Alongside apple, blueberry, pumpkin, and other classics, you can find decadent creations such as chocolate–peanut butter in an Oreo crust.Photo Credit : Monica Donovan
To get to Underhill, Vermont, which sits a bit north and west of Stowe, you hop off I-89 in Richmond and drive through a series of villages that could be mistaken for one large rural township were it not for the white steepled churches and general stores marking their unique spiritual and commercial centers.
Underhill is the home of Richard Phillips, the merchant mariner whose 2009 encounter with Somali pirates inspired the Tom Hanks film Captain Phillips, but if you’re ranking on popular appeal, that’s only the town’s second-greatest claim to fame. The first can be found just off the main drag in a modest yellow farmhouse with a red sandwich board reading “Pie Today.”
This is Poorhouse Pies, so named because in its early days that’s where Jamie and Paula Eisenberg figured this venture would land them. They operate entirely on the honor system: You help yourself to a pie and drop the money into a box. And, barring emergencies or extended vacations, there really is pie every day, a rotating menu of fruit and cream pies in flavors such as apple, blueberry streusel, OMG (berries and lemon curd in a shortbread crust), and, around holiday time, “raisin hell” (raisin and cranberry).
The bakery began in 2009 when Jamie, a former New England Culinary Institute instructor, was laid off from a café management position. She found another teaching job at a local nonprofit but decided to start her own business on the side. Her wife, Paula, a professional baker with a full-time job, agreed to make fruit pies while Jamie tackled the chiffons and creams (banana, coconut, chocolate), the inventions (creamsicle), and wholesale cakes and cookies. “We’ve both been in food service our whole lives,” Jamie says. “This wasn’t just a whim.”
The plan was to sell to local markets as well as offer pies for sale at a small shed on their property. They turned their living room into a tidy commercial kitchen and stocked it with refrigerators, cooling racks, flour bins, and a basic electric range (which burned out and was replaced by another, and then another, and then another). If they arrange the pies just so, they can bake 12 at a time.
Out by the front door, they installed an insulated pie box made by their neighbor, Bob Martelle. It holds a dozen pies, with just enough extra room for the lockbox that functions as the payment system—because this is Vermont, and they’d rather lose a few pies than have to stand behind a cash register. “If someone comes and doesn’t have any checks or cash, I say fine, take the pie and send us a check,” Paula says.
In warm-weather months the sales operation, such as it is, moves to a walk-in shed, which is just large enough for two refrigerators and has soft wood walls on which customers tack up love notes. Took a bike path in rain, one reads. Came from Stowe! In rain! Looking around the space, Jamie points to the gaps in the wood where daylight seeps through. “We might have to go more upscale if it sinks into the ditch,” she muses. A couple of years ago, she and Paula installed a motion-sensitive light on the shed after spotting predawn flashlights on the lawn. “If a pregnant woman needs a pie in the middle of the night, who are we to get in the way?” Paula says.
On holiday weekends, they make doughnuts—about 800 of them in 16 to 20 varieties—which nearly kills them every time. “I get up at 1:30 so I can start rolling out the dough, and we’re still sold out by 9:15,” Paula says. “There’s only so much the two of us can do.”
But it will always be just the two of them. Even after an appearance on PBS nearly doubled sales, allowing them to quit their day jobs, they are certain that what they have is exactly what they want: the cash box, the free rhubarb traded for pie, the predawn visitors. “We’re never gonna get bigger,” Jamie says. “I’ve been in this house for 23 years. Before we started the business, I barely knew my neighbors. Now we know everyone. We’ve become a hub of the community, and that’s what I’ve always wanted.”
Fruit pies,$14; cream pies, $16. For more information, call 802-899-1346 or go to poorhousepies.com.