When her son received an appointment to West Point in 2000, Pam Runyans thought it was not possible for her heart to be more full of love and pride.
Four years later, when Bob was sent on his first conflict deployment to Iraq, the Raleigh mother of three found that fullness turned to sleep-starving fear. She’d rise from her bed in the middle of the night, wide awake, calculating the time zones and wondering what he might be doing.
“He was in an armored Humvee,” she says. “Those were the days before instant messaging. We lived for phone calls.”
Alarmed by vivid news coverage, the only way Runyans could keep her thoughts from wandering toward danger was to focus squarely and positively on something she enjoyed doing for him. So, night after night, Runyans rolled pastry and baked pies. She baked a lot of pecan pies, Bob’s favorite, and apple, her favorite because they were distractingly time consuming. She baked recipes she learned from her grandmother (lemon with billowy meringue) and mother (peach) and experimented with dozens more torn from magazines.
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In the beginning, neighbors and friends were surprised when she’d knock on their doors and hand off pies. “I couldn’t possibly keep them all. I’d be big as a house,” says Runyans. She relied on husband Robert, a Raleigh architect, to serve as her taste tester.
I’d make pies and think about him and pray. I’d watch the news and worry and make more pies. I had to keep myself occupied so I’d be sane.
Pam Runyans, about what she did while her son was serving in Iraq
Runyans, whose father tinkered with his birth certificate to join the Navy at age 15 during World War II, kept baking throughout Bob’s service. Her technique developed from tentative to masterly. At her son’s urging, she launched ABC Pie Company in 2010.
“Just before his second deployment, he told me I needed something to do that made me happy, and baking pies makes me happy,” she recalls from the pristine kitchen of her home in the historic Oakwood neighborhood, where two commercial convection ovens are preheating. “I’d make pies and think about him and pray. I’d watch the news and worry and make more pies. I had to keep myself occupied so I’d be sane.”
The business draws its name from children Abigail, Bob and Camille, each of whom has pursued a military career. Abigail is a physician assistant who serves in the U.S. Army Reserve in Colorado Springs. Camille, who graduated from West Point last year, will report to Fort Bragg in February to fly Blackhawk helicopters.
“She graduates from flight school the day before Thanksgiving. Does the Army have a sense of humor or what?” quips her proud mother. “It’s not like this is my busiest time of year or anything.”
Camille is engaged to an Army Ranger also stationed at Fort Bragg. Bob, who now serves in the Army’s Judge Advocate General division in the Netherlands, met his wife when they were both in service at Fort Campbell, Ky.
While Runyans developed her skills making full-size pies, her ABC pies usually are produced in endearing 5-inch rounds. She got the idea from Arnold Wilkerson of Little Pie Company of the Big Apple, a renowned baker she befriended while traveling to New York to visit Camille at West Point.
Being a successful entrepreneur takes a kind of love that you just can’t describe. Clearly, she’s got it.
Arnold Wilkerson of Little Pie Company of the Big Apple, about Pam Runyans
Wilkerson recalls they had a lot in common because he started his business in his apartment. “I didn’t know her family story then, that she would bake because of her son’s service,” he says. “She understood pie baking, but being a successful entrepreneur takes a kind of love that you just can’t describe. Clearly, she’s got it.”
Runyans continues to infuse her pies with genuine affection. They look so perfect, and they have such appealing texture and flavor, that some people doubt she makes each by hand.
“Take a look,” she says, opening one of three freezers in a former breakfast room repurposed several years ago for her one-woman, home-based business. It is stacked high with nearly 200 frozen pastry shells, each with elegantly fluted edges. “Oh, that’s nothing. You should see what it looks like around here just before Thanksgiving.”
November is her busiest month as customers seek her pies for family gatherings and hostess gifts. Among her most popular fall flavors are apple caramel crumble, pumpkin with pecan streusel, maple walnut, Mayan chocolate pecan, pear cranberry custard and red velvet custard.
Most will be sold through Southern Season, the Chapel Hill-based gourmet market and home store. Runyans credits the business for giving her opportunity and exposure.
“I was so nervous. I brought all these different pies for them to try, but they didn’t take a single bite,” Runyans recalls. “She just looked at them and said she’d take two dozen. You could have knocked me over with a feather.”
With help from her husband, Runyans continues to sell pies there as well as NoFo@The Pig in Raleigh’s Five Points area. Neomonde recently started carrying her smaller, cupcake-sized pies in Raleigh and Morrisville. ABC Pies also are sold at the Washington, D.C., outpost of Dean & DeLuca, the prestigious New York-based market.
Runyans’ normally busy baking schedule slowed this fall as she sorted through the estate of her beloved father, Gene L. Watterson, who was pastor of First Baptist Church in Shelby for 26 years. She and her husband spent weekends clearing his home, where they rediscovered ample evidence of his impact on his community. “It was hard work, but we found so many lovely things, personalized books and things he and Mama collected when they traveled,” she says. “Now, I’m back to making pies around the clock.”
This time, however, she’s driven not by worry but to please loyal customers, for whom Thanksgiving would be incomplete without her pies.