Steve Cox and Avis Renshaw know a thing or two about business failures. Four years ago, the Herdon couple watched their once-successful produce markets, stocked with produce from their own farm, disappear, the result of several seasons of drought and a promised government loan that fell through.
Fortunately, Cox and Renshaw also know how to make a good pie. In fact, it was an apple pie that saved the husband and wife team from complete financial ruin, and launched what is now Mom's Apple Pie Company in Herndon.
"We didn't want to go on welfare," recalls Cox of the "nightmare" experience that resulted in a $750,000 bankruptcy and forced the couple "to live like gypsies for a month or two."
In order to make ends meet, Cox and Renshaw tapped a number of contacts for fruit and began baking pies in their home. Using two indoor ovens, and a third on the back porch, they put in 16-hour days to produce up to 300 pies a week for sale at area farm markets. "We knew from the sales of our fresh produce . . . that it would work. There was no one making the real thing," recalls Cox. And the "real thing," according to Cox, are pumpkin pies made with fresh pumpkin, fruit pies flavored with freshly squeezed lemon juice, or mincemeat pies that include deer suet in their filling.
Today, with the assistance of 18 coworkers -- plus a mixer that kneads as much as 700 pounds of dough at a time, and a Rube Goldberg contraption that peels and cores a bushel of apples a minute -- the piemakers now turn out 5,000 pies each week, in as many as 10 to 15 varieties.
The original apple pie remains the alltime favorite, says Cox, though a host of pies (and an aborted attempt to market cookies) has evolved from a stream of consumer appeals: Could they make a peach pie? someone inquired. They could, and did. A pecan pie followed. Three kinds of chess pie arrived soon afterward. A number of fruit pies inevitably found their way into the Mom's repertoire as blueberries and cherries came into season. Later, spinoffs of strawberry-rhubarb and butter pecan apple crunch made their debut. And of course there were seasonal offerings of pumpkin pie and fruitcake, the latter picked up by New York's Bloomingdale's to be sold at Christmas.
Pies that larger commercial piemakers generally avoid -- apricot, plum and raspberry -- are among some of Mom's best, though they may be available only sporadically in the more than 40 Safeway stores and various farmers' markets that carry the Mom's line of products. At the Pie Factory
The air is heavy with the scent of apples, crates of which are stacked near the entrance of the barn-size building that is Mom's pie factory. In all, it is a surprisingly simple operation: Toward the rear of the floor are four long tables, covered with scores of empty pie shells, waiting to be filled with a pound scoop of blueberries each. To one side is a box of rectangular dough globs, made the previous day and awaiting their turn under a hand-operated circular roller. There are but three workers on duty -- one who presses the squares of dough into a pie tin and later sheaths them with dough tops, another who treats each shell to a glaze of egg wash, and a third, Cox, who fills the shells from a big plastic container on wheels. The open-faced pies -- known as "morning pies" to the staff -- have been pulled from the ovens, and the covered fruit pies have yet to be turned into one of two 400-degree furnaces.
Only 34 blueberry pies will be baked today. "We can hardly afford to make too many blueberry pies," says Cox, noting that each pie sells for the same price, regardless of cost to him. "This is apple season, not blueberry season."
Behind the tables are the long ovens with rotating shelves, where 500 pies can be baked at any one time. As they are removed from the oven, the pies are stacked in sturdy plastic crates to cool before being wrapped and labeled. The enticing aromas wafting from the crates don't go unappreciated by the workers -- indeed, the warmth is sufficient to heat the factory throughout winter, says Cox.
Autumn is the busiest time of the year for Mom's -- not only has the vacation crowd returned -- "the higher income group," explains Renshaw, "is the same who can go away" and spend almost $5 on a pie -- but Thanksgiving and Christmas are right around the corner. There will be pumpkins to cut up, and fruitcake to prepare. Soon Mom's will be selling 1,000 pies a day.
Though $4.85 may seem like a hefty price for a pie, Cox and Renshaw are quick to point out the cost of ingredients (the apple pie is just shy of 3 pounds of apples) and the attention lavished on each pie. Says Cox, "We stop if we can't get good apricots or blackberries . . . we stock up on strawberries, for example." Indeed, in his search to find the best strawberries, Cox found them not in the United States, but in Poland, shipped frozen. "Some of the expensive ones from California you almost don't want to eat," lamented the piemaker. And though the pumpkin pie is the least expensive to make in terms of ingredients (despite its pecan crust), the labor involved in carving fresh pumpkin quickly lowers the profit margin.
