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John Kessler Column: Inside the Edwards pie factory

Key lime pie (all photos by Phil Skinner)

Key lime pie (all photos by Phil Skinner)

For this week’s column, I take a tour of the Edwards pie factory in Edgewood and explore the mystery of the pie smell that wafts through Candler Park.

If you have ever driven down DeKalb Avenue, skirting along the MARTA tracks, your mind a jumble of home and work, your eyes focused on the vagaries and changing direction of the middle lane, you have smelled The Smell. O, that most excellent smell! That consciousness-piercing smell of buttery goodness filling the ether, of a thousand grandmas leaning over a thousand window ledges and holding out fresh-from-the-oven pie.

Pie!

Pie. Pie. Pie. Pie.

Key lime squirtage

Key lime pie

That aroma of freshly baked pie reaches out like a steam tendril. No, like a crooked index finger, beckoning you. And even as your eyes focus on the late-model Volvo one car length in front, you have an out-of-body experience, rising like a blissed-out cartoon character, floating through the air, to that pie on the ledge.

If you have smelled The Smell, you have asked the question and gotten the answer. There is a pie factory here, the bodacious Edwards pie factory that started as a retail bakeshop some 60 years ago and presently churns out pie after pie destined for the supermarket freezer.

Pecan pies

Pecan pies

Now part of the Minnesota-based Schwan Food Co., the plant produces both Edwards and Mrs. Smith’s branded pies as well as any number of signature pie served in quick-service and family restaurants.

How much pie? So much pie. The plant runs from 5 a.m. until midnight, 27 days out of 28, and 140,000 pies leave it every day. There are dozens of flavors — key lime is a bestseller, Georgia pecan a source of local pride, Hershey’s Chocolate Crème an indulgence to make “thaw and serve” sound like the best directive in the English language. All in all, 42 million pies a year leave this industrial enclave among the leafy streets of residential Atlanta.

The Edwards pie factory occupies a fenced-in plant in the Edgewood neighborhood, so close to the railroad tracks that twice trains have crashed through its windows. It is close enough to the Craftsman bungalows of Candler Park that residents get a blast of the factory’s smell when they walk their dogs.

“I mostly notice it in the morning,” laughs Frani Green, sitting on the patio of the San Francisco Coffee Roasting Co. on DeKalb Avenue. “It’s this wafting aroma of sweetness that makes you really, really hungry.” She thinks for a moment before adding, “But you know what? It’s not the smell of pie as much as, I don’t know, doughnuts. Or maybe a honey bun fresh out of the oven. Whatever it is, I feel like you can get a cavity from it.”

Dough for pie crust

Dough for pie crust

Like many residents, Green knows the pie factory is “somewhere over there” but has little idea that it is, in fact, directly across the train tracks. Low-slung brick buildings and an abundance of trucks at the ready mark the spot.

Supply chain manager Jim Erdman meets me outside. He looks like a man who enjoys his pie, and is the first of many longtime Edwards employees who mention their body weight from the year they started. Another is F.H. Garcia — a dough tempering expert who calibrates the recipe to account for variations in temperature and protein content in the flour. He has been with the company for 34 years and knew founder Tom Edwards, who initially opened the bakeshop around the corner on Mayson Avenue. It has been in its present location since 1970.

As Erdman leads me through the plant, he rattles off hilarious terms (”caramel injection”) and factoids (”the largest sweetened condensed milk user in the world”). A man driving a forklift honks, waves and scuttles by with a payload of chocolate cream pies, their nondairy whipped topping rosettes as cheerful as a kindergartener’s finger painting. It all seems a little like Willy Wonka, and a little like Lucy and Ethel’s chocolate factory.

kessler.1024 h

Pecan pies

Three pie lines are operating concurrently. The key lime pie — an award-winning recipe that is the cornerstone of the Edwards line — sails by on one conveyor belt while apple crumb pie (made with fresh Washington state apples that arrive peeled and sliced) head in the opposite direction.

Georgia Pecan Pie production occupies a third line. Made exclusively with South Georgia pecans, it is the bestselling baked pie in the Edwards line, selling to the tune of 2.4 million pies a year. Each pie contains precisely 106 grams of pecan halves and pieces that smell of fresh nut oils, unlike the sometimes rancid packages sold in grocery stores.

The crust — mixed, rolled between floured rollers, cut and stamped onto aluminum plates — isn’t behaving properly. One after another, the crusts don’t land squarely on the tins.

“We sometimes have some problems with it not sheeting properly,” Erdman admits, since the company stopped using trans fats in its dough recipe two years ago. In the beginning the dough would “crumble rather than flake,” but for the most part the company is now happy with its new formula. All its products are 100% trans fat free.

The pecan pies will go from the 100-foot-long oven, to the freezer (inside which lurks a spiraling tower of conveyance) to the boxing line. Any pies with funky crusts will be marked as seconds. Just before going into the box, they pass through an X-ray to look for foreign objects such as nuts and bolts from the machinery that may have stowed away in the filling, as well as bits of plastic that occasionally travel with the pecans. Routine testers run through the machinery to make sure it functions properly.

