Pie is much more than just a type of pastry one can choose to eat. For Shelly Cross, co-owner of Humble Pies in Madison, WI, pie symbolizes childhood memories, family traditions, and an emotional experience. Along with fellow co-owner and sister Jill, they continually put the costumer first by recreating the Southern style pastries they grew up on.. With each story she tells her smile glows that much brighter.
My sister and I use to travel with our father, to visit our relatives—out kinda in the country from where we lived in the city of Little Rock, Arkansas. We would always stop out there, to try pie at different places. Sometimes we would even go an hour out of the way so we could eat pie at a place we heard was good. That is my earliest memory of really being interested in pie. I was probably around ten or eleven years old.
I have been helping my grandmother for so long I can’t remember the first time I baked. My mother on the other hand would not keep sweets in the house. So if we wanted something as a sweet we would have to bake it while she was out of the house. So when she worked we would come home after school and we would sneak and bake. Probably cake was the first thing: chocolate cake. And we realized after a few times that she wouldn’t be mad for very long. We weren’t suppose to be cooking when she wasn’t home, but she wouldn’t stay mad for very long if it was good.
I had never thought about opening a bakery. I have had my own businesses before. I had done some stuff with antiques and linens and things like that. I had just gotten a divorce and my sister and I were looking at something we could do together. Neither one of us have culinary experience, but we were talking about it over the phone while I was still in Georgia. Whatever I ended up doing for a living I wanted to be by my sister. Baking is something that we enjoy so much we thought it would be a great idea if we could make it work. Once I moved here that’s when it really became more real. So we started going around to other bakeries and restaurants trying their pies. I think that’s when we first felt—after we had gone to every place we could find—it was like our pies are really different than anything we have had here. We just thought people would really like it. It was thrilling to realize you know we are not just talking about this–we can actually do it.
We’ve been here for almost three years. But before that we baked to order. We worked out of other kitchens. We rented space from other bakeries. At one point we were baking, my sister and I, just on one table and we would stand across from one another and we would just pile stuff in stacks in order to do everything. But it was fun—I mean I can’t really complain about it. When we moved into this building, we were actually overwhelmed by how much business we got. We still have people come in three times a week just to support us. I don’t think they really need that much pie, but people come in and get stuff for their office or to send gifts just so people know about us. The neighborhood has been really supportive of us. I don’t know if we would have started somewhere else we would have been successful. They’ve been great to us. We love it here.
Since we have opened the retail bakery, we have continued to grow steadily with time. It’s a child. You feel like you have to come in and take care of it. It’s your thing. People are counting on you. It’s the sense of responsibility to the business and to your costumers. Even if I am tired once I get here, its really fun. It’s fun to bake. I love working with the other employees.
One thing that I try to do is let our employees express themselves through their baking. So if they want to do a different kind of… [looks off and points at the case] I mean those pumpkin pies may have a different topping every day of the week. But if someone is inspired to do something different, then that is what this is all about. We are baking more than just a pumpkin pie. We also don’t like to hire people who have done a lot of baking in another commercial bakery because a lot of what we do is not the way they would do it in a commercial bakery. It’s the way you would do it in your home. We think that’s what gives us a better product. Our main criteria is someone who loves to bake—and that they be enthusiastic about giving someone a great product.
Baking is relaxing in a way, but it’s also the idea that someone is going to be really pleased with what you make. Its going to bring someone happiness that’s what I think about a lot when I am baking. That is really important to us. A wedding that we did early on, probably about our third wedding—the bride kept ordering more and more pies and she was all ready doing all different kinds of pies all different shapes, sizes, and different flavors. And the order just kept getting bigger and bigger so we were talking to her and her fiancé and were like, “wow you must be getting a lot of RSVPs that you were not expecting because you have a lot more pies.” Her fiancé looked at us and said, “no she keeps ordering more pies because she is afraid that there aren’t going to be any left overs!” [Shelly falls back into her chair with a bright smile laughing.] If someone is that excited about your pie that is a great feeling.
Really we do everything ourselves so as it comes up we learn how to do it. Anything that we try that’s new I love. The Pasty have been something I never expected to make. We do a traditional one, but we do a lot things that are pretty far off the tradition. I enjoy putting together those Pasties. They are challenging. None of our pies are a straight traditional recipe. We try to make changes that modernize the flavors and we bake very seasonally so that changes frequently. What we’re seeing from farmers plays a role too. For example, we just got a bunch of pears and we didn’t know what we were going to do with them. But once we got them, tasted them, talked about it with other employees, people started to get ideas and then you add onto those ideas. Sometimes its just you know “I am really craving this, how can we do a pie like that.” It seems like I am always thinking about how something could be a pie. It’s not a chore, its just how your brain works when you are so involved with pie.
I do think our crust is our claim to fame. It’s flakey and buttery. Just the flakiness of the crust is the biggest thing. We do get very busy around Thanksgiving and then of course π Day [Pi day, March 14] everyone gets pies. And that’s actually our busiest day of the year I would say. It is exhausting. We have to do huge quantities. We just do what we can. Pecan pie is pretty popular. Pumpkin around this time of year [September]. In the summer, we do a lot of blueberry. That is very popular. Cherry gallet, which is just a flat crust that we fold over the edges and then we use a sour cherry filling that we make with Door Country Cherries.
Winter we do cream pies that incorporate local dairy and continue to do root vegetables throughout the year in the pasties and quiches. We had some opportunities with the Milk Marketing Board to make pies incorporating some hard cheeses. We did a cheddar almond cream pie that we did not think was going to work. But that is a delicious pie. It does not taste anything like its ingredients. It kinda transforms into something tangy but also creamy. That was very challenging, but the result is we have several really good recipes that we can pull out during the winter that incorporate different kinds of cheeses.
The most rewarding experience is having people come in and say how much they love pie or how much they thought they didn’t like pie and now they realize they do. It was just the pie they had before that wasn’t very good.
We had one costumer, her mother died and for the funeral her mother-in-law sent her one of our pies. We delivered it to her and now she’s become a great regular customer and friend. Just hearing the way that had affected her at a time when she was really having a rough time… The pie had reminded her of her mother and was comforting. It meant a lot to her. You never expect starting a bakery that your pie could mean something so much to somebody.
— Racheal Knoke