A Closely Held Recipe for Success

Owner Neelam Henderson rings up five pies for Gladys Ibeh, left, and Molly Kingsley at Hill High Country Store in Round Hill.
Owner Neelam Henderson rings up five pies for Gladys Ibeh, left, and Molly Kingsley at Hill High Country Store in Round Hill. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 23, 2006

Shortly before Kris Lincicome was about to return home from a few last-minute Thanksgiving errands yesterday, her 87-year-old mother issued a warning: Come home with pie from the Hill High Country Store -- or else.

"She's only 4-11, but she's tough," Lincicome said. "She gets real set in her ways about Hill High pies."

So, apparently, do a lot of other people. After 50 years in business, the low-slung white brick building with the battered covered red wagon out front might look a little crusty on the outside. But it's what's inside the little shop in western Loudoun County that counts for thousands of pie lovers who have for generations made a trip there an annual holiday ritual. A tiny slice of what remains of rural Virginia in what is one of the most rapidly suburbanizing counties in the country, Hill High, regulars say, is what Thanksgiving is all about.

"We love these pies. This is family and tradition here," said Lincicome, 56. "Hill High is special to this area."

The pies, which sell for $9 to $14, are so special that some customers drove for more than an hour yesterday to pick them up. As hundreds trooped past shelves of country bric-a-brac and lined up for their orders, Cindy Bamford, a store worker, and her three daughters hustled to keep up.

"I can't make them fast enough," Bamford said as she cast a worried look at a fast-disappearing stack of boxed apple pies.

If, as Jane Austen said, good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness, then Hill High may possess the keys to the manor in the Washington area. The light and flakey crusts aren't the half of it. The apples tucked inside the golden pie shells are so succulent they seem to scream Eden. As for the pumpkin pie -- a single slice would make even the most puritan of Pilgrims feel sinful.

With its shelves stacked high with pies, jars of apple butter and local Virginia wines, Hill High has long been the secret weapon of diplomats, dignitaries and desperately rushed holiday hosts. Late last week, a State Department employee picked up 36 pies slated for delivery as holiday gifts to embassies around the District, Hill High's owners said.

Even diplomats have their favorites: Sweet potato pie is big at the Bulgarian Embassy, and chocolate cream pie is a must-have at the Embassy of Kazakhstan. During Thanksgiving week the store is usually mobbed with loyal customers, including on occasion, store owners say, former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright.

By Monday, customers had pre-ordered 3,200 pies, and the store expected to sell at least 3,000 more to walk-ins, said one owner, Neelam Henderson.

"You can go to the Harris Teeter. You can go here, and you can go there. But when you come here, there's history," she said.

With the scent of fresh-baked apples hanging heavily in the air, customers can just imagine the scene in the kitchen: Mom, wearing a flour-covered, red-gingham apron, rolling out ingredients. Dough hitting the counter. Flour poofing into the air. Freshly diced apples being expertly laid in rows. One pie after homemade pie.

Except it's really like this: A bunch of factory-frozen pies are dropped off outside the back door, and then workers, including a brawny, bearded guy with tattoos, stick them in the oven.

So where do the pies actually come from?

"We get them from four or five different vendors," said David Heimburger, another owner.

One of them is Sara Lee.

Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee.

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