Pie makes people happy and that makes me happy.
Laurie Gray Owner of The Pie Bar, Long Beach, CA
I grew up on a ten-acre ranch on Washington State. We raised our own fruits and vegetables and we had animals and we had Arabian horses and it was a great childhood. My mom was a stay-at-home mom and she made everything from scratch; she was always cooking and baking and she taught me how to bake when I was really young. And then fast forward, I become an adult and I marry my high school sweetheart, start a family, and I get into banking as a career. I left the bank world; I was tired, I’d done everything I could do: marketing manager, branch manager, loan officer… I just was bored and I was moving 40 miles north and I was like, “Ok, this is a good time to break.” I was sitting at home one night watching the food network and these two ladies in Georgia had started this pie company out of their garage. I called my friend and I was like, “Do you want to start a pie company with me?” We each put 500 bucks in and started the company. It was called Alki Pie Company because we lived in Alki Beach.
The company was growing, growing, growing. We were in five farmer’s markets during the week, selling pies by the slice and whole pies, and then 10 grocery stores up in the Seattle area. But I was a single mom and I had two teenagers and I got scared. I panicked because you hit that mark where it’s like, “Oh… shoot, there’s no money to pay the…” Because when you’re self-employed, when you have your own business, cash flow is always an issue. I bailed and sold the company to my baker and got into a career in non-profit management and did that for 10 years and lost my job in 2014, so it became an opportunity to do something that I loved. It kind of just evolved; I didn’t really have a plan. I lost my job at the end of October and two teenagers at home still. I was like, “I can make pies, it’s the holidays, it’s Thanksgiving.” I started making pies out of my home kitchen and it blew up, just selling to friends. Made it through the holidays baking two pies at a time... I’d have 30 pies to bake, and only two at a time, that’s 15 hours of baking. And then January 15, I decided, yeah, I’m going to do this, I’m going to jump in, all in.
I went from baking out of my home to baking in another commercial kitchen: shared space, big walk-in ovens, you can bake 100 pies at a time in the ovens. You’d open the door and it was like walking into a sauna room. You open the big metal door and you push the baker’s rack in, and you close the door and then it starts spinning. They’re the best ovens to cook in because air is blowing, the pies are spinning, they’re very uniform. Where, in your normal oven, they just sit there and there’s going to be a hot spot, there’s going to be a cold spot.
I remember my worst day in that kitchen, though. I had just moved in and I think I’d been there for like a week and I didn’t have any employees yet. I had taken a big rack of pies out of the oven to cool overnight — fruit pies, apple and berry and cherry. I was pushing the baker’s rack and I hit a grate in the concrete floor and it stopped and all the pies went sliding off onto the floor. I had to start all over. Everybody came over and picked up, but you can’t save them, they were crushed. I’ll always remember that — that was probably the worst thing. And then I learned how to push a baker’s cart correctly. I was pushing it from an end with the other end open, so the pies shot right off. If you push it from the rail side, and go forward, they can’t go anywhere. That was a disaster. It’s a good story. And I’m glad I did it and not an employee.
There’s a store here in town called Made by Millworks and people come in and sell their goods. Most of everything is made in the Long Beach area. But it’s for small makers, artists… for me it was perfect because I couldn’t afford a storefront on Pine Avenue, but I could afford a little tiny spot inside of a bigger storefront. Financially, it worked well and it helped me get a really good start. Started looking at locations, looked at over 40 locations, and then we found this spot that had been vacant for a few years. It was dirty, it was closed up. People were like, “Are you sure you want that? Nothing makes it there.” It was the right decision. It could have gone horribly wrong, but it didn’t.
When we opened here in June of ’16, the block was empty, it was just the teriyaki place right here and Kress Market, but everything else was empty storefronts. It was like no-man’s land. But I opened and we had a line out the door on the first day. We just have had a really good following. Now we have neighbors and it’s become a bustling place where there’s a lot of activity. It showed that with the right product and the right people you could be a success in this part of town and it let other people come in and open up storefronts and they’re doing well, too.
The Cutie Pies, they evolved out of necessity, but they’re our number one selling product. I started the business in November. November and December are the two busiest months in pie world. And then January rolls around and everybody’s on a diet, everybody’s spent all their money at Christmas… I’m like, “How am I going to sell pie in January? I’m not going to make any money.” I had seen cupcakes done in jars, so I was like, “Well, I’ll just figure out how to do pie.” I started with some of our popular flavors like key lime and s’mores and put the crust and the filling and whipped cream on top and found the right size mason jars and made some labels for them… they were a hit. I used those when I was doing pop-ups around the area. And I thought for sure, “When I open a shop, then everyone’s going to come running in for slices.” Nope. They still want the jars. I think it’s unique, it’s cute, it’s portable. People love them. They keep the jars, or they can bring 8 back and get a free one, so we have a return program.
Most are family recipes or recipes I’ve developed over the years. You reach a limit, so we probably have 60 flavors of pies that we do or that we’ve done over the past three years and we rotate them. Some aren’t popular enough to keep on the menu. I know what my popular ones are now. When we opened, I didn’t even have apple pie on the menu because apple pie’s so boring and I don’t really like apple pie. But after a couple weeks, it was obvious we needed to have apple pie. People were asking for it. I’ve learned people come in and there might be other flavors that they want to try, but they’re like, “Apple is safe.” And there’s some people that, truly, apple’s their favorite pie. They’re like, “What’s that one, what’s that one, what’s that one? Ehhh, I’ll stick with apple.” The classics always stay.
