These sweet potato pies — with a secret ingredient — are catching on in Utah

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) James Edwards, owner of James' Gourmet Pies, who specializes in sweet potato pies, sets up at the Park City farmers market on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.

Sweet potato pie has always been a part of James Edwards’ life.

When Edwards was growing up, he spent time baking with his grandmother, Magretta, in Maryland. They’d make her sweet potato pie together and sell the leftovers at church.

“We were baking too much,” Edwards recalled. “We couldn’t eat them all.”

The Utah transplant returned to his roots in 2017 when he launched James’ Gourmet Pies — which are sold in full and mini sizes at farmers markets, events and through custom orders.

While most of the process comes straight from his memories with grandma, he picked up some principles — as well as the standout ingredient of pineapple for natural sweetness — from his stepmother, Dorothy, while living in Florida.

“I took two of the favorite things we would bake together — with both of them,” he said, “and made my own thing.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) James Edwards, owner of James' Gourmet Pies, thanks customers at the Park City farmers market on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. Edwards sells both mini and full-size pies at farmers markets along the Wasatch Front.

James’ Gourmet Pies actually began with a bake sale to raise money for his Hill Air Force Base squadron. “All the other sergeants and airmen were eating everybody else’s pies and cakes,” he said, “but they weren’t touching mine.”

Someone eventually explained that some Utahns aren’t familiar with sweet potatoes or sweet potato pie, but once they tried it, they were hooked, he said. “I ended up baking more and a lot of people took it to Thanksgiving that year. And then their families and friends started calling me.”

The business has been a side gig for Edwards for several seasons, but in 2020 Edwards transitioned from active duty military to the Reserves to focus on his growing business full time.

The pandemic changed the business landscape for many food operations, but not Edwards’ sweet potato pies — which recently won a Best of State award for pastries in the Informal Dining category.

The pies can be ordered online at jamesgourmet.com or by contacting Edwards at 385-405-2638 or jamesgourmetpies@gmail.com. Delivery is available in Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties with 48 hours’ notice.

A push to support Black-owned businesses — a benefit of the Black Lives Matter movement — may also have contributed to Edwards’ growing business.

Edwards said he has increased pie production throughout the summer, which pushed James’ Gourmet Pies out of the kitchen it had been using at Brixton’s Restaurant in Ogden and into a larger commercial kitchen in Salt Lake, where every sweet potato is smashed by hand and crusts are hand packed.

“It went from a little hand mixer,” Edwards laughed, to “an industrial-sized mixer.”

James’ Gourmet Pies now produces about 700 mini pies and 250 to 300 full-sized orders each week, with the help of seven part-time staff. As the farmers markets wrap up for the year, Edwards will move into holiday pie orders with delivery. The smaller, 3-inch pies are $3 each or two for $5, while traditional 9-inch pies are $14.99.

Edwards has developed a loyal following, many of whom have posted positive reviews on his social media accounts.

“Legitimately the best pie I’ve ever had in my life,” wrote one commenter. “Instantly addictive. 12 stars.”

“I literally bought 8 mini pies,” added another, “and my family and I ate all of them in a matter of minutes.”

And this from a sweet potato pie skeptic: “I don’t even like sweet potato pie BUT these are.......so delicious I could eat ’em every night.”

Besides pies, Edwards has larger business goals — namely addressing the lack of a commercial kitchen space in the Ogden area.

“My dream is to build a shared kitchen,” he said, “not just for myself, but a lot of us food vendors that have to travel to Cache Valley or Salt Lake to use a kitchen.”

Ogden will remain home for Edwards and his pie business, for now.

Having grown up on the East Coast, he’d never been to Utah before and didn’t know what to expect when he landed at Hill Air Force Base straight from Korea in 2010.

He arrived thinking that that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the dominant culture — were similar to the Amish and his primary concern was not having electricity. While the state certainly was a culture shock, he’s fallen in love with his adopted home these past 10 years.

“I know there’s a lot more that is planned for my life and I know that the pies are going to be the vehicle to express whatever’s inside that,” Edwards said, explaining the “God is Love” motto emblazoned on his T-shirt. “So I’m excited and nervous at the same time.”

Heather L. King owns www.slclunches.com and can be found on social media @slclunches.