All American Pie
Bakers dish up about creating a tasty business
By Jennifer M. Aguilar
Is there any dessert that rides that fine line between total decadence and old-timey comfort food quite like the humble pie? Sure, cake has long been the go-to treat for birthdays, weddings, retirements and baby showers, but that may be part of what has made pie seem so special. In an age when almost any craving can be satisfied at a drive thru window, day or night, it’s no wonder that many people ache for the kind of simplicity once enjoyed weekly with Sunday dinners, the kind Grandma might have completed with a fresh-baked pie, set to cool in her windowsill. Pie is both approachable and aloof, in a way. It’s simple by nature, yet not always easy to come by. Plus, it seems only fitting in the month of July to point out that only pie wears the honor as America’s most patriotic dessert! Fortunately for Collin County residents, there are several places to satisfy one’s sweet tooth, particularly that craving for nostalgia and sweetness, all wrapped up in one delicate, delectable crust.
When asked why she thinks people love pie so much, Tracy Dowd, the owner of Piefalootin based out of Garland, said, “What’s not to love? Most people associate pie with good memories from their youth. Their first taste of pie usually came from someone they loved. It reminds them of their grandma or their mom, family gatherings, special places and happy times… My first memory of pie was in my Grandma Jessie’s kitchen, both eating it and baking it.”
But memory isn’t the only thing that makes pie so special. “Pie is simple, yet complex. It has layers of flavors. Roll out a delicious flaky crust and almost anything you can imagine can be baked into a pie. The possibilities are endless,” Dowd said.
Another unique perk of pie? “Pie is appropriate for every occasion and it always makes people feel better. Place a great pie on the table and, regardless of the situation, you will feel the stress leave the room a little with every slice. Pie is comfort,” she said. That helps explain why Dowd has grown her business largely around filling personal orders for her pies.
Piefalootin’s menu includes an impressive and ever-expanding collection of flavors from which to choose.
From chocolate or cream, cheesecake to classic apple crumble, there are plenty of flavors to fall in love with, and Dowd is regularly adding new flavors to her list.
“I find inspiration everywhere! It might be a cookie or a candy bar, or something else that I see or taste. It may come from reading old cookbooks or a request from a customer. Sometimes I dream about pie and wake up with an idea for something new. Those are the best!” Dowd said. Though she can’t pick just one favorite, she said her most popular are her Blueberry and Strawberry Cheesecake pies, the Banoffee, and the Key Lime, which she said is especially popular in the Texas heat. “Chocolate Cream, Coconut Cream, Cherry Jalapeno and Chocolate Espresso Pecan are always on the favorites list, too,” she said.
Of course, her innovative flavor combinations would be nothing without a dynamite pie crust, and Dowd draws on memories to make hers. “My grandma taught me when I was very young, maybe 6 or 7, how to make pie dough and roll it out into a circle that was never quite as round as hers. She also taught me that it didn’t matter if it wasn’t perfect. She showed me how to pinch the edges and spin the pie to seal it and cut off the excess dough. The first pie I made by myself was an apple cherry combination and I thought it was the best pie in the world!”
Since then, she’s spent years perfecting her techniques, but also growing her passion for pie.
“As an adult, I still loved baking pies. For many years, the Saturday after Thanksgiving was Pie Day at our house. I would bake a variety of 30 to 40 pies the day before, and all day long friends and family would drop by to have a few slices. With practice, I became a little more fearless and started creating my own recipes,” she said. “I especially love baking something unexpected into a pie – a delicious surprise that you discover on the first bite, but you can’t quite put your finger on.”
It’s only natural then, that when Dowd decided it was time to leave the medical field after a more than 20-year career, she turned to pie to pass the time. It was 2013 when she sold her first pie. “I was not enjoying my ‘real job’ anymore, and finally decided I would just go home and make pie,” she said. “I began as a home baker, doing custom order pies, but was limited to fruit and pecan pies under the Cottage Food Law. A couple of years ago, in 2016, I began baking pies for Goodfriend Beer Garden & Burger House in east Dallas using their commissary kitchen.” And since then, her business – like her recipe repertoire – has continued to grow!
“Having access to a commercial kitchen has allowed me to expand my menu to include all those luscious cream pies you see on the Piefalootin website. My pies are still baked to order, but there are so many more choices now!”
