it’s so much better and it supports local farmers.”
She also stays connected to the Chester County farming community, and still maintains a “day job” at Bollmecke Orchards in Coatesville. She also raises her own chickens on her farm in Coatesville, and is planning on eventually incorporating those birds into her recipes.
“I have 110 chickens now, but at one point I had 186,” she said. “But they are heritage breed, pasture-raised chickens, and they’re delicious.”
Selling everything from standard apple and peach pies, along woth savory favprites like her cilantro chicken and tomato basil pies, Johnson said she is always experimenting to find new flavor combinations.
And as hard as it is to picture, the petite Johnson said she personally eats a lot of pie.
“I do eat a lot of pie, but it varies on what kind,” she said. “Whatever is the most delicious. Lately, I’ve made a lot of peach pies with berry variations. I tried black berry and raspberry, and they were both delightful.”
Selling her goods at a variety of locations, including area farmer’s markets and Highland Dairy, Johnson said she’s still figuring the business model out on the fly as she tweaks her inventory form week to week.
“It’s really hard to know what the demand will be, there’s no formula I place,” she said. “One time, I brought 60 pies and took 20 home. I’m doing the best I can, though.”
She also said she wishes that other area farmer’s markets were as good and as well organized as Kennett’s is.
“Kennett’s is fantastic – they stay true to their mission statement to support local businesses. And (executive director) Abby Morgan is wonderful,” she said.
Follow Johnson’s schedule at www.nomadicpies.com.