Exclusive Interview:The Pie-Tastically Fantastic World of Self-Made Businesswoman, creator & author of Detroit’s Sister Pie Powerhouse, LISA LUDWINSKI!
I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I don’t like pie’. I know some crazy people who aren’t huge fans of cake. But pie is one of those rare, universally loved foods.
Most people have a favorite pie and if you visit Sister Pie in Detroit, you’ll discover new flavors of pie, cookies and pastries you never knew existed.
You can also discover how creative, finely tuned, and in-sync local communities can become when they’re assembled and provided an outlet, such as the daily magic of Sister Pie.
This story is beyond pies. It delves into the heart of Detroitness, the importance of farms, the power of ideas and the oft unacknowledged tapestry of communities which make the USA a great chunk of the Global Village.
How did Sister Pie start?
Well, Lisa Ludwinski had an idea. She grew that idea with raw drive, talent, a flair for self-marketing and perseverance. The idea eventually sprouted into a business. The business attracted tens of thousands of customers whom became devoted fans and now the business is thriving and has become an undeniable force in the community. This led to Lisa writing one of the coolest cookbooks of all time and achieving international worldwide recognition in the process.
The business and the cookbook are called Sister Pie. The creator & author is Lisa Ludwinski and this is her story.
A TEMPLE OF PIE AND BAKED GOODS
Sister Pie is located on Kercheval Ave @ Parker St in Detroit’s West Village neighborhood, about three miles east of Downtown Detroit.
There is gloriously free street parking and the 950-square foot bakery is housed inside a circa 1925 corner wedge of building shaped like an inverted isosceles trapezoid. It gives Sister Pie a sort of ‘temple of pie and baked goods’ feeling.
Inside are beautifully presented pies with lattice weaves and decorative steam vents and an olfactory bouquet of brain-meltingly good smells.
They offer a range of edible works of art, including pies, cookies, pastries, breakfast and lunch. All those goodies can be enjoyed on-site at the single large family-style farmhouse table in the front of the shop, which is where Lisa and I are sitting right now.
The ambiance is cozy, quirky and inspiring. They also have double-stacked convection ovens here. These bad girls can fit 25 pies at a time, so you can bake up to 50 pies simultaneously!
I’m here visiting with Lisa because Sister Pie is all-around great and as a result, she has become one of Detroit’s de facto ambassadors. Plus, their cookie game is on point too, these are some good cookies!
Her cookbook, ‘Sister Pie: The Recipes and Stories of a Big-Hearted Bakery in Detroit’, clocks in at 256 pages and features over 75 recipes.
It was published in October 2018 by Lorena Jones Books, an imprint of Ten Speed Press, which is a division of Penguin Random House.
The book is an incredibly fun and interactive read, featuring recipes, ingredients, tips, easy to follow instructions, and Lisa’s own unique brand of quirky humor.
What is readily apparent from reading the book is that the Sister Pie powerhouse are fearless experimenters. They are unafraid to experiment with combinations of from-scratch ingredients and modify or replace the recipes as needed.
Lisa herself is a fun blend of silly and business, hilarious and serious, extrovert and introvert, intermingled together like her nontraditional pie ingredients.
“I have a pit bull named Ruby Thursday. She got her name because I liked the name Ruby and I met her on a Thursday. Ruby is my girl!”
“One of my biggest inspirations over the years have been my parents. They’ve given me probably too much support (laughs) I’m incredibly fortunate. Knowing they had my back allowed me to focus 100% of my time on business development and turn Sister Pie into a successful business.”
“They were so excited when I moved back home from Brooklyn. They gave me a place to stay, helped fund my existence, provided groceries, roof over my head. And growing up, they took their parental duty to the max and made it their mission give my sister Sarah and I good opportunities.”
“My Father Kurt runs the All America Plywood Company at John R & 7 Mile in Detroit. My grandfather started the business in 1967 and my dad took over in the late 1970’s. Growing up, it was a cool experience for me to visit him at the office, see him as a business owner and boss. He’s able to transform stress into creativity, which is very inspirational for me. I always know I can go to him for advice.”
“My mom is amazing. She carted me from dance lessons to play rehearsals and everywhere in between as a kid. We grew up on her cooking, and my Aunt Mimi’s pumpkin pie.”
