How a Spiral Diner Pie Became an Indie Movie Star Alongside Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck

Spiral Diner, DFW-based vegan mini-chain, is the home of the Chocolate Mousse pie that made a splash at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Spiral Diner, DFW-based vegan mini-chain, is the home of the Chocolate Mousse pie that made a splash at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Photo courtesy of James Johnson
In 1998, the movie Pi earned Daron Aronofsky the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival, and perhaps not since then has another pi(e) made as big an impression on the storied independent film festival.

Until now.

At this year’s Sundance, there was an unexpected breakout hero: a vegan chocolate mousse pie from Fort Worth’s Spiral Diner.

A Ghost Story, the latest film from writer/director David Lowery — best known for last year’s Pete’s Dragon — debuted early this year at Sundance and follows the story of a ghost and the house he haunts; but it’s not a horror movie. The film, which was shot in Irving and features Sonia Acevedo and Casey Affleck, was warmly received at the festival, with one scene in particular being hailed as a standout.

The scene in question is an emotionally intense, albeit powerfully awkward, five-minute sequence following the actress Rooney Mara, whose grief-stricken character has just lost her husband, as she eats an entire chocolate mousse pie. The scene has gained attention in large part simply due to the fact that it’s somewhat difficult to watch.

“Rooney is such an enchanting presence on screen, so watching her do anything is great,” says James Johnston, a producer on the film and whose wife, Amy McNutt, is the founder and CEO of the popular local vegan mini-chain Spiral Diner. “Add to that the emotional context of the scene, a woman who’s just lost her husband, and you’ve got yourself a wonderful moment to understand a character and a little bit of time for introspection of your own concept of grief.”

According to Johnston, the pie scene could be considered a type of test: “If you can make it through the pie scene,” he says, “there’s a lot more rewarding material coming.”

But just what of that pie? If you’re more into pastry dough and fillings than who is walking the red carpet, you may be interested to know that the director of this film isn’t the only local star involved. “Not to give too much of a peek behind the curtain, but the pie I made for Rooney wasn’t exactly like the one we sell at Spiral,” Johnston admits. “It needed to look a certain way, and also, I made it a lot less rich because she’s not a sweets person.”

For Johnston, a filmmaker by trade, his involvement in the day-to-day operations at Spiral these days consists mostly of eating.

“I don’t keep regular hours or anything anymore,” he says. “I help keep up the recipes and create new recipes for our blue plate specials. Otherwise, it’s being part of the general oversight of the company and helping keep up with social media outreach.”

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This vegan chocolate mousse pie from Fort Worth made a big splash at this year's Sundance Festival.
Photo courtesy of James Johnson
Johnston entered the filmmaking industry as an early 20-something lacking direction.

“I knew I wanted to do something creative and spent a lot of time writing short stories, and I dabbled in music and theater,” he says. “This was the ’90s, and growing up in Fort Worth, I just had no sense of the indie film word. Then one day my friend Nick Prendergast brought over a VHS tape of some black and white 16mm short films from UTA film students. It was like an epiphany for me. I knew that is what I wanted to do.”

While volunteering on Lowery’s first film, Lullaby, the two hit it off, quickly becoming friends and eventually roommates.

“We were basically a platonic gay couple,” Johnston says. “These days, we’ve got our separate lives, but along with our friend Toby Halbrooks, we form a collective called Sailor Bear and we support each other in any way needed to get films made. We hang out all the time and every once in awhile, we get down to making movies.”

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James Johnston is a producer on A Ghost Story — and he's also the husband of Amy McNutt, who founded Spiral Diner.
Photo courtesy of James Johnson
Last summer saw the pair working together once again, filming A Ghost Story in the grueling North Texas heat, which, according to Johnston is “really the best way to make a movie.”

The hard work and sweat paid off in a warm reception to the film and some of the attention, particularly to the pie, has come as a bit of a surprise.

“We all went into this because we love the idea,” Johnston says. “David wrote a beautiful script and we knew we’d make something that we like. It’s been a big surprise that so many people have latched onto the film as a whole. And especially that scene, because we always assumed it’d be very challenging for people, and it definitely is.”

Has this pie’s silver screen stardom followed it back to Fort Worth from Salt Lake City?

“There’s a slight uptick [in sales], but nothing crazy,” Johnston says.

If you want to eat like the stars, need a pie to cry into, or are just looking for a solid vegan chocolate mousse, Spiral Diner in Fort Worth has you covered. Just ask for what Rooney Mara is having.

Spiral Diner, 1314 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth
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