The Dowds were no strangers to self-employment; together they have owned an antique tool business for many years. Still, Dowd said opening her own company has been a great adventure. “The best thing is having no one to answer to other than myself and my customers. I have the freedom to be creative with my recipes and always strive to bake the best pie they’ve ever had,” she said. “Happy customers are the best thing ever! My favorite thing to hear is, ‘This is the best pie I have ever tasted in my life!’”
For frequenters of the downtown McKinney square, or Bishop Arts or Deep Ellum in Dallas, Emporium Pies is likely already a familiar name. That’s because the locally based business first opened its doors back in 2012, with its flagship location in Bishop Arts. And it did so precisely because co-founders Mary Gauntt and Megan Wilkes saw a need, or at least a growing desire, for a pie shop with all the nostalgia of grandma’s kitchen plus some modern refinements, like gourmet coffee and WiFi.
Since then, they’ve expanded to three locations, including the McKinney shop which opened in 2013. Yet even as their fan base continues to grow, the founders keep looking to the past for much of their inspiration.
“In addition to being delicious it’s also one of those comforting, nostalgic foods that reminds everyone of grandma and Thanksgiving. It pleases the taste buds and warms the soul…. With those two powers combined it’s hard not to love a good pie,” Gauntt said. She is the mastermind behind the company’s pie recipes, and is also in charge of the kitchen, while Wilkes manages the business and front of the store.
Gauntt had always wanted to open her own bakery, so when she met the business-savvy Wilkes, the two found they made a pretty great team. “I had always dreamed of opening a bakery of my own and right about the time I was graduating college I had a friend introduce me to my now business partner, Megan Wilkes. Megan is a sharp business woman and a talented interior designer, Gauntt said. “She saw the need for pie in the Dallas Market so we met up to talk about starting a business together, and have been working on it ever since.”
Even though owning her own business had long been a dream, Gauntt admits that running it is no piece of cake. “Every day is different and there is always something new to learn… Work is always with you. You don’t ever really go home from work, and at the end of the day it all falls on you,” she said. But, the joy of their customers helps make it all worthwhile.
“We get a lot of folks telling us they didn’t think they liked pies until they came to our shop,” Gauntt said, “…And people also mention that our pies aren’t cloyingly sweet and are well-balanced in flavor, texture and sweetness.”
Like many bakers, Gauntt first started learning the baking ropes from her own mom, as a child. She said her very first memory of pie is of her mom’s peanut butter pie. “My first memory is of eating it, but as I got older I would help her make them. Our Nutty Honey pie is inspired by those peanut butter pies I would make with my mom,” she said. It’s no wonder that the look of Emporium Pies’ shops echoes those same nostalgic vibes; slices are served up on mismatched vintage plates, for instance. To go orders are literally tied up with string, like old-fashioned parcels.
But the founders of Emporium Pies have also managed to make the shop thoroughly modern, complete with a beautifully designed website, where customers can conveniently place orders, and unexpected flavor combinations fit for any self-proclaimed foodie. “My mom taught me to make peanut butter pie, but the rest I taught myself. My mentors were books, videos and lots of trial and error. It’s not the easiest way to learn, but you really get to know your craft when you learn that way,” Gauntt said. From that base knowledge, though, she has let her imagination lead the way in developing new recipes.
“I’m not sure if I find them [ideas] or if they find me, but it happens in various ways. Oftentimes it’s a dessert I’ve had that is not pie that I imagine how to make into a pie, or taking something classic and seeing what I can do to make it better. All in all, anything done well inspires me.”
Of course, it helps that pie is innately so versatile. “Pie can be formed out of whatever you have on hand. You can make a buttery flaky crust or a crumbly graham crust and just fill it with fruit, nuts, cream or whatever can be found in your pantry,” she said.
Emporium Pies has become known for its revolving door of flavors, based largely around what is seasonal, and craveable. That said, there are a few classics available year-round, and of those, Gauntt said it’s the Smooth Operator – a French silk chocolate pie with pretzel crust – and the Lord of the Pies – an apple pie with cinnamon streusel – that remain top sellers. “The others change with the season, but the Snowball (our coconut cream pie) is one people look forward to all year long,” she said.
When asked if there was anything new customers should know about, Gauntt said, “We may have something up our sleeves this summer…you’ll just have to keep a watch on our social media for clues!”
Even in this modern day and age, it’s nice to know that some things will never change. Or if they do, they’ll only get better with time. Pie, for instance, is one of those rare things, a reliable classic that just so happens to be completely open to updates. And in that sense, it really does make sense that pie has been chosen as America’s dessert of choice.