You can get fancy with flavors, but it goes back to what they want. They want apple pie, they want banana cream pie or cherry pie. They might try a weird flavor, but it’s not really what they want. There was one: Bacon Me Nutty, it was maple and it had candied bacon on it… good, very tasty, but I think just maybe too unique. Black forest wasn’t a big one. I personally loved it, it was chocolate with cherry and whipped cream, not a big seller. Gingerbread maple, not a big seller. We tried chocolate banana… we did an Elvis pie, which was peanut butter, banana, and bacon. Delicious, but I think too far out there for most people. They were all solid flavors, and maybe if we would have kept them on the menu for like a year… you never know when something’s going to catch on through word of mouth. But my bakers will kill me if I have 20 different pies on the menu in a month, so some have to go to make room for the ones that do sell. Can’t get attached to the pie.
Our pumpkin pie, that one I created about 20 years ago with my first pie company. I never liked pumpkin pie, but I love our pumpkin pie because I got the spices just right. It took me about five different variations to be like, “Ok, this is the one.” Now we’re developing an eggnog pie and a butterscotch pie. You take a recipe and you make it, and you’re like, “Hmm, I want it to taste a little more like this or have a little less of this…” Usually, you have to go through three rounds of a recipe; very rarely do you get it the first time.
There’s so many nuances to baking, like sift your flour, don’t pack it; a little thing could throw a recipe off. When we have a bad batch — it doesn’t happen very often, but occasionally — it was either time or temperature. Those are your two main variables in baking. Either it was not baked at the right temperature or you didn’t mix it long enough, especially when you’re working with eggs, to get the volume. The more you whip them, the more it’ll expand. I can tell just by the color of something, or the shine; you learn to bake by sight as well as following a recipe.
There’s baker’s math. You can double a recipe, you can quadruple a recipe, but once you get much past that, your ratios are going to be off, so you can’t just go, “One pie times a hundred is this much flour,” because the ratios are all off. There’s software and ways to scale it up.
I had to learn a lot just as I went, learn from mistakes. I just figured it out. I learned everything from my corporate career because I would manage big walk events for like 10,000 people, so when you put on a big event, there’s always going to be things that go wrong. I had to learn what to do when plan A doesn’t work out. Between banking and nonprofit, I learned how to manage people, and I learned finances and I learned time management and strategic planning. It’s nice to be able to take all that stuff that I learned and apply it to my own business.
It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done; I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I was raised on a farm and had to do chores and clean horse stalls and I’ve worked full-time my whole life, and owning a business is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But also the most rewarding, too. The minute my eyes open, I’m thinking about business until my eyes close at night. It’s just always in my head. Either new ideas, or problems to solve, or issues, there’s just always something to do. I’m the type to get bored really easily, so I like the constant newness. I wake up in the morning, and I never know what problem there’s going to be to deal with or what exciting thing is going to happen today.
I can enter the shop and people can be like, “Oh my god, this just happened, what do we do?” or be like, “Oh, hey, how are you?” So I never know what it’s going to be when I get here. I spend some time in the shop and then usually there’s always paperwork to do. I never knew how much paperwork was involved, from scheduling to bill paying to marketing to website changes. As a small business, I’m still in charge of all of that so I’m in charge of sales, I’m in charge of financials, I’m in charge of marketing, I’m in charge of social media. I have a head pastry chef and she has three bakers so I don’t have to manage that on a daily basis because she does a great job. We have a great team and they all are self-sufficient and can manage without me being right here. I’m not a micromanager but I still have to oversee: what’s that, what are we doing with that, what’s happening, just keep an eye out. If I’m not directly involved, I’m still kind of semi-aware.
I think the biggest thing for me — and maybe women in general, too — is feelings and emotions don’t mix with business. Tough for women, I think, by our nature. But to be successful in business, you have to do it. And you have to be aggressive in certain times and be assertive and fight for what you want and negotiate and not take no for an answer. I’m the right temperament for entrepreneur. There’s only a few of us that are crazy enough to do it.
Food business is one of the toughest businesses to run, because you’re dealing with a perishable product. Margins are really tight in the food business, so it has to be managed constantly. I always obsess over the numbers and everything’s on my phone so I’m always checking, checking, checking, checking. And California is a tough state to do business in. If you can make it here in California, you can make it anywhere. Because there’s a lot of regulations, there’s a lot of taxes. I probably spend 50% of my day on employee issues: scheduling, or reviews, helping them, guiding them training, them, answering questions. We have 10 employees here… we have a great team. Managing people is its own set of skills. But it’s easy when you like people; I’m a people person and I like interacting with people and I like serving people and I like the hospitality of the restaurant business. I like making people feel good; what’s so fun about owning a pie shop is that it’s happiness. Pie makes people happy and that makes me happy. If I’m having a bad day, all I have to do is come in here and everything’s great: people are happy, they’re eating pie.
This shop has the potential to do, in the next three years, double what it’s doing now. That’s my goal. The plan is to expand over the next ten years; I’d like to have multiple. Our model is a small storefront, so we do all the baking on site. I want each shop to be able to bake their own pies, but we don’t need a lot of seating because it’s not a full café; most of it is to-go. Plus, delivery in the food service is picking up so we’re seeing more and more pies go out as delivery, too. Pies delivered by drone, someday!
I think the world needs more pie. I grew up with a mom that stayed at home, so she made everything from scratch, or from the garden. I feel like there’s a whole generation that grew up without a lot of scratch-baked goods from home. Especially pie. Because most people don’t have the skills or the time... you figure from start to finish it takes about an hour and a half to make one pie. And most people don’t know how to make the crust, which is the hardest thing, which just takes practice. I love bringing pie to Long Beach and to California. It’s good — it’s something that was missing.