Torie Day burst into the storefront in the Allentown business district that she soon will open as a small grocery store and restaurant, immediately reached for her phone, and set it to play jazz music.
“I need to set the mood,” said the 29-year-old food entrepreneur as she arranged chairs for several consecutive meetings she scheduled one morning last week with visitors. Renovations aren’t yet complete, but the space has freshly painted yellow walls inside and purple-and-gold signs out front that proclaim it as Day La Soul Cafe & Grocer.
Ms. Day has been cooking up what she describes as healthy versions of traditional soul food for nearly two years and selling it through her Day La Soul Catering business, which works out of shared commercial kitchen space in Sharpsburg.
By the end of December, she hopes to have her grocery up and running so that she can sell fresh produce, dairy and deli items from local suppliers including Turner Dairy Farms and 5 Generation Bakers, which makes Jenny Lee brands.
In the adjoining cafe, she will serve customers her own soul specialties — including shrimp and grits, wings, chicken and waffles, and sweet potato casseroles and pies — and provide an event space that will feature artists, musicians and food demonstrations.
Finding the location on East Warrington Avenue that already had walk-in coolers and an attached parking lot “was happenstance,” said the single mother of five who just a few years ago was trying to support her family by selling real estate.
She thought she had a deal for space in Homewood near the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway station. When that fell through, she began scrolling Craigslist ads and spotted the 4,000-square-foot storefront in Allentown that formerly housed a florist and a bank.
Through a combination of funding sources, she raised $16,000 to rent and renovate the space on a prominent corner in one of the city’s older, Hilltop neighborhoods that is looking to reinvent itself by attracting small businesses like Day La Soul.
The Hilltop Alliance provided assistance to reduce her monthly rent for the first year and to help pay for her storefront signs.
“She’s a good fit for Allentown,” said Blair Schoenborn, healthy foods financing specialist for Bridgeway Capital, a Downtown-based nonprofit that provides loans and grants to small businesses.
Ms. Day secured a $6,000 grant from Bridgeway for equipment and inventory to launch the business.
“Torie’s business model and her focus is on healthy products and addressing the food access issue,” said Ms. Schoenborn, who noted that Allentown lacks a supermarket. “Plus she has awesome drive, passion and dedication to the project.”
Ms. Day fell into the food and catering business as a sideline after posting photos of some of her homemade treats for friends on Facebook and Instagram.
She grew up in Homewood and East Hills eating her mother’s traditional soul food cooking, but as an adult she wanted to make the same recipes with fresh ingredients instead of processed.
A couple viewers responded to her posts saying they’d love to sample some. Her first paid job last year was a single meal she delivered in a styrofoam container to a high school classmate.
When boxers Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao faced off in a pay-per-view match in May 2015, she delivered her first bulk order to a customer hosting a fight-watching barbecue in Hazelwood. He paid $100 for a variety of side dishes including mac-and-cheese, potato salad and caramel pecan apple pie.
As the business grew mainly through social media, Ms. Day worked out of her Wilkinsburg home and in church kitchens where customers held events.
Then she secured commercial cooking space at La Dorita Cooks, a shared kitchen incubator in Sharpsburg. With a $5,000 grant from Urban Innovation21, a public-private economic development agency, she was able to buy equipment including dishes, a tablet computer and her signature purple chef jackets.
Last year, she entered Coro Pittsburgh’s Invest in Her pitch competition for female entrepreneurs. Though she didn’t make the final cut, a judge impressed with her video submission hired her to cater an event.
There she met Joe Bute, founder of Hollymead Capital, a Bloomfield-based investment firm that focuses on food enterprises. He liked her menu and was impressed with how Ms. Day launched the catering firm without formal culinary or business training but with savvy online marketing.
“She’s an extraordinarily entrepreneurial person and we’ve been looking around to support that kind of personality particularly in the food space with capital for food entrepreneurs to grow and expand.”
After Ms. Day shared her idea for a restaurant and eventually a food truck, Mr. Bute mentored her and encouraged her to secure funding through Kiva Pittsburgh, a nonprofit, online crowdfunding site. More than 100 lenders including Hollymead contributed to a total $10,000 loan for Ms. Day.
Mr. Bute also likes that her food items have earned top prizes in almost every cooking competition she enters, including the 2016 Wing & Mac Smackdown.
“She’s doing something interesting,” he said. “Her take is a healthy-for-you, Southern Afro-centric view of the world. And Torie’s vision is all about building something for her family.”
Ms. Day’s first daughter was born during her sophomore year at Taylor Allderdice High School, now Pittsburgh Allderdice.
After she had her baby, she stayed in school and worked evening shifts at places including McDonald’s and a check-cashing service.
While living with her former partner, she managed real estate properties that he owned and had four more children who are now ages 2-8.
She obtained her real estate license but didn’t like it.
“It was just pushing papers and chauffeuring people,” she said. “I didn’t sell one house.”
As her family grew, she was spending more time on cooking “because I thought it was a way to improve my life.”
“My mom taught me the foundation of soul food. But she cooked from things in cans and boxed goods,” she said. “I taught myself about fresh ingredients and vegetables. The produce section excites me because it’s colorful.”
Joyce Gannon: [email protected] or 412-263-1580.