By Dorothy Hernandez, Foodable Contributor
Black pepper grapefruit meringue. Rhubarb rosemary streusel. Salted maple. These aren’t your typical pie flavors, but then again Sister Pie in Detroit is no ordinary bakery.
Owner Lisa Ludwinski was living in Brooklyn and working at Momofuku Milk Bar when she decided to go for David Chang’s scholarship program, which offered funding for externships around the country. But instead of jetting off for glamorous parts unknown, Ludwinski, a theater major in college, knew she wanted to return home to Michigan to learn the art of bread making.
She started off small on Thanksgiving 2012 – prime pie time – baking at her parents’ home in Milford, Mich., and doing everything herself. After a couple of years; a successful campaign to win the coveted Comerica Hatch Detroit contest, a program that gives $50,000 to fledgling independent businesses; a 24-hour dance marathon; and thousands of fans on social media, she is now the owner of the much lauded Sister Pie bakery in the hot neighborhood of West Village in Detroit. The bakery’s bread and butter is seasonally driven pies and cookies, which are the products of reinterpreting classic recipes while using quality, unique ingredients. Each pie’s filling is made at the peak of Michigan’s growing season, ensuring optimal flavors.
The inspiration behind those creative combinations is her “eternally growling stomach,” she says. “I think I’m successful in the kitchen (and in my business) because I’m curious and interested in trying out anything and everything. Then I try to be inspired with what I’ve got in front of me - most of our recipe ideas come from restricting ourselves to what we’ve got in the pantry or the fridge, and definitely by what’s in season. I’m a big believer that the best ideas, art, food, whatever, come from when you’ve got structure and boundaries and you need to navigate them creatively.”
One aspect of the business that Ludwinski learned how to navigate creatively was social media. “My whole concept for building the Sister Pie business from scratch was that I wanted to share everything with my supporters. I believe that transparency can be a really powerful tool in business, and social media is just the perfect way to execute that. So we dance in the kitchen, we post every step of the pie-making process, we feature our favorite puppies, the list goes on.”
These days she is focusing a lot on empowering employees. “I'm trying to spend a little less time in the kitchen and a little more time working on growing the business. So that requires that I let go a little bit, and allow them to learn and make mistakes. It’s all part of the process, and the sooner I trust them the sooner they’ll be running the shop with confidence and pride. Just like with our transparency on social media, I try to share as much as I can with the employees. That includes the recipes we’re working on, our future goals, our sales, etc.”
Another thing she’s shared with the Sister Pie team is the dance break, which has become a key part of their brand. “We always like to jam out in the kitchen, and when I really like a song or feel the need to move, I am unstoppable. One day I was doing a funny dance to ‘Hustlin’ ’ by Rick Ross and we thought filming it just for fun. Our followers were pretty into it and so we kept it going,” she says.
These dance breaks became such a huge hit among fans that when it came to coming up with a creative way to approach crowdfunding, Ludwinski decided to do a 24-hour dancebreak-athon. “We weren't convinced that any old crowdfunding effort would be good enough, or a sure thing. Also our timeline for raising the money was pretty short so we knew we needed to do something that would be an attention-grabber. Plus I love to challenge myself to ridiculous stuff, and I love to dance. It all felt very natural.”
Even though they’ve enjoyed success in a relatively short period of time, there have been roadblocks along the way. One of those challenges was working out of a shared commercial kitchen space; they were starting to grow too quickly and didn’t have enough space or hours to meet demand.
“Looking back on it, it was good to have that limit placed on us because it allowed me to really spend time focusing on the future, and make big decisions with care and thought,” she says. “And even now we've got a big kitchen and more storage (and all the time in the world, potentially) but we still sell out of stuff and are always striving to find the best balance of production numbers. I think it'll be a constant challenge, but having the demand is certainly not a bad thing. How we continue to deal with it is up to us, and will be a work in progress.”
What’s next for Ludwinksi, who was named one of Eater’s Young Guns this year?
“I'd love to write a cookbook, get our pie class series going, and work on getting our product into more stores, coffee shops, and restaurants all over the region. I'm not really thinking about more locations at this point. I want to stay solo for awhile and really make this place as awesome, functional, and successful as it can be - for everyone involved.”