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Serendipity



Here is an excerpt from my upcoming book, a memoir about my “adventures” as a pie baker and entrepreneur. Please let me know how you like it and if you’d like to read more of the story – thanks!

(Background: after going through a difficult and costly divorce, losing my home in a bankruptcy and struggling to take care of my children, I decided to start my own business. I named the company “pie ala moe!” and, before long, I was selling full-sized pies and “mini moe’s” – tiny tarts – to local restaurants and individuals. As business continued to grow, I acquired an investor who gave me the working capital I needed to quit my job as a collections associate for a large accounting firm. This chapter begins when I’m leaving the accounting firm to grow my pie business full-time.)  


Meet "mini moe!"
Chapter Five: Serendipity

My last day at Dorfman Robbie was both exhilarating and a little scary. I was saying goodbye to friends I’d made over the last three years. These people had helped me cope with so many things, including the sudden death of my father and my serious financial issues.

Nevertheless, a week or so later, I was happily ensconced in my new world as a “small food entrepreneur.” I had $50k in the bank, courtesy of my silent partner, Kevin. And I had begun receiving the first of my Thanksgiving pie orders. It was thrilling, and I was ready for the next leg of the journey – or so I thought.

I was returning from a meeting with the owner of a small café who wanted to carry my mini pies, when I noticed something wasn’t quite right with my car. Mildly annoyed, but not thinking too much of it, I continued east along the busy Route 5 Central Avenue corridor, anxious to get back home and continue preparations for the busiest season of a pie maker’s year.

Every small to mid-sized city in the country has a stretch of road just like Central Avenue in Albany. A busy four lane corridor that connects Albany with Schenectady, it is dotted with gas stations, motels and chain restaurants as well as mom & pop cafes, taverns, coffee shops and ethnic grocery stores. Anyone who knows this stretch of road also knows it is nearly always busy, with traffic racing in both directions, slowed only by the annoying number of traffic lights in any given one-mile stretch of road. I was sitting somewhat impatiently at one of those lights when I began to see little puffs of white smoke seeping out from under the hood of the car and being borne away on the brisk October wind.

“Oh no,” I moaned inwardly. “This cannot be happening to me now,” I thought, as the small white puffs became increasingly larger. My indomitable little red Jeep, the very one that had survived the hailstorm – indeed, had turned that freak event into a cash windfall for me – was choosing now to roll over and die?  No, it couldn’t be, I assured myself. It’s probably something minor that can be fixed for a few dollars. 

The light finally turned green and I put my foot on the accelerator, noticing with some relief that I was only a few yards away from Capitaland Tire, the place I took my car for servicing and oil changes.  “Well, at least I don’t have to go too much further,” I thought to myself somewhat more relieved.

As I began to accelerate and pull into the turning lane with my signal on, the white puffs of smoke rapidly grew into large billowy clouds now pouring out of the car as if, instead of an engine under the hood, there was a large cauldron. It got so bad I had to open the driver’s side window and stick my head out of the car to watch for a break in the oncoming traffic, so I could turn into the repair shop entrance.  “Lord, please let me get this car safely across traffic and into that lot,” I prayed to myself. Naturally, the oncoming drivers continued racing past me, either oblivious to the great clouds of smoke now surrounding my car or, more likely, not caring.

Somehow, I managed to find a break in the stream of cars and lurch across the road. Parking the car at the first open spot, I quickly shut off the engine, grabbed my purse, and jumped out of the car. I had no idea if the smoke would evolve into an engine fire and I had no desire to hang around and find out.

I hurried into the shop and up to the customer service counter. The mechanic on front desk duty had been watching the scene on Central Avenue and had already called one of the mechanics in back to go outside to make sure the car wasn’t going to blow up in their parking lot. After popping the hood and making a quick initial inspection, they determined there was no danger of a fire and they brought the car into the repair bay to take a closer look.

Pacing back and forth in the waiting area, I began assessing my situation. I was still hopeful that whatever had just happened would be fixable. But I was irked that I was going to have to spend some of my precious “pie money” on car repairs.

