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A sweet slice of homemade success

Salem, N.H. -- Michael Withrow has a theory about every pie in his factory. ''When you make a pie with rhubarb," he says, pointing to an 8-inch strawberry-rhubarb pie, ''you have to think about the pucker. I want my cheeks to get sucked in until they touch."

This particular pie is a sample being sent to Trader Joe's, who started selling Withrow's old-fashioned apple pie in May. His company, the Pie Guy, heard from Trader Joe's buyers that the dessert was a ''home run." Now they want more varieties.

The Pie Guy is a four-year-old endeavor started by Withrow and his wife, Lisa, after Michael was let go from a job as director of operations at a local hotel chain here. When the couple discovered a struggling little bakery, with a catchy name and a loyal clientele, for sale in Plymouth, N.H., they bought it and changed the recipes. Last year they moved the company to a 7,800 foot manufacturing plant,where 30 employees help them churn out more than 15,000 pies weekly, in more than a dozen varieties. The preservative-free fresh pies include wild blueberry, very berry, pecan, and strawberry cream.

As Michael Withrow weaves a lattice top of dough over the rosy combination of berries and rhubarb, he explains what his little company set out to do. ''We're trying to make commercial pies that are as good as what you would make at home from scratch," he says. ''I think we're doing it."

While the bakers are working, hip-hop music is blasting and the bakery bustles with cheerfulness. One young guy tosses apples with sugar, cinnamon, and lemon juice. A college girl, home on summer vacation, runs dough through a sheeter, then cuts it into circles and hands it across the table to an older woman who drapes it over apples heaped in a crust. Crates of bananas, big blocks of shortening, plastic tubs of apples, and five-gallon buckets of homemade pudding are stacked ready for their pies. It's quite warm near the ovens, which are giant walk-in rooms where the pies bake, spinning on racks just like they would in a countertop display case at the local diner.

Lisa Withrow works on graphics and marketing. She's the creative end of the business. Michael Withrow is everywhere at once. He stops to pull a blueberry pie off a cooling rack and press on the lattice top until juice runs over the sides. ''We're looking for this kind of bubble-over," he says, referring to the spill-over effect. ''It's what makes a pie look homemade. I teach everybody to overfill with the fruit and then when they're baking to ask themselves whether the pie can handle a couple more minutes in the oven."

Cool pies are packed in black plastic boxes with clear tops affixed with the company label and shipped to supermarkets within 16 hours. ''My 7-year-old daughter can pronounce everything that we put in our pies," says Withrow. ''We whip fresh cream in the mixer, make pudding from scratch, melt chocolate, chop bananas, and weave the lattice tops by hand. Fresh apples are delivered every week from an orchard in New Hampshire. The milk and eggs all come from local farms."

Good ingredients and lots of handiwork mean that the pies don't come cheap. Typically, a 9-inch round sells for about $11.99, 6-inch for $5.99, and 3-inch for $1.99. ''I know they're expensive," says Withrow. ''Some of our competitors are selling 9-inch pies for $3.99. The thing is, everywhere that we sell our pies, they're not only the most expensive but also the best sellers."

Pies are baked Monday through Thursday, so most of the crew gets a three-day weekend. ''The schedule works for our staff and it works for our family," says Withrow. ''We know that if we try to grow too fast, the product will suffer and we'll run ourselves ragged. Right now this place is only operating at 40 percent capacity. We could easily be twice as big and twice as busy if we didn't care about our customers, our employees, and our kids."

The Withrows are considering franchising in a couple of years, adding a new line of fruit crisps, and giving in to more automation. ''We're going to keep innovating and working on getting people to think of pie as a dessert instead of something that you just eat on special occasions," he says. ''Pie should be a part of everyday life. It makes people happy."

As for the spare tire factor, Withrow has tackled that, too. ''You know, you can eat what you want, as long as you do it in moderation and keep busy," he says. ''This month I lost 16 pounds practicing Tae Kwon Do and doing Weight Watchers. But I still ate pie every day."

The Pie Guy pies are at the Butcher Boy Market, 1077 Osgood St., North Andover, 978-688-1511; Shaw's; Stop & Shop; Wild Oats; and Whole Foods Markets, or go to www.pieguy.com.

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