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Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

Sweet Potato Pie Company

The same can be said of Sweet Potato Pie, Incorporated, a business, located at 140 Auburn Street, that has twenty-eight employees producing more than ten thousand pies a day. In 1983, when he started the business in his home, Edgar Ramsey was working full time as a manager with the Xerox Corporation. In order to make a go of the pie business, he and his wife divided up tasks so that they could be fit into their already busy schedules. Edgar Ramsey recalls the difficulties of those early days:

Ed Ramsey, owner of Sweet Potato Pie Company, at his desk.

Here she had a newborn baby, and when [my wife] came home [from work], her first responsibility was not so much to cook — to prepare the dinner — but to get the potatoes on. So, it was her responsibility to peel the potatoes and put them on the stove to cook, and then she would prepare dinner for the kids. The baby would be crying. She was hungry. And my wife says [to her], "Well, you've got to wait until I get these potatoes peeled." And so, by the time [the potatoes] finished cooking, on an average day, I would be home by then. And so, I would start mixing the batter. But there were times when I wouldn't get home until ten or eleven at night, but you still had to mix the batter because the potatoes were ready.

The Ramseys' experience is a common one in the establishment phase of family businesses as resources — money, time, and energy — are stretched to the limit. Starting a business at home allows the family to more readily accommodate this erratic and all-consuming schedule, in which they are both workers and the managers. Even the children's caretaker was hired with dual responsibilities: the children and the pies.

If they survive this early period, home-based businesses often enter an expansion stage during which the business moves out of the house. For the Ramseys, the expanding business literally moved through the house — from the kitchen to the garage to the basement — before it was transferred to a facility on North Main Street and, later, to its current location. Workers were hired to peel the potatoes, make the batter, and assemble and bake the pies. As a result, Edgar Ramsey was able to devote his energies mainly to the management of the business, his wife went back to a regular schedule of work, and the woman who looked after the Ramsey children and worked in the pie business moved into the full-time job of production manager.

Despite these changes, the pie business still occupies a large amount of Edgar Ramsey's time. As he puts it: "I do this all day, all night sometimes, even on weekends, sometimes sixteen hours a day. You have to take it home with you or to a social affair. It's a twenty-four-hour affair."

Therefore, even though actual pie-making operations have moved out of the Ramseys' home, the business is still very much of the home in the sense that it continues to preoccupy their thoughts and shape their lives. This extension of work into the home — the work- behind-the-work — was found in all other African-American family businesses examined for this report, regardless of size or level of success. For all the proprietors, an extraordinary commitment is required; for some, work activities so overshadow every other activity that the workplace virtually becomes their home. As Easter Benson put it when asked if her E & A Soul Food Restaurant is like a second home to her:

To me it's the first [home] — I only sleep at home. It's been, what, like I got home last night at a quarter to nine. I was in bed by quarter to ten. I got up this morning at three o'clock, [and] by three thirty I was gone. So, to me, this is my home. That's just the place I sleep, out there. That's just the place I sleep.

Listen

Edgar Ramsey: "It was her responsibility to peel the potatoes and put them on the stove, and then she would prepare dinner for the kids."

Easter Benson: "I only sleep at home."

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