PieLab, a restaurant in Greensboro, Alabama, is where locals flock to find a sense of community.
Posted in , Jul 5, 2011
My friend Suzanne, a nutrition professor at the University of Alabama, keeps me up with the trendiest restaurants in the state, but I was surprised when she told me about a new place in Greensboro called PieLab.
“PieLab?” I asked. “What’s that supposed to mean? And why Greensboro?” My daddy’s family came from Greensboro, population 2,700. We’d visited the town on Decoration Day back when I was a kid.
“It’s supposed to be a creative destination, ‘an idea incubator,’ they call it,” Suzanne said, “a place that brings people together over a slice of pie.”
“Okay,” I said, not quite understanding. But I kept hearing about PieLab, how the idea germinated in an economically depressed Maine town where a group of young graphic designers sponsored a pie day, held on the internationally celebrated Pi Day, March 14 (or 3-14, which is pi rounded off to the nearest hundredth—get it?). Free slices of pie brought residents together to look for positive solutions to the town’s problems. People had the same hope that a nonprofit like PieLab would help the depressed economy of Greensboro.
The restaurant was even rated “one of the top 10 places for pie in America” by a national newspaper. I called my father. “Hey, Daddy, want to go to Greensboro for some pie?”
“Sure,” he said. “Haven’t been there in a long while.” On the hour-long drive, Daddy reminisced about Greensboro in the old days, how you’d see everyone in town on a Saturday trip to the general store, the barber’s and his cousin Norma’s diner. Folks stopped and talked. These days most people were hurrying into the big-box stores right off the highway.
We turned onto Main Street. It was mostly deserted…except for the cars parked in front of a white-brick café with floor-to-ceiling windows and PieLab in big letters over the door. Inside were long trestle tables and industrial chic lighting—not the old-fashioned pie shop I’d expected. The amazing aromas coming from the kitchen told me the pies were freshly baked. “They like to use whatever produce is in season,” Suzanne had said. “Farmers sell directly to them.” I glanced at the mouth-watering choices scrawled on the chalkboard: apple, chocolate pecan, coconut cream, lemon icebox, blueberry, buttermilk.
“Hi, I’m Deanna,” the lady at the cash register said. “What can I get y’all?”
Daddy and I settled on two slices of lemon icebox pie. Then he asked, “Do you remember Norma’s diner?”
“Of course!” Deanna replied. “Miss Norma was a real fixture in this town.”
I poured myself a Mason jar of sweet tea and a glass of lemonade for Daddy while he and Deanna swapped Norma stories. Then we sat down at one of the long tables next to two men. “I hope we’re not intruding,” I said.
“Not at all,” said one of them. “That’s what we do here. Meet people and talk.” He turned out to be a software developer and the other man owned a shop nearby. “Everybody comes here,” he continued, “folks from the catfish plant, farmers, students, people from other towns who want to know what the fuss is all about.”
“They’ve got special programs too,” the other man said. “Somebody put on ballroom dancing classes in the back room and after-school sessions for kids who want to take the GED.”
“So it’s not just about the food,” I said, savoring the lemony zest of my pie.
“There’s more to it than that. Main Street hasn’t been this busy since…”
“Since Norma’s diner closed down,” Daddy suggested.
PieLab, despite its name and industrial chic decor, wasn’t such a new idea after all. Put good food and people together. Let them linger and talk. If they get to trading ideas, all the better. I’d call that hospitality, right out of the Golden Rule. Cousin Norma would have understood perfectly.