Crystal Beasley is on a mission to bring a slice of Southern home cooking to Portland. Two weeks ago, the 30-year-old Arkansas native opened a food cart, serving up old-fashioned berry and cream pies made just the way her granny did. With her little red wooden cart, skirt, vintage apron and accent straight out of Designing Women, she looks the part, too.
But looks can be deceiving. Behind the beaming Southern hospitality and freshly baked jumbleberry pie, Beasley is actually a tech-savvy interactive designer. Her job is to make websites easier and more enjoyable to use. But to do that, she has to understand how people make decisions and how easily those decisions can be swayed. So she decided to combine her fascination with psychology with another passion—baking—and built a food cart-cum-science lab, aptly named PieLab, allowing her to use customers as human guinea pigs while keeping her family pie recipes alive.
Beasley came up with the idea after reading about a cafe in Japan where customers receive what the person in front of them has ordered.
"I kept thinking, 'Man, Portlanders are so strange, and they would totally dig on that.' It's... a whole new way to connect people," she says.
She put the idea on "crowdfunding" website Kickstarter and asked people to make small donations toward the project. Within hours, support and money started flowing in from people all over America as news of her idea spread throughout Twitter and the blogosphere, raising $1,650 to help cover construction and permitting.
"There were a couple of people from Brooklyn, there was somebody in Alabama—they gave me $100! I was like, 'You're never gonna see this cart!' It was great. And I think part of it is more about the psychological [aspect]. Part of the product—as much as it being pie—is what I'm able to write about it and learn from it."
In addition to the original game that inspired it all, at the real cart customers may be asked to spin a wheel, play "Rock-Paper-Scissors" or "sell" their choice for a discount. Sometimes, they won't even realize they're playing a game. It's all worth it for a taste of her desserts, which recently included mixed berry with orange-ginger streusel and strawberry-rhubarb pie.
If locals don't mind their pie served with a side of subterfuge, Beasley will present her findings at the next South by Southwest conference and run the cart again next summer.