BIOGRAPHY: LISA LOUISE LUDWINSKI
Born 1984, Lisa Louise Ludwinski, grew up in Milford, Michigan with her sister Sarah. She attended Mercy High School and graduated with a BA in Theatre Arts from Kalamazoo College.
Upon graduation, she moved to Brooklyn, NYC and lived there from 2006-2012. When not filming her hilarious Funny Side Up cooking show and landing acting gigs, she worked as a pastry cook at Momofuku Milk Bar and very briefly at Four and Twenty Blackbirds.
Lisa decided to move back home and grow her new idea for a business. She started Sister Pie in November 2012 at her parent’s house. The orders rolled in fast and in 2013 she enrolled in D:hive Build (now Build Institute) business class, joined FoodLab Detroit and by 2014 transitioned to the Hannan House commercial kitchen space in Midtown Detroit.
Lisa added her first employee, Toledo native Anji Barto and things were cooking as they moved to Detroit’s West Village, snapped up several wholesale accounts and won $50,000 from the Hatch Detroit small business contest.
To raise money for a brick-and-mortar shop, Lisa launched an Indiegogo campaign in February 2015. The goal was to raise $25,000. Lisa did a 24 hours dance marathon where she personally danced for 24 hours straight inside Paramita Sound record store. She started 9pm Friday and stopped 9pm Saturday night! The fundraiser was a huge success and they exceeded their goal by $1,000.
Finally, after a few years of grinding hard every single day, Lisa officially opened Sister Pie on April 24th, 2015.
MORE ABOUT LISA
“I’m of Polish and German descent, with some English and Russian thrown in there.”
“I was part of a mime troop in high school (laughs)…it was a weird thing, but fun. I did it for two years and learned skits, choreography, and the challenge of entertaining while being constrained. Without the ability to talk, you learn to be expressive in other ways.”
“Going to Mercy High School was a big experience in my life. I was introduced to a culturally and racially diverse student body, which is something I hadn’t really experienced in Milford. There was an emphasis on exploring and opening up your mind to other people and everyone’s different experiences, which created a strong foundation for my ongoing interest in social justice and human rights.”
“I like dogs, I like to doodle-draw, and going to see interesting films. The Detroit Film Theatre inside the DIA is one of my favorite places in the city. My favorite movie is Hitchcock’s 1954 classic, ‘Rear Window’. I also like being outside and exploring different outdoor challenges and trying new things.
“As the business has grown, I’ve become more introverted. For the past couple decades, I’ve spent a lot of time as a performance-crazed extrovert. I have a wacky sense of humor. In general though, I try to be an empathetic person, try to give with kindness, and definitely have a tendency to over-analyze.”
“One of my favorite authors is Zadie Smith. Her book ‘On Beauty’ is my favorite of hers. Also really enjoy essays by Rebecca Solnit. I listen to a wide variety of music and have always been very into classic soul. My go-to music in general is 80’s New Wave (New Order, Talking Heads, etc).”
SISTER PIE: DRAMATIC CRIMPS & LATTICE WEAVES
The reason Sister Pie sells out early every day is because each person is buying an average of 5 to 10 items. Yes, it’s that good. I ordered $60.00 worth of pie and pastries while here and the only regret I have is that I didn’t bring another $40.00 with me to buy more.
“Sister Pie is run by 15 women, including myself. Everyone here has a lot of freedom, ownership, responsibilities and the business is now at a place where it can run without me needing to be here constantly.”
“The kitchen here is running 5am-6pm daily. We close for the holidays and take a two week break at the beginning of the year. We bake pies once daily, around 11 am or Noon. They sit overnight and are served the next day because pies need to rest for at least 4 hours.”
“My first employee, Anji Barto has been with us since May 2014. At the time she was doing some graphic design work for Germack. In April 2015, she became a full-timer and she’s been very involved in the growth of Sister Pie. We’ve been through a lot together.”
“Sister Pie is known for our nontraditional flavor combinations. We make these seasonally and there’s definitely something enticing about the unusual flavors. Again, I like a challenge and it’s challenging to pick a single base ingredient and see how you can layer it with other ingredients to make something different and unique.”