About ten minutes later, another mechanic entered the waiting area and called out my name. I hurried over to him, eager to find out what the problem was and how long it would take to get the repairs done.   The news was not what I wanted to hear.

“You have a cracked engine block and the car is so old, it would cost more to fix it than the car is worth,” he began. “We would have to completely rebuild the engine.” 

“Oh no! You can’t be serious.” The timing could not have been worse. That Jeep was going to be my Thanksgiving pie delivery vehicle. What was I going to do? I would never qualify for a loan on another car. For all intents and purposes, I was now unemployed – at least as far as any bank would be concerned. I had just paid off the last installment of my bankruptcy a few months earlier and my credit rating was still in the toilet. “No one is going to sell me a car,” I moaned to myself.

“When you say it would cost more than the car is worth to repair, what kind of number are you talking about?”

“It’ll be at least five grand to rebuild the engine. And you’ve also got some body rust going on there too.  I recommend you consider scrapping the car and walking away from it. It’s just going to turn into a money pit from here on in. We can give you $300 for the tires and some spare parts that we can rescue from the car, but that’s it.”

“Oh God, ok. Just give me a few minutes here to figure out what I’m going to do.  I need to call someone to give me a ride home.”

The morning had started out so well. I’d had a great meeting with that café owner – another “foodie” and sister entrepreneur, who was very interested in selling my mini tarts in her wonderful café just across the street from the very popular Proctor’s Theater. My list of Thanksgiving pie orders had grown by about a dozen just that morning alone, and now this. I was in a real bind. The best I could hope for would be to spend a few thousand on a used car. But, it had to be something dependable, something I could use to make my deliveries. A van of some sort would be preferable – but, could I get a used van for under $2,500?

Visions of myself riding around in a beat up, rusty old utility van made me cringe, and I longed for the days when I tooled around town in my sporty white X5. What had become of that other life? At least the Jeep had been somewhat “shabby chic.” I could pull off the persona of the adventurous, independent, tough-minded single woman who may even do a little off-roading in her spare time!  “Yeah, right, whatever delusions you want to entertain to make you happy,” I thought to myself wryly.

Calling my ex-boyfriend and still best friend, Tony, I explained my predicament and begged him to leave the office for the few minutes it would take to pick me up and get me back home.  As always, he was right there for me, arriving within the next fifteen minutes and listening to the mechanic repeat the bad news. On the drive home, we discussed my options. Tony, ever the pragmatic accountant, recommended we look at a serviceable used vehicle that would be reliable and get me through the next few years at least. Acknowledging that the recession we were in the middle of would make it nearly impossible for me to obtain financing, he agreed I would have to tap into my pie funds for this necessary but untimely expenditure. Leaving me at my doorstep, he promised to take me car shopping the following day after work. 

Trying to put this costly turn of events out of my mind, I resolutely turned to the business at hand and spent the rest of the day focusing my attention on generating as much business as possible for the Thanksgiving season, as well as baking some pies as samples for prospective customers.

                                                          …………………………………………………………………..



I woke early the next morning, lying in bed thinking about the day ahead and feeling a little frustrated about being stranded without a means of transportation. Resolving not to let this minor setback get me down, I hopped out of bed and padded into the kitchen to make coffee. Opening the refrigerator, I reached in for the half and half, only to find that there was none. No worries, I said to myself. It would be a good idea to get some exercise. I grabbed some leggings, a fleece and my sneakers and headed outside for the two-mile run to the convenient store.

Exercising has always been an integral part of my life and, as I jogged briskly along in the clear, crisp autumn morning, I thought a lot about the past few months and how much in my life had changed for the better. Even though I’d been through some tough times, I was feeling positive about the future. This pie business was an adventure, an opportunity, and a way to take control of my destiny. I had a dream, dammit, and I was going to turn it into a reality.

An hour later, back home in front of my laptop, a steaming mug of coffee warming me after my trek to the store, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Even though Tony and I agreed I probably didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a loan for a car, I decided to give it a shot anyway.  What did I have to lose, after all? The worst that could happen was I’d be rejected. Lord knows, I’d been through worse than a little rejection over the last several years.

