What It’s Like to Run a Pie Shop the Weekend Before Thanksgiving (During a Pandemic!)
Bakers across the country are getting warmed up for the Thanksgiving pie sprint: riffling through cookbooks, clearing freezer space, buying up butter. But for professional pie bakers, this weekend is the last mile of a marathon that started months ago. How do you bake hundreds of pies? Where do you put them all? What is it like to be a pie baker right now—and I mean 2020 right now, when the pandemic has devastated restaurants and small businesses?
I took my questions to get some local answers, right down the street from my home in Columbus, Ohio, to Perrie Wilkof and her pie shop, Dough Mama, which over the past five years has become a beloved fixture in my neighborhood Clintonville. I talked with Perrie about the fierce struggle to care for her staff, keep an independent restaurant afloat, and bake the pies she loves—especially the Thanksgiving pies which, for her and other pro bakers, put cash in the bank for the cold season ahead.
Perrie moved to Columbus with a pastry degree from French Culinary Institute, and with experience from New York spots The Smile, Smith Canteen, and Pies ’n’ Thighs. She wanted to open a restaurant but like others who have left the city in recent years for the more economical Midwest, knew the odds were against her in her native Brooklyn. She had family in Columbus and liked the city, so she moved and worked restaurant jobs for a time to build relationships.
Perrie opened Dough Mama in late 2015 with a menu that included towering cheddar biscuits stacked with avocado and pickled red onion, and a transcendent turkey meatloaf sandwich. I remember the opening clearly because I was just about to have my first daughter, and I was so excited to have a bakery and breakfast spot within strolling distance of my home. I remember walking my newborn down and resting her carseat on the table while digging into a slice of cranberry ginger pear pie, and greens with a dash of Perrie’s famous tamari-rosemary salad dressing.
Perrie’s food is generous and delicious, but she also has created a distinct community-first vibe, with a staff of mostly young women who seem to stick around for years and have a lot of fun with each other (witness this colorful staff photo shoot).
I felt particularly alarmed for Perrie and Dough Mama during the dark early days of restaurant shutdowns and was relieved to see her not only reopen, but actually open a second location late in the summer in Columbus’ German Village neighborhood. It’s hardly been easy, though, and her thoughts and struggle illustrate what thousands of other small restaurant owners are dealing with right now.
So… how many pies are you baking for Thanksgiving this year?
This year we’re going to sell 750 pies! I’m actually really excited because it was my goal — last year we did 500. I really wanted to do a thousand, but 750 seemed realistic and also a LOT. I always get really nervous at the beginning of the season, like we’re not going to sell any. And now I’m actually going to have to cut pre-orders off.
(This is where I interject to tell you that Perrie actually cut off pre-orders at a grand total of eight hundred and two pies.)
I take it this is more than the usual amount of pie.
During non-Thanksgiving time we mostly sell slices of pie. People come in for a treat, but during Thanksgiving it goes from selling a whole pie maybe once or twice a week to selling — well. This many!
And then we start making apple pies and cranberry pear pies, which can also be frozen because they’re fruit (we don’t bake them; they’re frozen unbaked). We just start loading up those freezers until they’re at capacity.
Last year I’m not sure how I did it — I basically did it alone. Like, I don’t even remember. And then this year has taken it to a different stratosphere because we’re just totally maxed out of space. We actually took a hundred pies to a synagogue [to store] just because we had to.
The staff is awesome. I tell people all year: get ready for Thanksgiving. Don’t even think about taking time off. [laughs] Don’t think about short hours. They’re ready. And it’s fun. We have fun.
Is Thanksgiving significant for your restaurants’ bottom line?
Oh yeah. We rely on it all year. Usually early spring and early fall are really good for us. This year obviously we did not see that spike at either of those times. So especially this year I was like, oh this has to be good, or we’re in trouble. And luckily it is going well.
I also know what to expect: it’s really intense, and really stressful, but it will be worth it because it will mean we can kind of chill through the winter, which is always really hard. January, February are dead. It gets us through that time.
What got you started on pie?
What I love about pie is that it’s like a sculpture. I used to do really elaborate crusts; I would braid them and do crazy lattices when I had time to do that. It was like making a beautiful sculpture — and then destroying it [laughs].
You can put anything in a pie. Whatever I have eaten in my life, can go in a pie. You can put a steak in a pie and it’s going to be good.
Do you have a favorite pie?
My favorite pie that we make is the banana cream pie. I also love our pumpkin pie; I love all the steps in that. It’s actually half sweet potato. I love to puree that and the textures and all the spices. I’m actually not a big sweets person though. I’m more of a savory person; I eat our biscuits all the time.
What is like to open a shop? It feels like a mountain to scale.
I’ll be really honest about it. It was really hard. So many parts of it are hard if you’re not a business person. I don’t come from any kind of business background. I really was not ready to manage people. Me and my mom completely renovated the Clintonville location — It was a hair salon! Looking back on it now I can’t believe I had the — I don’t know what the word would be — endurance? I wasn’t prepared for it.
And I wasn’t prepared for how busy it was at the beginning. Like, oh probably no one will come. You think it’s just this tiny little thing. And then you’re slammed and you run out of everything and every mistake feels like a disaster. I mean, I’m a sensitive person. The first time you get a negative Yelp review, you have no idea what to do with it. It just takes a lot of belief in what you do, and a lot of support from other people. We’ve been really lucky over the years. Our community has really supported us.
