Partners in Community: 5000 Pies and Counting
A take-out restaurant in West Long Beach, California, is winning accolades, training future chefs—and making disciples.
By Stan Friedman | May 15, 2017
You might say Michael Martinez cuts an imposing figure. He used to be a gang member. He has spent time in prison. And running along the entire length of his arm is a tattoo of a very large knife. It’s hard to miss. And for anyone who wants to know, it’s a sign of Michael’s passion in life.
Michael is a chef, and these days his specialty is pies. Lots of pies, which are made for his church and his community.
It was a long road to get here. Michael was in prison when he decided to turn his life around. After he was released, he enrolled at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Los Angeles and proceeded to build a career in the restaurant industry. Now he runs 5000 Pies, a take-out restaurant with a unique menu of pies and pizzas. The restaurant is the brainchild of Becky Teter of Fountain of Life Covenant Church in West Long Beach, California, and other members of the congregation.
The church is located in a neighborhood where the poverty rate and crime are high and employment opportunities are limited, especially for young adults with criminal records or few skills. Fountain of Life decided to do something about that. In 2012 several church members began discussing how they might open a social enterprise—a business that seeks to generate self-sustaining revenue while also addressing a social issue. Their idea was for a business that could transform the lives and the community both economically and spiritually.
“The goal isn’t to do social enterprise,” says John Teter, Becky’s husband and the church’s founding pastor. “The goal is to make disciples. But in the ’hood, you can’t say, ‘Be blessed, be warmed, I’m going back to Malibu.’ You have to find them jobs.”
Other planners included Sara Culver, a non-professional baker who won third place among more than 230 entrants in a local baking contest for her maple dark chocolate pecan pie, and Sharon Im-Lee, who had helped a nonprofit operate a coffee shop and has a master’s of business administration. She also has a love for deep-dish pizza. Becky is the CEO.
They got help early on when an anonymous $100,000 donation covered their start-up costs. Then a wealth manager told them he had a client who had recently won the state lottery and was willing to give away equipment from a restaurant he had owned.
Since it opened in 2014, 5000 Pies has garnered multiple awards and rave reviews. “We are defining hand-crafted, Long Beach-style deep dish pizza and sweet pies,” says Becky. “The pies are made 100 percent from scratch using fresh, seasonal, quality ingredients. A lot of love and care goes into each pie. We like to think that they may be the best pies you’ve ever tasted.”
She adds, “But our business is people, not pizza.” The business would be a failure, she says, if the employees weren’t growing as disciples. Each employee must participate in the life of the church and attend a weekly Bible study.
“We tell them it’s a jobs-plus,” says Becky.
John emphasizes the difference between operating a business with Christian values and building disciples through social enterprise. “It’s great that Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays, but that doesn’t lead people to think they should go to church. The discipleship component is key.”
And Michael is key to both the business and the discipleship. He teaches employees culinary skills and pours his life into theirs. The restaurant has employed and trained more than thirty people since it began. About one-third have criminal records, and most had few job skills before they came.
“When someone comes on, I tell them I have high standards,” says Michael, “but if they make a mistake, they’re not going to be fired. We’re going to help you and we’re going to pray for you.”
Chef Michael not only trains his staff to run an award-winning restaurant, he disciples them as well.
Michael’s connection to Fountain of Life goes back to the early days of the church. He and John met one day on a street corner when John noticed his knife tattoo and struck up a conversation. After several further encounters, John invited him to Bible study, and eventually Michael accepted.
The passage that night was the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Michael said, “Wow, five thousand people! I didn’t know Jesus did catering events.”
He became the church’s first convert. That night’s passage also became the inspiration for the restaurant’s name.
Last year the restaurant sold its five thousandth pie. After nearly three years of operation, they are almost 80 percent self-sustaining. Their goal is to become fully
self-sufficient and eventually a funding source for the church.
Despite their successes, it’s not always smooth sailing. Two employees from different gangs had to learn difficult lessons about reconciliation. “We work in a tiny place,” Becky says, “so we need to talk about what forgiveness means. Those two guys would do the same shifts, and they learned to work together.”
But the people who originally conceived the idea of the restaurant may be the ones most impacted. Becky explains, “We always joke that we should have a pie called redemption pie, because of how God has been growing our faith through 5000 Pies. Working with people who can’t hold down a job isn’t easy. It presses us out of our comfort zones. It’s definitely not all awards and accolades.”
“Sometimes I just want to throw in the towel,” Michael admits. “It’s a lot of stress running a restaurant, and it’s even more stress running a restaurant that’s mission driven. I had to really change my management style and surrender to what God has for me. It’s a blessing when you are using your talent.”
Michael still has the tattoo, but like him it has changed. Within the outline of the chef’s knife now appears the word “servant.”