I started thinking about a TV commercial that was all over the local networks. Billy Fuccillo, one of the largest – if not the largest – car dealers in the country, saturated the local television waves with his ad campaign, convincing consumers that he was going to make them “Huuuuuuuge” and instructing people to visit his website, www.5liner.com to seek financing. Fuccillo and his emissaries reminded us – ad nauseum – that Billy could obtain financing for people, regardless of the recession and regardless of their financial history or current circumstances. Billy dubbed himself the “godfather of financing.”

 His dealerships did seem to be weathering the current economic maelstrom relatively unscathed. In fact, I had noticed just a few weeks earlier a nearby GMC dealership, that had been forced to shut its doors, was now re-opened as yet another Fuccillo-owned dealership. “What the heck,” I thought, typing 5liner.com in my web browser.

The part about it being a simple 5-line application was certainly true and, within minutes, my application was speeding through cyberspace to Fuccillo headquarters. Stepping away from my laptop to refill my mug and check my fax machine for pie orders, I was surprised when a call came up on my phone with the caller ID saying it was from Fuccillo Kia. 

“Seriously? That was quick. Maybe business for Mr. Fuccillo isn’t as huge as he’d like it to be,” I thought to myself.

The call was from a manager of the Kia dealership, asking me to come into the showroom that morning and check out their inventory of vehicles.

“I’d love to, but I don’t have any way of getting there right now. I’ve got a friend who can give me a ride over there later, but it won’t be until after 5pm.”

“Oh, that’s not a problem. Give me your address and I’ll come over now to pick you up.”

“Wow, you guys must really be hurting for business,” I joked. “Ok, give me about an hour to get ready.”

I gave him directions to my house and hung up the phone. As I was showering and getting dressed, I decided to bring a large pie in one of my signature hot pink boxes as a gesture of thanks and, of course, to promote my business.
My signature pink pie boxes!

In the last few months, I never went anywhere without my trusty little cooler on wheels full of mini pies and tarts to hand out to people. It didn’t matter if I was going to the bank, the dentist or my daughter’s college lacrosse games all the way in Richmond, VA. You just never knew who was going to be your next customer and I seized opportunities wherever possible to make an impression and raise awareness of my brand.

True to his word, the dealership manager pulled into my driveway within the hour. I grabbed my purse and a beautiful apple crumb pie in its adorable box and my own hand designed label and hopped into the front seat of the waiting car.

“Hi there. Thanks so much for picking me up. I can’t believe the level of customer service you provide.  I guess that’s why you guys are ‘huge,’ right?”

My driver’s name was Tom. “Yeah, he laughed. “We go above and beyond for our customers.  So, what’s that you’ve got there in the box?” he asked, sniffing the aroma of warm apple pie seeping out from the corners of the box.

“Oh, this is for you,” I replied. “It was so amazing of you to come all the way over here to pick me up, I just wanted to show my appreciation.  It’s a pie of course. I hope you like apple crumb. I just took it out of the oven earlier and it’s still warm,” I said.

Tom started smiling like he was enjoying a secret joke to which I was not privy. 

“Oh, no. You need to give that to Billy. He’s in town at the dealership and he loves pie.”

“Ok sure.” This is even better, I thought. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to let someone like Billy Fuccillo know that I was an entrepreneur, just like him. Well, not exactly like him – a few hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue not like him. But, hadn’t he started at the bottom of the heap too?

Ten minutes and a lot of automotive small talk later, we arrived at the entrance to the Kia dealership.  Thanking Tom again, I hopped out of the car, pie in hand, and marched myself through the front doors. 

Although I’d only seen Billy Fuccillo on television, I’d heard he was a very big guy. I wasn’t prepared for the person standing in front of me. He stood about 6’5” and, while he wasn’t fat, he seemed to occupy all the space in the room. 

It was more than physical size. He exuded an aura of authority and power that was hard to ignore. At the same time, his craggy and somewhat uneven features seemed to suggest a friendly and amused inquisitiveness that made it easy to engage with him.