You talk so much about management and your crew; it seems very central to your idea of owning a business.
I probably think about my crew more than I think about any other aspect of my business.
I have learned so much, and I think changed a lot over the years. I used to take things really hard with my staff. People do leave you a lot and you can’t take that personally. It’s not a forever job. I just think that a lot of employees think that their bosses don’t care about them, and then they don’t care. I do care a lot about each person and I try to remember they’re people and they’re going through a lot of things. I can be a support to them. [Laughs] I also used to have no boundaries — and was just their therapist, and I’ve also realized that doesn’t work either.
We’re a community in there and we’re a family. Even if somebody is only around for a short amount of time, why wouldn’t I do everything I can to make them happy with their job?
What does it mean concretely for you to take care of your staff?
We pay pretty well, and I try to give raises whenever we’re doing well.
What was it like during the early pandemic and Ohio’s mandatory shutdown?
That was one of the most scary, heartbreaking days that I’ve experienced since opening. My staff saw me in a really vulnerable state, but it was mostly because I felt so guilty. Even though there was nothing I could do I felt so guilty I couldn’t support them. We did a GoFundMe for the staff because I couldn’t pay anybody when we were closed. I didn’t know what was going to happen to them, because at that point there wasn’t the $600 unemployment payment.
That’s why I reopened really quickly, like as soon as I could. I started working at Dough Mama doing preorders for the weekend. I did that because I wanted to start hiring people back.
I think we were closed for about a month, month and a half. We didn’t reopen fully until around June. It was around Black Lives Matter. We shut down again when the protests started.
You were open and then shut down again?
Yeah, we shut down again after about two weeks of being open, to help where we could, and to attend the protests.
What was in your mind at that time, as a politically vocal small business owner? You had just reopened and things were probably feeling fragile but you really threw yourself in.
I am very community oriented; that’s my thing. I love it so much. I just felt like I had a moral obligation. As a business owner I felt even more obligated to be vocal. I was actually really surprised by a lot of business owners’ response, or non-response.
I was like, everybody has to take a stand! I was probably a little too self-righteous about it [laughs] but I was questioning myself a lot about how I run my business, and thinking about the privilege I have and have always had and why I am where I am. I felt, you know, I benefited a lot from that privilege. So just to be silent or neutral would be taking advantage of that privilege even more. I was like, I can’t do that. I knew that it could affect the business. But I didn’t care. I wanted people to feel safe and better about the world.
So I have to follow my conscience. And we did shut down for a week to help make these kits for the protestors downtown.
What was in the kits?
Saline solution, goggles, medical supplies, food and Gatorade and water. Sunscreen. You know, just things people really needed. Being down there there were a lot of people who did not have those things and they were getting really messed up. I also got to peek into the real organizers of the whole thing, and it was incredible. I was honored to be a part of it, to be honest.
What has been the hardest thing about being a business owner during the pandemic?
Covid has created this issue where it’s like every man for himself, which I think is horrible because you want to work with somebody on your block but you’re in such extreme competition with them right now, which is not the mentality you ever want to have.
I experienced that when I was waiting for the loan [to open my second location]. Banks were completely overloaded with PPP loan applications. I was like, I don’t want to take away time from another small business needing this loan. But my business is on the line, and you don’t want to compromise that. It creates a terrible mindset and it becomes more difficult for people to work together. I’m not saying that people aren’t working together, but it’s just more difficult.
I cannot believe the lack of assistance from the government. I’m not shocked, but very disappointed. I think a lot of places are going to have a very hard winter, and I really think a lot of places are going to close.
But there’s not much you can do. We did have someone test positive for COVID at German Village, and it was like OK: all hands on deck. Everybody get tested today. We’ll figure it out. But everybody has to be safe. That’s the number one priority.
How can people be supporting people and small businesses like you?
What’s helped me through this whole time, is not forgetting about other people. Not getting too wrapped up in my own stuff and my own struggles. We just adapt and we’re like, this is life. But we have to remember: this isn’t normal. Don’t let this be normal.
For people patronizing small businesses, don’t forget about them. I know many people aren’t making the same kind of money—but if you are, order food. I always feel awkward saying that because everybody is going through it. But that’s the only way—choosing to buy from a small business. Just eat out as much as you can.
I love what I do so much. I love working with my staff and being around customers and making people’s lives a little more joyful. But you know: It’s a really, really hard industry. And especially being a young woman, it’s intense. I think if someone is a young woman who wants to do it, go for it and know that you are strong and powerful and never forget that. You will forget it but just remind yourself.
And also, it can be really fun. Just don’t take it so seriously. It’s food, and it’s a business. But it’s not like, brain surgery. It’s about joy. That’s what eating is about. If you’re cooking for joy, have joy.
Thank you Perrie! Happy Thanksgiving. I can hardly wait to eat your pies next week. And to our readers: if you’ve not yet supported a local business this Thanksgiving season, if you’re able: please do! They’re so much of what make our neighborhoods feel like communities. And if you’re in or near Columbus do stop by Dough Mama — not just at Thanksgiving but all year long. Follow Perrie and Dough Mama on Instagram.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families.We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.