In December 2018, Michelle Collins was in her kitchen preparing to make a sweet potato casserole as she had many times before. Much to her surprise, as she peeled the skin back, instead of the sweet potato sporting its familiar orange hue, it was white.
That indicated she had accidentally picked up a Japanese sweet potato.
“It was a complete mistake!” Collins exclaimed, “[but] I improvised and I made the casserole.”
Collins was preparing the casserole for her friend’s infant daughter who suffers from an autoimmune disease.
“It had to be vegan, and it had to be gluten-free,” she recalled, “When I took it to her house to try it, a chef was actually visiting over Christmas, and he gave me the thumbs up.”
She sat down and drafted her business plan the very next day.
“I thought to myself, I’m onto something,” she said excitedly “My idea was to turn the casserole into a pie.”
Five years later, Collins is the owner of Chelle’s Cutie Pies, which markets Japanese sweet potato pies.
Collins, 40, was born in Brooklyn to a Jamaican father and Antiguan mother. She grew up mainly in Antigua, where she learned to cook through family and home economics courses during high school. At age 16, Collins relocated to Florida for college.
“I thought to myself, well tourism is the main industry so I’ll study hospitality management.”
Collins graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2004 with a degree in hotel management, and earned her MBA from Florida International University in 2019.
In 2020, Collins found herself in Austin,Texas. She was working as a business travels sales manager for Hotel Indigo Downtown Austin and Holiday Inn Downtown Austin, which are sister properties.
“I was living out of a hotel,” Collins cringed. “I was being back and forth every two weeks.”
Aching to flex her creative culinary muscles, Collins mentioned her idea for the pies to Chef Colbert, the head chef of the sister hotels.
“He said, ‘Okay, well in the nighttime you can use the kitchen,'” Collins said.
By day, Collins was in the sales office working on contracts. By night, she was a culinary scientist, experimenting with different ingredients and yielding trial batches.
“I was… just testing out like the different recipes that I was like trying to come up with,” she said.
As she perfected her product, Collins felt it was time for the public to get a taste of her labor of love; so she signed up for Vegan Chill, a massive 18+ vegan festival held in Texas annually.
“Go big or go home!” she exclaimed as she fondly recalled the memory. “I took like 50 whole pies that i made by myself -i did not go to sleep- and the feedback was phenomenal.”
Word got back to the general manager of hotels Collins was working for that the pies were a hit, prompting him to give them a good old fashioned taste test.
“He said ‘my daughter suffers from Celiac [disease] and there’s so many things that she can’t have-this is perfect’ so they actually started to carry my pies in the grab-n-go.”
Shortly after, COVID 19 reared its ugly head and Collins’s employment opportunity was rescinded — so she decided to come back to Miami and focus on building her company.
“ I used that time to actually work on my branding” she said. “The name of my company, registering it, working on different flavors…”
In July of 2020, she started to vend regularly at the Coconut Grove Saturday Organic Farmers Market and establish partnerships.
“By summer I had about 5 retail partners that started to carry my pies” Collins recalled. She never met with anyone face to face due to COVID, but the pies spoke for themselves and landed her partnerships with The Plantisserie, Beehive Juice bar, Green Gables Cafe, Lilikoi Organic Living and Love Life Cafe.
Shortly thereafter, Collins received an email asking who her public relations representative was. This was the very first email she had ever received through her website, which she made herself.
“I in turn responded that I’m the head cook and bottle washer,” Collins said humorously.
The email turned out to be from Oprah’s team at O Magazine, who caught wind of Collin’s products and were considering featuring her for Oprah’s Favorite Things 2020.
“They asked me to send my pies to them,” Collins said. “I made it to the semi-finals!”
To this day Collins has no clue how Oprah’s team heard about her, and although she didn’t make it to the finals, she sees the fact that they reached out as a testament to her hard work and feels that stopping at the semi-finals was a blessing in disguise.
“In retrospect I was not ready at the time ‘cause I was still a home baker,” Collins said, “but a lot has changed since then.”
Three years later, Collins is now working out of a commercial kitchen and maintains several retail partnerships including Beehive Juice Bar, Hyatt Regency Miami’s “The Market, Love Life Cafe, and MKT Kitchen.
As the vegan and plant-based market grows rapidly, Collins claims that there are not many options for people looking for vegan items that are also gluten free.
“I see myself not just making a dessert, but I’m actually here to solve a problem,” Collins remarked. “There are people who for various reasons…they can’t have lactose, they can’t have gluten, I fill that gap.”
Chelle’s Cutie Pies are 100% vegan, lactose, gluten, and dairy-free. She makes them by hand, has a seasonal holiday line, and ships internationally. You can check out her delicious catalog here.
Collins says that she’d like to steer her company in the direction of corporate and social catering, and has already collaborated with some big names.
“Target reached out to us last year and we did an enormous event for them for international women’s day,” Collins recalled excitedly, “and they have since ordered from us; from them we got a referral to WeWork, who’s also ordered from us.”
Collins is grateful for the journey they’ve taken her on so far.
“This was not supposed to be my path, but I saw that it created such a buzz one night and I decided to better myself,” Collins said. “And here we are.”