 In short, he had charisma.

Without even saying “hello,” he boomed out in a voice to match his size, “Whaddya got there?”

Not wanting to appear unnerved or intimidated, I tried to match his easy air with my own. “I’ve got a pie for you,” I replied. “Apple crumb – hope you like that flavor.”

Chuckling softly, he asked, “Is it any good?”

“Well, why don’t you try it and see for yourself?” I responded as flippantly and casually as I could.

He turned around and motioned to one of the salespeople standing nearby to show me into one of the offices. It was a quiet morning in the showroom and, as far as I could see, I was the only customer. Not having much to do, the other salespeople followed us into the office, where they proceeded to grab some plastic forks from a drawer and pass them out.

No one was standing on ceremony here. Cutting and doling out slices was completely unnecessary as guys crowded around the desk, stabbing at the pie with their forks and popping still-warm forkfuls into their mouths.

Billy was seated behind the desk, still wearing an expression of amusement and curiosity. The reviews started coming in after the first bites were taken and the pie began to look like it was a victim of an air to surface missile attack.

“Wow, amazing!”

“This is really good! Might be the best pie I ever had!”

“Billy, this pie is better than the pies you’re getting now.”

At that last remark, I whipped my chair around in direction of the guy who said it. “What do you mean?”  Turning my chair back around to face Billy, I asked, “What is he talking about? What do you need pies for?”

He didn’t answer me but continued chewing thoughtfully on a mouthful of pie. 

“Do you make pies all the time? You just happened to have one made and decided to bring it in to me?” 

“No, I’m in business. The name of my company is “pie ala moe,” I said.  “Get it?  It’s “moe” not mode.  Moe is a nickname for Maureen – that’s me, Maureen Werther. And I never go anywhere without pies,” I boasted, sitting up straighter in my chair to make myself appear taller and more important.

His grin broadened even further. “Is that so?  Very clever.” How long have you been in business and where do you make these pies?”

“Well, to tell you the truth, I started my business this past January and I just quit my full-time job a couple of weeks ago to pursue this full-time. Only problem is, my delivery vehicle kinda blew up yesterday and I’m going to be dead in the water if I don’t have a vehicle to deliver my Thanksgiving pie orders.”

I briefly explained my financial situation and told him the story of how his manager picked me up in his car after receiving my 5liner.com application.

“You selling these things wholesale?”

“Not yet, but I certainly plan to.” A little voice inside my head was trying to quickly do the math to figure out what I would charge for wholesale. At the same time, I was still baffled as to why Billy Fuccillo, the king of cars, was so interested in pies.

“Where are ya baking these? Do you have a place?”

Well, no, not yet. I’m still operating out of my house but I’m looking for a place to move my operations into right now.  Why are you so interested?” I persisted, wondering where this conversation was going.
A lovely photo of yours truly in my hairnet, making some 
new pie recipes in a commercial test kitchen.

“Can you make 200 pies a week outta your kitchen?”

“Of course I can.” Shit, I said to myself, can I really crank out 200 pies a week in my tiny little galley kitchen, in that ancient stove??

“What do ya charge for them wholesale?” 

Hesitating for a brief moment to make sure my mental math was okay, I blurted out a number. Without answering me or looking in my direction, he picked up his cell phone and speed dialed a number. A few seconds later, he said hello to someone named John.

“John, those pies you’ve been delivering here every week, this is gonna be the last week I’ll be needing them, ok? All right, see ya.”

He hung up the phone and turned to me. So, I’m gonna need you to deliver 200 pies to me every weekend, to start with. As things get busier, I may want more. You need to deliver them to this store and two others – are ya ok with that?”

“Oh my god, of course I am! This is amazing. Thank you so much. But, do you mind my asking, what on earth you do with 200 pies every week?”

Laughing, he told me that he gives out a pie to every one of his customers who buys a car. 

Three hours later, I walked back out the dealership doors into my brand-new SUV, with a standing weekly order for 200 pies in my pocket.  I was back in business.   

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