“We make our pie dough, the All-Butter Pie Dough, by hand every day communally. We use Plugra butter (high fat French butter) and unbleached all-purpose flour.”
“80% of Sister Pie pies begin with a blind-baked crust (ie: baked without filling). Pie crust is not hard to make, there’s just a lot of steps. You have to be thoughtful and work fast, especially so the butter doesn’t become completely homogeneous with the other ingredients. You want it to burst open when it hits the hot oven. It’s also possible to over-work the pie dough. It’s a hard balance because it takes a lot of muscle to sculpt the dough, roll it to a properly-sized circle and crimp it. I call our crimps ‘dramatic.’”
“I love our Sister Pie-It Forward Program. We have these slips of paper and for $4.24 you can purchase one and put it on our refrigerator. Anyone who comes in can grab it and use it for a free slice of pie.”
“Every now and then we like to dance in the kitchen. It’s a fun way to release energy!”
“One Monday night per month we have Sister Pie Townhall Meetings. These are private, employee-only get-together’s where we sit at the store table and talk, eat and drink. It’s an open forum, a chance to empty the suggestions box and give everyone a chance to speak honestly about whatever’s on their mind.”
“We also offer classes here. They’re put up for sale quarterly. We host classes all year long, conducting maybe 3-4 per month. There are about 8 students per class and we do them here at the bakery. Lindsey teaches the pie dough classes and I teach the hand pie classes.”
“Wedding orders are hugely popular at Sister Pie. Especially during the warmer weather, we’re doing several wedding orders every weekend. If you or someone you know are interested in this, shoot us an email at [email protected]”
“As a business, Sister Pie has a Triple Bottom Line. This is a focus on being mindful of people, planet, and profit in every decision we make.”
WHAT TO TRY AT SISTER PIE?
Sister Pie offers an array of deliciousness. Most of their pies have a 9-inch diameter, except for the mini pies, hand pies and they make special 6-inch pies for the holidays.
Here are some recommendations:
- Salted Maple Pie (“Considered to be our signature flavor, it has classic chess filling with Grade B maple syrup from Imlay City, Michigan”)
- Chocolate Coconut Pie
- Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Cookies
- Apple Sage Gouda Pie
- Sweet Potato, Black Bean & Feta Hand Pie (“If there were a hand pie fan club, this is the hand pie they’d serve at their meetings.”)
- Egg-on-Top Galettes
- Honey Lemon Meringue Pie (“Cloud-like meringue, we use a kitchen torch to toast the meringue.”)
- Rhubarb Rosemary Streusel Pie
- Sister Salads
- From Another Galaxy Brownies
- Sour Cherry Bourbon Pie
- Fennel Snickerdoodle Cookies
- Savory Hand Pies
- Peanut Butter Paprika Cookies
- Toasted Marshmallow Pumpkin Pie
- Sweet Beet Pie
- Spranola (granola, honey, yogurt)
- Blueberry Lemon Thyme Pie
- Brandy Pecan Pie
- They even do Paczki’s for Fat Tuesday! Maple coffee cream paczki, Grapefruit Hibiscus paczki, and the Pieraczki (pierogi-paczki hybrid)
THE IMPORTANCE OF FARMS
The State of Michigan has 10 million acres of farmland and over 50,000 farms.
Farms (and long-haul truckers) are the backbone of America, yet they are continually underrated and under-credited. Businesses like Sister Pie help farms and farmers achieve more recognition of their importance.
“Sister Pie works with dozens of farms and farmers! We try working with farms in Michigan, especially within the city of Detroit.”
“Our offerings are based on seasonality. April to November are the main months for Michigan farmers.”
“We get fresh whipped cream delivered weekly from Guernsey Dairy. We use heavy cream in many of our recipes. It provides a richness and flavor. The fat affects the texture of filling. We whip it up daily for pie, it’s especially good with more tart pies, helps balance the tartness.”
“We get sweet potatoes from Farmer Norm, buckwheat flour from Hampshire Farms, Northern Spy apples from Erwin Orchards and Farmer Joe Jessup in South Haven, etc, the list goes on and on.”
“As a team, Sister Pie even does an apple-picking trip once per year.”
