By Steve Novotney
Adam Oliver was nearly 16 years old when he won a national Taekwondo tournament and qualified for the next level of competition. The only problem was that the event was scheduled for a venue in South Korea.
The airplane fare alone was more than $1,500, and Jim Oliver didn’t have it. What Oliver and his, wife, Michelle, did have was six kids and empty pockets.
Oliver had worked as an ironworker following his graduation from John Marshall High School in 1973 and two years at West Liberty University. He then served as a manager at a Ponderosa and Rax restaurants before becoming a dental lab technician to craft crowns and bridges for a local dentist.
At the time Adam won the martial arts crown, Oliver was working out of his house for several dentists.
“It really bothered me that I couldn’t afford to send Adam to that competition, and then in the middle of the night one night, an idea came to me, so I had to wake up my wife.
“It was the first time in 50 years that they had any kind of competition in South Korea, and Taekwondo had originated in Korea,” said Oliver, who will turn 60 years old in early March. “We had six kids and no money. But I got this idea in the middle of one night to sell pies to the neighbors and to whomever. So we sent the kids out into the neighborhood to see if anyone was interested in buying pies.”
It was a “word-of-mouth” advertising campaign he and his family launched, and the news about the fundraiser spread quickly. Each pie was priced at $10, and their customers could choose from a dozen of different varieties.
“Our idea was that we would take an order, and then the next day we would deliver them, and six and one-half weeks later we ended up selling more than 400 pies. That was enough money that I could go also,” Oliver explained. “All of our neighbors, the kids’ friends, and the people at Cardinal Health really helped us. I think it took us an entire week to make all of the pies for those folks. It’s was really incredible.”
Why pies? Why not cakes or brownies or cookies or pepperoni rolls?
“I have always loved making pies, and my grandmother (Elizabeth) taught me how when I was 18,” Oliver said. “During our holidays while I was growing up, our family was always big about getting together at my grandparents’. All the aunts, uncles, and cousins would be there, and they only had three rooms, so there were people sitting on one of the beds and eating.
“One year I went into the kitchen during the halftime of whatever football game was on, and I asked my grandmother if she would show me how she made such wonderful pies,” he recalled. “So that’s when she showed me how to make the pie crust, and then how to make the fillings.”
Following the charitable pie sale and the father-son trip to South Korea, Oliver returned to his dental-lab duties. Often, though, he would catch himself daydreaming – and yes, those thoughts concerned lemon cream, chocolate peanut butter, key lime, butterscotch, and pineapple cream pies.
“It was about a year after we did the fundraiser when I started thinking about making pies as a business,” he said. “That’s when I decided to do both, the crowns and bridges, and the pies.
“We established a commercial kitchen at our house, and the health department came out and inspected it and everything. We were completely legal, but we were not allowed to serve or sell from our home. Everything had to be for delivery,” Oliver explained. “But then it came time to make a decision because it was very difficult to do both.
“I had learned that there was an open spot here, so I came down to check it out, and then we applied to the commission that they have here, and it was approved.”
Anyone who knows Oliver is aware he is not much of an extrovert. He is a shy man who does not readily open up to others, so his chosen location and the manner in which he set up his pie shop are surprising.
“That’s true, I am pretty shy, but I am also claustrophobic, so we could not have set this area up in any other part of the building,” Oliver admitted. “When we knew this area was available, we came to take a look, and all I saw were the windows. I had to have those windows so I could breathe.
“But it has been lot of fun seeing people peeking through the windows to see what I may be making on that particular day,” Oliver said. “And that has led us to make a lot of friends because we have so many regular customers. Those friendships are something I really appreciate. I really, really enjoy that.”
Initially, Oliver’s Centre Market operation involved sales only as he continued producing his delicious pies from his home kitchen, but after the first year he moved the preparation and baking processes to his new shop. Today, Oliver’s Pies offers 19 different varieties, although not every selection is available each day.
“Not all of the recipes came from my grandmother, but some of them did, and I really enjoy making those because of the memories involved,” he said. “But some of them have come from friends of ours, and then the others are my recipes that I have developed through the years.
“As far as other family recipes, I was the only one interested in making the pies, so the others really don’t have recipes to offer. They just wait for me to make them,” Oliver joked. “But recipes are recipes. I tell people that it’s a whole lot of love that I put into my pies. That’s the secret.”
In the pie-making business, Oliver explained, there are times of each year during which demand skyrockets, but overall the Upper Ohio Valley possesses a clear favorite flavor.
“Coconut cream,” he said. “It’s kind of surprised us, but this valley loves its coconut cream pie. And then it’s our apple and cherry pies, and everything else seems to be in the competition for fourth place.
“We do not have all of the 19 varieties available for purchase every day, but if someone wants, one all they have to do is call us and place a special order. Then, in 24 hours their pie will be available to them,” he continued. “This is definitely not the pizza business. If someone places an order right now for something we don’t have in the case, there are several hours that are needed to make it the right way. That’s why we request a 24-hour notice for special orders.”
The decision to open Oliver’s Pies in Centre Market was made eight years ago now, and he still awakes at 4 a.m. and arrives to the shop by 4:45 a.m. each morning. His father, Kurt, follows at 6:15 a.m. to deliver the single slices and whole pies ordered by outside businesses like Wheeling Hospital and Bob’s Lunch in Moundsville. Seldom is Oliver’s workday done by 6 p.m.
“I wish this was what I started doing when I was 18 instead of when I was in my 50s because some of the days can really wear me down,” he said. “But it’s not hard to fall asleep at night, that’s for sure. Most nights my wife will hand me a plate of food, and then I stumble up the steps to the bedroom, lay down, eat my dinner, and then I’m out until 4 a.m.
“I’m the type of person who definitely needs eight hours of sleep, so if you do the math, that means I’m usually falling asleep around 8 p.m.,” he said. “I don’t have much free time, but when I do, I try to give that time to our grandkids. And Sunday is always my day off. We go to church, and we do our thing. That’s my day of rest.”
Oliver insists he is a blessed man because of his wife and his children, and because he now earns his living not ironworking or in the dental lab, but doing something he loves.
“I am really happy with the decision to do this,” he said. “I’m tickled pink, really, because this is a passion of mine. I may be exhausted at the end of every work day, but it’s not really like work for me.
“I think if people really broke it down, they would be surprised at how much I don’t make per pie. But I love making pies. It’s an awesome position to be in, and that lets me know that I made the right choice,” Oliver explained. “At this point I can say moving the operation to here in Centre Market was an excellent idea. We were very nervous at first because when we were the new kid on the block, we weren’t getting a lot of visits, but now we’re associated with a lot of the great businesses here in Centre Market, and that means a lot to me and my family.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)