Savory and Sweet: Nomadic Pies

12/8/2012 7:00 AM
By Anne Harnish Food and Family Features Editor

COATESVILLE, Pa. — There is a nomad in Chester County, Pa., raising chickens and selling pies out of a retrofitted newspaper delivery truck. She is Molly Johnston, aged 24 and already an experienced pie-baker. And, since last May, she is the founder, baker and sole employee of her own company, Nomadic Pies, which sells at a variety of farmers markets and other venues.

She bakes pies each week by the hundreds, made mostly of ingredients she buys from local farmers — as well as eggs from chickens she herself raises and butchers. And she has developed loyal customers clamoring for the double-crusted sweet or savory tasty pies.

Johnston, who previously spent two years working at a well-known pie shop located in Baltimore, Md., understands the pie business and sees many possibilities in being a nomad.

“I have no intention of having a brick-and-mortar establishment,” Johnston said. “Having a food truck means the overhead is way less. ... And, doing it all myself means I don’t need to hire employees.”

Before loading her truck with pies, Johnston does her food prep and baking in a commercial kitchen, four miles from her home, at Highland Farm Dairy in Coatesville, Pa. Highland Farm Dairy is owned by Martha Pisano, an artisan cheese maker who specializes in fresh and aged sheep cheeses. Pisano is also a mentor and friend, often referring to Johnston and her sister, Hannah, as her “farm-daughters.”

Johnston raves about many of the farm-partnerships between local sustainable farmers in her area of Chester County.

“We have this wonderful farming community out here,” she said. “We do labor trades with each other.”

For example, this summer and fall, when Johnston needed to process some of her 160 Label Rouge heritage meat chickens, farmer friends would come over to help her with butchering. Before Thanksgiving, Johnston returned the favor, spending the day helping to process a farmer friend’s turkeys.

Another way she supports her local farm community is by purchasing pie ingredients from them.

“I source as many ingredients locally as I can,” Johnston said.

For her sweet pies, she might use apples, peaches, blackberries, raspberrries, blueberries, Asian pears or mixes of fruits from local orchards or berry growers. Since berry pies are one of her staples, she freezes berries when they’re in season so she can use them later in the year.

Some of the fruits come from nearby Vollmecke Orchards also in Coatesville, Pa., where Molly has also worked. She buys pumpkins, sweet potatoes and other vegetables from local farms and dairy products from Bailys Dairy at Pocopson Meadow Farm in West Chester, Pa.

A recent offering of Nomadic’s holiday pie was stuffed full of apples and cranberries, and one of her current favorites is apple-ginger pie.

“You can put anything into a pie. The possibilities are endless,” said Johnston, whose homemade pies come in two sizes, 5-inch and 9-inch. The crusts are delicate and not too thick.

Her favorite savory pie is another Nomadic Pie staple the steak, mushroom, onion and Gruyere cheese pie. “It’s like a cheesesteak in a pie,” she said.

She’s also got a Hot Rod potato pie; a sausage, tomato and fennel pie; and a spicy chicken cilantro pie, made with chicken from her own flock.

A third product she makes quiche — uses up about 90-100 eggs per week from her 30 or so laying hens. The crusted quiches are typically combinations of fresh vegetables and locally made cheeses.

“The first pie I ever fell in love with was a blackberry-raspberry pie from the cover of a Bon Appetit (magazine),” she said. It happened when she was 11 or 12. The recipe was inside the magazine. “I made lots and lots of blackberry-raspberry pie for a while, then started branching out.”

But she never thought it would become her business. She has a degree in political science from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. She and her high-school-sweetheart-turned-husband, Dan Kaufman, sometimes talked about wanting to open a good food place, but she only knew how to make “good sandwiches and delicious pies.”

When Kaufman’s career required him to spend at least a year working in Baltimore, Md., the couple moved there and Johnston struggled with what to do. She talked about options with her sister, Hannah, who advised her to get a job at a place where she liked the food, to learn how to make it well.

So Johnston approached the owner of a famous Baltimore pie shop, Dangerously Delicious Pies, and asked if he would hire her on. He did, and she spent two years there, learning the business inside and out, even opening a second branch of the shop for him.

“I observed the successes and failures of that shop,” Johnston said recently. “That really helped. It gave me a much more grounded outlook on how I could get started myself. ...I felt so much more confident having done it already.”

When she and her husband relocated to Chester County, she happened to see the newspaper delivery truck for sale. She bought it for under $3,000 and then worked with the county’s health inspector to make sure her truck and pie operation was set up according to regulations, and with the needed equipment.

She is happy with her recent purchase of a new commercial convection oven, a Baker’s Pride, that she bought at the Restaurant Store in Lancaster, Pa., for $2,500. She can bake 75 pies at a time now her old oven could only do 30 small pies per batch.

“It cost only a few hundred dollars less than my truck!” she said.

She guesses her startup costs were in the range of $10,000 to $12,000, and said she sees the potential for her pie business to provide a full-time income.

In May, when she started, she was baking 30 pies. By midsummer Johnston was selling three times that amount and going to four or five farmers markets every week.

“It’s been really good,” she said. “It was a whirlwind spring. ... I once sold out of 95 pies in an hour.”

But she was so busy getting the business up and running that she nearly burned out after 2 months.

“It was exhausting getting up at 5 a.m. after going to bed at 2 a.m.,” she said. “I was trying to do everything myself.”

It was at that point that she hired a friend to help prep ingredients five hours a week.

“It really helped,” she said. And, to regain some balance, with just two winter farmers markets to attend, right now she said she is “...trying to take some time off during slow times (after Thanksgiving and before Christmas).”

But, despite her success, Johnston said farmers markets can be hard to predict and she does come home with unsold pies many days.

Johnston said her husband has been very supportive of her new business and helps when he can. He is an engineer who travels often, but he enjoys number crunching, and has been invaluable in helping her figure out her costs and where to set her pie prices.

The small pies, the majority of her sales, range in price from $4.50 to $8 depending on the ingredients. Large pies are $23.

“ He set up a spreadsheet and included all the costs, including the price of gas for the truck to get to the farmers markets,” Johnston said. Because the truck does not get great mileage, the pies are a little more expensive at the markets further away.

She had a scare on the day before Thanksgiving when her Baker’s Pride refused to work and 70 pies needed to be baked. Kaufman stepped in, figured out the problem, and used some tinfoil to adjust one of the parts. The repairman who showed up later to fix the part admitted it was a good solution, laughed Johnston.

In season, the Nomadic Pies truck can be found at farmers markets in Kennett Square, Coatesville, West Grove, Anselma Mills and sometimes in other locations. Now, during the holiday season, Johnston has more time to takes private pie orders, she said.

For Thanksgiving, she had 87 pie orders and hopes to have more for Christmas and possibly winter weddings. She is also experimenting with selling unbaked frozen pies that customers can bake at home.

She is open to new ventures and recently baked 185 small-pie “favors” for the employees at Dansko, an employee-owned shoe company in nearby West Grove, Pa. As the company celebrated their employee theme, “We’re all part of the pie,” Johnston parked her truck outside and each employee stopped by the truck for a pie. She also hopes to take her pie truck to a Williams-Sonoma artisan’s market in December.

For more information, go to www.nomadicpies.com or call 610-857-7600.


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