“In the beginning, we started going to Eastern Market in Detroit to see what was available. That in-person interaction deepened many of our relationships with farmers. Now, they will typically deliver directly to us or we will still meet them at Eastern Market and pick it up there.”
LISA ON WRITING HER COOKBOOK
One thing I appreciate is that Lisa made her cookbook fun. Most cookbooks are not fun. They’re usually instructional textbooks devoid of personality.
Lisa’s cookbook is the opposite, laced with idiosyncratic texture and overflowing with humorous asides, which makes it a unique experience, much like visiting Sister Pie. My two favorite lines are: “When you’re not in a pie mood (as if!)” and also “Over the years, the cookie has evolved much like a story in a game of telephone”.
“How the cookbook happened is basically I wrote a book proposal, got some recipe taste-testers together and it took some time, but we eventually compiled over 75 recipes.”
“It was listed by the New York Times as the Best Cookbook of 2018. Since it was published a few months ago in October, we’ve sold around 30,000 cookbooks. Here at the Sister Pie store in Detroit, we’ve sold over 1,000 copies.”
“It’s been a huge hit with home bakers. The Pie Dough recipe, for example, is very accessible. It’s a good opportunity for home bakers to use it and exercise patience. When a recipe tells you to wait, just wait, it will pay off. Please take the proper time to follow the baking rules for best results. I know it’s tough! The part of patiently waiting is an area I still struggle the most with. But it’s worth it.”
“My advice to fellow writers is to keep writing every single day. The whole process of getting the book published took me a full two years.”
“I even took a month off from the bakery to be a full-time writer. That may not seem like a lot, but believe me, taking an entire month off from your business is a huge deal. It’s a big gamble and one I was willing to take because I trusted my employees. During that time, I would write 6-8 hours per day. I worked on it at home, in various Detroit coffee shops and also Up North in the Torch Lake area.”
“EE Berger took the photos and she did an incredible job bringing a fresh, unique perspective to our bakery and baked goods.”
- When visiting Sister Pie, get there when they open.
- Try everything.
- Participate in the Sister Pie-It Forward Program.
- Buy the cookbook. Read it and use it.
- Be sure to check out Sister Pie’s Instagram. You’ll be Insta-hungry.
GET A JOB AT SISTER PIE
“We typically hire about every six months or so. Overall, we have good employee retention. We hire via a sign posted on the door. More than half of our employees live within walking distance and we do tend to hire only Detroit residents.”
Lisa is also a talented artist!
She drew the designs of Crimp Drama and What’s Shaking Sister Pie and also the cookie box labels.
FINAL THOUGHTS (FOR NOW) & UPCOMING DEVELOPMENTS
I give Lisa and her team a lot of credit for everything they’ve been able to do. It’s been a remarkable journey thusfar with many adventures yet to come. It will be interesting to continue following their development as visions of Sister Pie pies and cookies dance in our heads.
And remember that you can pre-order pies 48 hours in advance. They must be placed by 2pm two days in advance of pick-up. This is great for people who live far from the bakery.
One recent develop is that Esto’s Garage (1811 Parker Street, Detroit) will be opening next to Sister Pie. This Mexican-American casual eatery is run by Esteban Castro. I’ve known Esteban since he had a pop-up residency at Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy. His guacamole is off the chain!
Maybe we will get to see a Sister Pie & Esto’s Garage collab at some point? A taco and pie night, perhaps? Maybe with some margaritas, too?
“Currently, we are entering our next phase as a business, and looking at a space we would rent in addition to this place, somewhere in the same general area.”
“We’re looking to grow, get more kitchen space, add more classes, increase our Savory Food Program of sandwiches, soups, salads. Possibly even have some gluten-free pie crust.”
“One recommendation I have to everyone, especially you home bakers, is to start a Baking Club in your neighborhood. Get some friends together, pick a different cook book monthly, each of you make something out of it, then meet at each other’s houses to sample the creations. There are so many great cookbooks out there, but they’re rarely fully explored. This would be a good way to change that.”
CONTACT SISTER PIE
8066 Kercheval Ave
Detroit, MI 48214
Buy the Sister Pie Cookbook here
Lisa’s Youtube channel