060 – Rachel Pennington, The Pie Chest
Pie Work. It’s challenging. Never-ending. When you make the product you sell the work never stops. Thankfully, for Rachel Pennington baking is a passion. As a result, not only has The Pie Chest on the Downtown Mall become a first-stop for lovers of all things pie, it has become a safe space. A welcoming place where folks from all different backgrounds can meet, talk, commiserate, and create an environment of good feeling and fellowship. The kind that used to exist before people were so bent over their smartphones. Here instead of capturing a moment with a photo friendships develop over the shared love of a dessert in pastry crust.
Rachel came to baking entirely by accident. Bored with her current job, she answered an ad on Craig’s List for a baker at The Whiskey Jar. The rest is history. When owner Wilson Richey approached her and suggested, “How about we open a pie shop?” Rachel went for it. With only an idea, a vision, and literally no business plan they spent months in development, getting the proper permits, all the rigamarole you have to go through to get something like this up and running. The result is The Pie Chest which opened on 3/14/15 at 9:26 am (3.1415926).
Lines were out the door that day and they’ve never looked back. Her partner Tina acts as Business Manager and Wilson helped developed the interior design, but all the pies are Rachel’s, who’s become a master baker in only a few short years, developing her pies with a focus on flavor more than recipes. Although the Lemon Chess is Wilson’s grandmother’s, all of Rachel’s concepts come through much trial and error. Working tirelessly, she creates pies full of flavors you can actually taste rather than total bombs of sugar. Her coconut cream is the best I’ve ever had, full of essence and never too sweet. In fact, it made my Best of List for 2016. And the chocolate? It’s one of her most popular and one I order whole. One slice is never enough once you’ve tasted its blend of dark chocolate with a secret ingredient you’ll just have to listen to the episode to discover.
The vibe at The Pie Chest is classic Southern, the types of pies you’d eat with your grandmother. This comfortable atmosphere translates to the decor with homey antique signs and illustrations adorning pale yellow walls reminiscent of Grandma’s kitchen. They have savory pies, the mushroom, leek, and gruyere being a personal favorite. There are even breakfast hand pies, or fried pies, Southern in origin and only now coming back into fashion. If you’ve never had one, you’re missing out. Rachel’s fit the bill with a delightfully flaky crust and unique flavors like goat cheese, sausage, honey and egg. Good for what ails you and a terrific way to start the day.
Rachel uses a commercial kitchen for her baking because when you produce thousands of pies a month, a 700 square food space isn’t enough. She needs that kitchen because The Pie Chest still provides all desserts and breads for The Whiskey Jar, Revolutionary Soup, cookies for Milli Coffee Roasters and even does pie weddings!
How does Rachel deal with bad Yelp reviews which can often result in moments of Imposter Syndrome? It affects all of us, not just food folks and our discussion on this topic is wonderful because all human beings face this stumbling block. We both agree sites like Yelp do more harm than they help. If you have a problem, address it while you’re there! At The Pie Chest, as in so many other establishments, they will bend over backwards to fix it.
We also talk about the tight Cville community a theme popping up so much on this podcast. One person says, “Hey, I’ve got an idea,” then 10 people step forward to offer their thoughts and suggestions. What are her tips for the perfect pie crust? In a small town bursting with new bakeries and restaurants how does Rachel find qualified employees? You’ll just have to listen to find out.
I was thrilled to finally talk with Rachel because her story is so inspiring and she was my earliest podcast supporter, letting me know she listened while baking late at night, offering up her suggestions and encouragement when I was suffering from my own version of Imposter Syndrome. We met in such a unique way. At an event that was a crossroads for the both of us – The Southern Foodways Alliance dinner at The Whiskey Jar in 2013. It was my first visit to a big-name industry conference, attending alone and knowing no one. For Rachel it was her first high-profile dinner where she was responsible for creating a memorable dessert to honor Edna Lewis, the high priestess and pioneer of Southern cuisine. How did she do? Splendidly. Her peach trifle made my “Best of” list that year which gave her the confidence to embark on a career as a baker.
Connections. Community. It’s the reason I started this podcast and hearing that story again in this episode brought tears to my eyes. Without exaggeration, the single greatest moment of my writing and podcasting career to this point. It tells me I’m on the right path.
As is Rachel. One of the missions of The Pie Chest beyond great dessert is to provide a safe, welcoming space to the people of our community. Particularly in this uncertain environment, now more than ever Rachel and Tina want to make sure everyone is welcome. It’s why they hung a safety pin in the window. We talk a lot about what hard choices businesses will need to make going forward. How they will adapt and react should volatile situations arise. It’s a very real concern and something we can no longer ignore. Even in the bubble that is Charlottesville.
This sort of reflection and commitment to creating wonderful moments while eating translates to the environment of the shop where many folks not only stop in for pie but to converse, play board games, and get to know the stranger sitting next to them. Goes without saying more of that kind of shop in this world would be a very good thing. As Rachel says during the interview, “There’s always room.” And she’s not just talking about pie. The Pie Chest is a very special place. Good food, good vibes, good fellowship. The very essence of what a strong community can and should be.
Not only is Rachel an exquisite baker, her writing is amazing. Thoughtful and profound, a result of her spiritual studies and background. One post in particular brought me to tears. Worth your time and attnetion.
SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:
- Scotty Nichols GoFund Me Campaign: My best friend of 30 years, Scotty Nichols, is struggling with Stage 3B anal cancer. And the bills are piling up. One PET Scan costs $14K. He’s had two. Can you please help? No amount is too small. He’s an extraordinary individual and the light of my life. Click on the link to learn the story of our friendship. Then please help. Thank you.
- Polina’s Recovery Fund: Local baker Polina was in a horrible car accident and has loss the use of one hand. Please donate to help expenses to help with her recovery. Charlottesville needs her.
- VA Festival of the Book: Arrives in Charlottesville March 22-26, 2017. Five major cookbook authors will be attendance. And I will be talking with *ALL* of them in future episodes. Click to learn more! Mark your calendars!
- Waitress: My favorite movie about pie. It’s wonderful. Watch. Then watch it again. Andy Griffith’s performance is worth a viewing all by itself! Charming and lovely.
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