SOUTH SALT LAKE — When asked what makes his gourmet sweet potato pie so good, James Edwards flashes his infectious smile and lists the possibilities.
It could be the graham cracker crust or the creamy texture. It could be the pineapples, the yams or seasoning. Some like the fact that it’s a “vegetable pie,” not too high in calories. There have been so many satisfied customers as the business has grown. Everybody has a favorite reason, he said.
But for the former Air Force mechanic from Delaware, who turns 34 this month, the power of the pie comes from a divine recipe intended to lift spirits, bring people together and spread joy with each bite.
The inspiration to start selling pies came as Edwards had his own spiritual awakening three years ago.
“I could never take ownership of that. It’s all God,” he said. “It’s definitely God’s love for all of us. That’s why it’s so successful.”
From learning to make sweet potato pies as a young man to finding God amid a difficult trial to launching James’ Gourmet Sweet Potato Pies, the baker’s backstory is a delicious tale of faith and living the American dream.
After serving overseas in Korea, Edwards arrived at Utah’s Hill Air Force Base in 2010. Two events near the end of 2017 changed the course of his life.
The first involved a bake sale to raise money for his Hill Air Force Base squadron around the Thanksgiving holiday of that year. As a teenager, Edwards learned from his grandmother and stepmother how to make a tasty sweet potato pie. He revived those skills to make pie for the bake sale but was troubled when at first nobody seemed interested in trying a piece.
Edwards started asking people why nobody wanted his sweet potato pie. He learned that most Utahns had never tried one or knew anything about it.
“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness. You cannot tell me there is a state full of people that haven’t tried a good Southern sweet potato pie,’” he said with a laugh. “They’ve written songs about it, TV shows. Sweet potato pie is in a class by itself. Everybody has to have a good sweet potato pie.”
People sampled the pie and became instant fans. They started calling and placing orders. Edwards wondered if he had a legitimate business opportunity before him.
The second event took place a few weeks later, just days before Christmas. Edwards recalled sitting in his dark living room. He was behind on his bills and had an eviction notice on his apartment door. His marriage was falling apart. He considered taking his own life.
“I was working 20 hours a day and I’m getting evicted. Everybody left me,” he said. “That was the lowest point of my life.”
As the son of a Pentecostal preacher, Edwards was raised in a religious home, but faith had not been a top priority for him during his military years. Yet something compelled him to pray. He asked God why he was going through these trials.
His prayer was answered with peace and relief.
“I felt an overwhelming amount of love, like I was surrounded by ancestors or angels or God — so many people,” Edwards said. “That was God’s way of getting my attention, and he got it.”
But the Lord wasn’t finished, he said. Edwards felt prompted to check his mailbox, a place he’d been avoiding because of all the bills. To his surprise, he found cards and envelopes containing various amounts of money from unexpected sources, such as unpaid checks from previous jobs and military benefits, among others.
There was enough cash to regroup, pay some bills and provide a Christmas for his children.
“No one can convince me that God is not real and that he doesn’t have my back.” — James Edwards
“I remember getting back up to my apartment and just crying and smiling and having all these emotions,” Edwards said. “From then on, no one can convince me that God is not real and that he doesn’t have my back.”
With renewed hope and a demand for pies, Edwards launched his pie business on the side in early 2018 and started selling full and mini-size pies at farmers markets, events and via custom order.
Jamie Renda, owner of Brixton’s Baked Potato in Ogden, was interested in adding a sweet potato pie to her menu when her daughter met Edwards at a farmers market when he was getting started. Renda relished his pies. She agreed to let him use her kitchen in exchange for 10 pies a month.
It didn’t take long for him to outgrow her kitchen. He now cooks in South Salt Lake but Renda continues to sell his pies at Brixton’s. She admires Edwards for his work ethic and cheerful personality.
“His pies are absolutely delicious. That’s why I’ve gained 25 pounds during the coronavirus, because I eat one of the mini pies every day,” she quipped. “He sells sweet potato pies, but what he really sells is hope. He sells optimism and the American dream of entrepreneurship.”
Earlier this year, Edwards shifted from active duty military to the Reserve and gave up another job to go all in on his pie business. He received a Best of State award for pastries in the Informal Dining category and so far he’s staying afloat.
Last spring when most of Utah went into COVID-19 lockdown, Edwards could no longer sell his pies at farmers markets. Joseph Kerry, a friend and business associate, said the idea of starting a delivery service was discussed. As a way of giving customers a break, Edwards insisted on not charging for delivery through the end of the year. Delivery is available in Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties with 48 hours notice.
“Nobody does free delivery,” Kerry said. “He said, ‘Everybody is hurting right now. I am not going to do that to people. My food is designed to be comfort food and bring people together.’”
His desire to help others and his “unabashed faith” are two things that stand out to Kerry about Edwards.
“It’s his belief that ‘I’ve been given a second chance. I’ve been helped ... and I want to give back,’” Kerry said.
Edwards’ ultimate business goal is to somehow use his pies to support his fellow veterans, especially those in hospitals who might benefit from comfort food. He doesn’t know if he was put on this earth to make pies, but he knows it is moving him in a positive direction.
“I can’t wait to find out what it is that this is going to lead me to,” Edwards said. “But right now, I’m just having fun and trusting God that everything’s going to work out.”
For more on Edwards and his pies, visit jamesgourmet.com.