By the time I heard about Patti LaBelle’s sweet potato pie, every Walmart across the country had already sold out. I was in a global-news funk all weekend; news of the pie just hadn’t hit me until it was too late. But when I heard about James Wright’s video review, which is hilarious, and how after 2.5 million hits on YouTube there was a mad rush for this pre-packaged, sold-on-the-shelf sweet potato pie, something clicked in me.
Maybe it was comfort I was looking for, or maybe it was the celebrity connection—a pie made by the Diva herself that could make a grown man sing surely must be better than any other pie. Maybe it was simply because it was unavailable to me. I became obsessed. It was my Holy Grail. I had to have this pie.
On Monday, I called a store a few miles from my house multiple times throughout the day. The story was still evolving: First they were out but getting more in that day; later, they were out until maybe this week; and finally they weren’t getting any in at all anytime soon. I still went to the store in person, just in case more magically showed up. No pies. Well, correction. No Patti LaBelle pies; only the Walmart bakery pumpkin, pecan and apple pies. Pfft, I thought. Only Lady Marmalade pie for me, thanks.
I started calling all the stores within a 50-mile radius. No luck. Every Walmart customer service rep said they had been fielding pie calls for days. One store didn’t even bother picking up the phone. No doubt they were over this pie business. I was this close to emailing Ms. LaBelle herself to see if she had any pies (and wouldn’t it have been amazing if she did and sent me one).
Within the first 24 hours, the story really started to take off with more and more headlines touting the country’s sudden obsession with Patti LaBelle pie and the aftermath. One story claimed a woman shot someone over a fight over the last pie (false). Another said the pies were making millions ill (also very, very false). People started posting their haul on social media, happy customers who surged on unsuspecting Walmarts across the country. Recipes for the pie showed up online. And then of course people started selling the packaged pies on eBay for $25 to $40 a pop. It was a full-on frenzy.
I fell deeper. I convinced myself Walmart workers were hoarding pies. “Um, no, ma’am…we don’t have any pies in stock,” one might say with what sounded like a mouthful of pie. I imagined quick incognito exchanges going on in store parking lots everywhere. “You got the sweets,” someone would ask, looking around to make sure no one sees. “Yeah. You got the money?” A clean break, someone who couldn’t wait messily eating pie in a car.
Clearly I was losing my mind. So I went into reporter mode and contacted Walmart myself to find out what’s so special about this particular pie. “Pie was a major focus for us this year,” says John Forrest Ales, head of Walmart corporate communications. “Our buyer thought we should team up with someone to make a great sweet potato pie, which isn’t as popular as our pumpkin this time of year, and contacted Miss LaBelle via her website. She responded right away. They went back and forth on the recipe, and it hit the shelves in September.”
Walmart thought they had enough supplies to make pies through Thanksgiving, but then the James Wright video hit, and they suddenly sold one pie per second for 72 hours. Ales won’t give exact numbers, but by my calculation that’s almost 260,000 pies, generating almost $1 million. “Sweet potato pie is strong in certain regions, but to see how well it’s selling in all of these other places is simply amazing,” he adds.
Ales also said general web searches for pie went up exponentially, even beating out search for “turkey,” a big keyword in November. “This time of year, as we head into the holiday season, people search for things like iPad Pros on our website. But hits on Patti LaBelle’s pie is 10-times that of the iPad right now. For food to trump electronics…it’s huge.” And it far surpassed the more popular and widely available pumpkin pie. Those sat on the shelves, unsheathed.
The next day, after telling a co-worker about this wacked-out quest—she hadn’t heard about any of it yet, either—she decided to track down a pie so we can taste it for our own YouTube video. She went to greater lengths than I would to get one: Jumped on eBay, paid $26, and drove to Whittier to pick it up at some stranger’s house. I’m far too untrusting to do something that crazy, and my imagination was on overdrive at what might happen to her or the pie. Thankfully both returned unscathed.
And, yes, 48 hours later, I got to try the Patti LaBelle sweet potato pie.
And it was…good. I’m no sweet potato pie expert—hell, I’m not even really a fan—but it had a fluffy texture and nice spice with hints of nutmeg. I wished we put it in an oven for a few minutes. It really screamed for some whipped cream. Would I personally pay more than the $3.48 price? Probably not. Would I chase it down knowing what I do now? Definitely not. Did it make me sing? Um, I think I did sing a few bars of New Attitude.
I don’t know what it was: the hoopla, the fact that everyone was talking about it and I couldn’t get it, or that one guy made himself famous simply by tasting and singing a few bars of On My Own on YouTube. Maybe it was the perfect storm of all of the above, but chasing the sweet potato train did get me out of my world-news malaise. And I got to eat some pie, to boot.
The good news is that Ms. LaBelle’s now-famous pie will be on the shelves in time for the Christmas holidays, says Ales. It’s highly unlikely you’ll find one for Thanksgiving (if you do buy one on eBay, make sure to check the expiration date).
For anyone who can’t eat the Diva’s pie, thankfully there are several great pie sources in town that do have sweet potato pie, like Du-Par’s, where it’s a seasonal offering (and very delicious; I had to sate my craving somewhere!), Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles, Simplethings and The Pie Hole, to name a few.