Cookies heading into the oven

Cookies heading into the oven

Before we leave the manufacturing floor (to go to a conference room and feast on pie, I might add) we visit the cookie area. In order to make the crumbs for the key lime and other pies, one oven does nothing but churn out hundreds of thousands of cookies. Domino-shaped tiles punched with holes emerge from a dough-mixing machine then enter a long oven that radiates intense heat. The cookies appear on the other side as golden brown crisps and finally climb a steeply pitched conveyance to a machine that will pulverize them into dust.

The oven itself occupies an alcove on the northern edge of the plant. Only floor-to-ceiling plate windows separate it from the train tracks a few feet away.

I stand by this oven and breathe deeply, breathe in the pure joy coming from this inferno and think to myself, “I recognize this smell.”

To see a gallery of photos from inside the pie factory, please click here.

The finished product

The finished product

38 comments Add your comment

Addy C

October 31st, 2010
8:46 am

Do they offer tours to the public?

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stephen Curry, John Kessler. John Kessler said: John Kessler Column: Inside the Edwards pie factory http://bit.ly/duXgit [...]

Lisa

October 31st, 2010
8:55 am

Marzetti’s next!

Lucy

October 31st, 2010
9:09 am

Pies & cookies! It’s been said before, “Is this heaven?”

Chris

October 31st, 2010
10:15 am

Thanks for solving this mystery, John. I’ve noticed the smell when waiting for the MARTA train at the Candler Park Station. The deliciousness is a strange contrast with the unpleasant sights and sounds of public transportation.

beachwriter

October 31st, 2010
10:59 am

Fun story to read! However, John, I sure would like for you to ask the Edwards folks why they call their lemon meringue pie that…any true Southerner knows that the pie inside that box is really a lemon icebox pie….and there IS a difference! Whatever they want to call it, though, it’s really good – almost as good as what my mother used to make.

Jen

October 31st, 2010
12:42 pm

I was always sure it was Radial… thanks for the tip!

Jen

October 31st, 2010
12:49 pm

…and wait, you mention seconds. Is there a factory store?

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gray Chapman, John Kessler and John Kessler, Jenny Turknett. Jenny Turknett said: This is a tour I want to take! John Kessler Column: Inside the Edwards pie factory http://t.co/R7bBLSx [...]

mrb

October 31st, 2010
1:58 pm

dang good question, Jen

Paul

October 31st, 2010
2:44 pm

Do they have an outlet store where they sell factory seconds? I have fond (and cheap) memories of the Stouffer’s outlet in Gaffney, SC.

wooleybare

October 31st, 2010
3:13 pm

John….edwards used to make a wonderful German Chocolate Pie back in the 70s. can u find out from them why they quit making this pie. it was choco-licious!!!

Lisa

October 31st, 2010
7:02 pm

the pictures were not in the paper today. Thanks so much.

John Kessler

November 1st, 2010
8:43 am

Hey, there! I don’t think that Edwards has a factory outlet, nor do they conduct public tours, but I’ll see if I can get someone from the company to jump into this conversation. Maybe we can find out about the German chocolate pie, too.

Jere

November 1st, 2010
9:16 am

WOW — YUM — Who doesnt like pie ? What fun.

SP

November 1st, 2010
12:16 pm

I had no idea that was there. Definitely willing to take their second-rate pies off their hands. Yum!

jim

November 1st, 2010
12:55 pm

I like Edwards products. I just wish they would
keep their religious statements to themselves.

Sean M

November 1st, 2010
2:13 pm

Can anybody tell me what that horribly rancid smell is just on the other side of the street from the pie factory? smells like the opposite of the good smell. It’s something to do with their operation. but my god it smells so bad. I almost want to change my bike route it’s so bad on some days.

Samantha, on behalf of Edwards frozen desserts

November 1st, 2010
2:15 pm

On behalf of Edwards® frozen desserts, we wanted to address a few questions listed above. Thanks for your interest!

Addy C- Due to security and quality measures, the Edwards pie plant does not offer public tours.

Jen, mrb and Paul- Edwards does not have a factory store. Quality is our top priority so we make sure that the pies in the frozen pie section of your grocery aisle are the best we can give our loyal consumers.

Wooleybare- The German Chocolate Pie was unfortunately discontinued a long time ago due to low consumer purchase interest on the item. However, as we look to develop new varieties, we will add this flavor to the consideration set and see if there is new consumer purchase interest. We love and value consumer feedback as part of the process to develop the best products that please most.

Amanda

November 1st, 2010
5:12 pm

I loved this story! It totally took me back to driving through Chamblee as a kid and rolling down the car windows to smell the Fritos at the plant there.

iRun

November 1st, 2010
6:12 pm

Hey, when you live in a neighborhood that smells like pie, can you really complain?

replytojim

November 1st, 2010
7:35 pm

The religious verses on the bottom of pie pans were removed years ago, but the pies are now Kosher.

replytoseanm

November 1st, 2010
7:38 pm

It’s a water treatment facility. Years ago it was surrounded by a kudzu field.

taz

November 1st, 2010
8:41 pm

What happened to the cheesecake pecan pie, they were the best!!!

