Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Reality of Running a Pie Stand

One of my guest pie bakers, Marcia Mermelstein
(left), was an whiz at rolling dough. I just
wish she  could have stayed all summer!
Today was my last day of pie baking for the summer. By "pie baking" I mean mass production of pies for the Pitchfork Pie Stand. Running a humble little weekend pie stand in rural SE Iowa may seem like a peaceful, idyllic way to spend the hot season, but -- I hate to break it to you -- there is nothing relaxing or vacation-like about making 60 pies a weekend all summer long.

I've had numerous people ask me for advice on how to start a pie stand or pie shop or pie enterprise of some kind. "You've simplified your life and are making a living doing what you love," they all surmise. "How can I quit my job and start a pie stand?"

I promised to answer this in a blog post months ago. With all those (#&*%!) pies to make, however, I haven't had time to write. But I have been thinking about how to answer, what advice to give.

Yes, I've simplified my life. I've pared down my life to the basics, I rent a $250-a-month house miles from "civilization" (which I interpret as anyplace deemed big enough to have a Starbucks), and I don't have the typical workaday stress of commuting in traffic and navigating office politics. And while I love making pie, running a pie business is still, well, running a business. It comes with all the risks, expenses, hard work and headaches that any entrepreneurial endeavor entails.

Want to open a pie stand? All I can do is, based on my experience, give you a little heads up on what to expect.
My pie-making assistant, Dakota McElderry,
was a godsend this summer.

You will be....
  1. on your hands and knees scrubbing your kitchen floor more often than you ever dreamed
  2. tired and cranky
  3. pulled in way too many directions all at once, simultaneously trying to fold bakery boxes, get pies out of the oven, wait on customers, peel apples, get more dough made, answer the phone, keep tourists from sneaking past your "Private Residence" sign, and more, only to find yourself...that's right, see point above
  4. driving to the store for pie ingredients
  5. driving to the store for pie ingredients
  6. driving to the store for pie ingredients
  7. running out of ingredients and having to drive back to the store again (oh, and the nearest store is 20 miles away)
  8. Aldi got a lot of business from me this summer.
    I regularly bought out the entire fruit section.
  9. frustrated that you can't make enough pies to satisfy the demands of the customers
  10. frustrated that there aren't enough customers to buy all those extra pies you made
  11. fantasizing about how you can renovate your kitchen to get more (much-needed) counter space
  12. swearing as jars, bottles, pints of berries and blocks of butter fall out of your refrigerator as you fight to make space for pie dough made in bulk
  13. needing days off in between marathon baking sessions to let your hands and arms heal from the paring knife gashes and the oven burns
  14. surprised at how fast the week goes and how, even though you scaled your pie stand hours back to just Saturday and Sunday, you really only get one day off a week, and that one day is used to catch up on emails and update your pie stand website
  15. putting every cent you make on pies back into the business (for groceries and for gas for all those trips to the store, for bakery boxes, pie tins, paper plates, plastic forks, napkins, business cards, signage, etc.), while simultaneously dipping into your savings account for the rest of your living expenses (because, life, no matter where you live, is expensive)
  16. wishing you had a job in a cubicle where you could sit in front of a computer and drink coffee (you will never actually be able to finish a cup of coffee while running a pie stand as your hands are constantly busy doing something else)
The very last apple pies of the summer ready to
go in the oven. Do I look tired and cranky, or what!
If it appears I'm trying to discourage anyone from opening a pie stand, you are wrong. Very wrong. My advice -- be it a pie stand, writing a novel, getting a dog, going sky diving or leaving a loveless marriage -- is that if you dream of something then just bloody well do it. Don't let it take a tragedy (like the sudden death of your 43-year-old husband) to shake you out of your stupor.

Because not only is life short, number 16 is this:

16. On closing day, you will already be thinking about next year and what improvements you're going to make: hire extra help, ask your landlord for a bigger refrigerator, put a table on the back porch for extra counter space. And even though on this last sweltering day of summer when you're feeling tired and burned out, you still need to scrub your kitchen floor, scrape the flour out of the cupboard handles, and do your umpteenth load of laundry (of aprons and hand towels and overalls), you will not only be thinking about next year's pie stand, you will be looking forward to it.

**Thank you to all our patrons for making the Pitchfork Pie Stand at the American Gothic House a success. Success is not measured in money, mind you, but in the reward of meeting some wonderful, interesting, NICE people from all over the U.S. and from as far away as China, Singapore, Australia, Europe and beyond. You made all that scrubbing, shopping and sweating worth it!