Its price tag isn't the only distinguishing feature of a Mom's pie. Because the process of creating them involves more human labor than automation, the pies have a look and taste that befit their name. Crusts aren't necessarily picture perfect, and no two pies are apt to look the same, but therein lies much of the appeal. "Between the look of the pies itself and the wrapping, the pies sell," says Cox, who explains that the clear plastic film covering his pies makes for a more marketable item. An experiment with box containers saw sales of the pies take a nose dive; Cox says the only advantage to paper cartons was that the pies could be stacked.
Homey allure doesn't come cheaply; Mom's pies are preservative- and additive-free, a fact that appeals to consumers but shortens the shelf life of the product. Although "90 percent" of the pies made are sold, Mom's takes back those that remain in stores after four days. "It's enough to make you think about using preservatives, but we're not going to," shrugs Cox.
Cox oversees the production end of the piemaking, while Renshaw manages the paper work, makes deliveries and helps out in emergencies. Both take turns watching over their three small children, who spend almost as much time at the plant -- or on the road, depending on which parent is babysitting -- as their parents. This is clearly a family operation.
It's also a firm with high hopes: Cox is talking about adding commissaries to his growing list of clients, and he envisions a production line capable of producing 50,000 pies a week within two years. Indeed, newly purchased machinery sits next door, waiting to be installed. The dream is a far cry from the "smoky mess" that was the original kitchen-and-porch operation.
Yet Cox is in no rush to expand before he can assure his customers a reliable pie, fruitcake or bread (Mom's also sells a wonderfully homey sunflower crunch loaf). "The ingredients and how you mix them are the most important," notes the piemaker, kneeling over a washtub-size kettle of raspberries, which, like all of Mom's fillings, is mixed by hand. And though the dough is prepared with the help of a giant mixer, its two metal blades imitating the motions of hands, someone stands watch over the stuff to insure consistency. "A few extra strokes will render a cracker crust," notes Cox, who claims "our dough is as good as anyone can make at home." The Fruitcake Connection
Ironically, it was a piece of fruitcake, not pie, that brought Mom's to the attention of Bloomingdale's buyers.
And it was over dinner in New York that Washington businesswoman Adrienne Arsht was confronted with a slice of his fruitcake from Bloomingdale's executive vice president Lester Gribetz. "I can find better," insisted Arsht, whose palate was requisitioned to do just that.
Arsht took up the challenge and combed area markets for the best fruitcake. What she discovered, three weeks and "ten pounds later," was not the most expensive confection in the area, but the least costly of anything she tasted. It happened to be a Mom's sample.
Arsht reported her finding back to Gribetz and called "Mom" (aka Renshaw) to make arrangements for a shipment of fruitcake to be dispatched to the Big Apple. So enraptured was Arsht with the struggling couple and their project that she agreed to set them up as a corporation, retaining 20 percent of the stock, and assist them in their move to an industrial park site, Mom's present location.
If the pie sells itself, as its makers suggest (and sales indicate), Arsht sees to it that the pies stay in the limelight. Known as "the pie lady" among her friends, she's a walking factory outlet, regularly doling out pies to her friends and serving them at functions both private and public. Last Christmas, at a pre-performance gala celebrating the premiere of "Romeo and Juliet" by the American Ballet Theatre, of which Arscht is a board member, departing guests were offered, in true Italian style, pies of almond amaretto chess baked by Mom's. It's All in the Name
Renshaw, who met her husband while working for Cox's farm market, jokes that she married the psychology major cum farmer cum piemaker because it was "the quickest way to the top." And Cox simply says he took up farming because he "was never too anxious to work 9 to 5."
Instead, they put in a lot of 12-hour days.
And what about the piemakers' logo? After a client, the owner of the Reston farmers' market, demanded Renshaw give her anonymous pies a name, Renshaw grasped for the obvious. Expecting her second child, she simply named the pies after herself: Mom's.