Von

November 2nd, 2010
8:16 am

What happened to the apple pie that you had to bake yourself? It was so-o-o delicious.

Valarie

November 2nd, 2010
9:52 am

They had an outlet years ago, but it was closed. They make way more flavors than what you see in the grocery store. I would like to know what they do with the “mess-ups”.

Ant;hony

November 2nd, 2010
12:01 pm

What a shame they no longer have the outlet store. In the 70’s & 80’s my Dad took us to the store around the holidays. Corporate profits vs. building a loyal following is the new reality.

Gary

November 2nd, 2010
2:25 pm

Reading this story and imagining the sweet scents coming from those delicious pies almost makes me want to move to Atlanta. Almost, but not quite ! Great story.

Carl

November 2nd, 2010
4:27 pm

You read my mind, John! I’ve wondered many times if anyone had ever toured this massive facility and what it might be like inside. I’m a bit disturbed by comments about the smell wafting through Edgewood and/or Candler Park being pleasant, however. It is very much the opposite of anything any of us would produce in our own kitchens. The ingredients used there are certainly not fresh (ever seen the large backup of trucks waiting for entry to their dock) and in many cases not natural. It’s great they’re finally not using hydrogenated oils, but how about all of the other toxic ingredients that are used there? I’m within “waft distance” of the horrid plant this week and am grateful the wind is blowing the other way for now, lest I’d get a migraine as happened the last time I walked through Candler Park. Hopefully the increasing real estate cost in the area will eventually cause them to shift operations elsewhere (away from residences and people who breathe). I never realized this was originally a locally-owned operation, though, so thanks much for the history lesson!

CP

November 2nd, 2010
4:45 pm

My daddy worked there in the late 70s when it was still a family owned operation. We’d shop at the seconds store and tour the facility when we’d visit him at the office. Precious memories. I didn’t know they were still there.

Anna

November 2nd, 2010
6:38 pm

There used to be an Edwards Pie Shop on Northside Drive at West Paces Ferry in the early 1980s.

Loved their cherry pie the best. You could buy it hot, fresh and by the slice.

This was next to the Ruth Mitchel Dance Studio. The Snack ‘n Shop went in after the pie shop closed. Miss that deli too!

Carol

November 2nd, 2010
6:45 pm

I live in Brooklyn,NY a co-worker gave me a key lime pie last year,I must admit I had never heard of Edwards products,when I taste the pie…………………………..,let me say I’ve been eating them ever since.I’ve also introduced them to others.Thanks for the history.

TheEdgeWooder

November 2nd, 2010
8:43 pm

Very interesting.. I always thought the smell was from the pie crusts, but I guess it’s from the cookies used to crumble over the pies as described in this article… On the comment Sean M. made about a horrible smell being present as well, I can confirm that as well. Some days I walk/jog/bike/drive by and get the very pleasant cookie/pie crust smell, and then other times as hit the bottom of the hill on La France by the factory entrance it smells like somebody is boiling stew of dumpster juice.

John Kessler

November 3rd, 2010
10:18 am

Love hearing all the old memories.

Carl – I have to say after touring Edwards (and Chick-fil-a corporate before that), I am heartened to see just how many recognizable ingredients go into the product. I was asked not to mention brand names, but let me just say their key lime pie recipe is not a whole lot different from mine…

Samantha, on behalf of Edwards frozen desserts

November 3rd, 2010
10:25 am

Hi taz and Von. On behalf of Edwards frozen desserts, thanks for your questions. Both the Cheesecake Pecan Pie and unbaked Apple Pies were discontinued due a decrease in consumer interest. We appreciate your passion for these two pies and will take these suggestions into consideration as we introduce new varieties. As always, we appreciate all the input from our loyal consumers.

Carolyn

November 3rd, 2010
12:24 pm

The “seconds” store is sorely missed. Why would you not keep it open and sell to the public? Edwards was still making money off something they couldn’t ship out to the grocery stores. It was an awesome way to get a taste of some different pies that you normally wouldn’t find at your grocery store. I thought it was great PR for Edwards; they really should reconsider opening again.

replytocarl

November 3rd, 2010
1:57 pm

As has been mentioned the real estate area around the bakery used to be a kudzu field. Lofts to the east were built in abandoned factories. The water from the pond can be foul smelling at times, but everybody paying the prices charged for real estate these days should thoroughly check out the area. As for the ingredients not being fresh there are trucks backed up to Kroger and Publics also. They just park in back of the building. If you are looking for fresh you need to grow your own garden and stop eating meat.

Margaret

November 3rd, 2010
2:55 pm

I grew up in Greenville, SC and Strosner’s Bakery there used to have German Chocolate Pie, which was the only thing anybody I knew ever bought. I’ve never had Edwards’ version, but maybe they could try it as a holiday special or something. It was wonderful…….