When Paula Haney opened her now popular Hoosier Mama Pie Co. in 2009 in Chicago, she admits that some of the early questions from customers took her by surprise. “You’re going to make cupcakes, too?” some asked. No, there would be no cupcakes, even though at the time cupcakes were all the rage.
Haney had the foresight to devote her new bakery to what she loved to bake: pies. It had been a long road to get there, and she was determined to focus all her energies on pie excellence.
“I had struggled with pie crusts for a long time,” admits Haney, who worked her way up in the food business through fine dining (working in pastry at Trio under Shawn McClain and then Grant Achatz). “I experimented with flours, different sweeteners. I read every cookbook I could find. Someone told me early in my career that hard work will always be rewarded.”
Her final recipe came down to all-purpose flour, unsalted butter, a little salt, a little sugar and ice water. “Our little trick is to put in a little vinegar in the water as a little failsafe.” Haney admits she likes lard for flaky pie crusts, as many pie aficionados agree. “In my grand plan, I would offer a choice of butter or lard, but the chance of mixing it up is too high, so I can’t do it.”
Speed is of the essence in the pie production process at Hoosier Mama Pie, which sells anywhere from 35 to 100 large pies per day during the weekdays, not including 6-inch pies. On a pie day at their second shop in Evanston, Illinois, they will sell more than 600 slices of pie in a day. “We’re pretty fast. Everybody here must be able to do 20 crimps an hour,” she says with a smile. “Most can do 40. Sometimes, we set a timer and everybody starts rolling. Everybody here takes great pride in rolling pie dough. I think you have to be emotionally connected to what you do to be successful.”
Having worked under superstar chefs like Achatz helped her understand and appreciate the power of channeling “crazy intensity” for the greater good. “Grant Achatz, in particular, was really good at getting everybody to believe in what’s possible.”
The hoosier in Hoosier Mama Pie comes from Haney’s roots in growing up in Indiana, where she was surrounded by chain restaurants and it “never occurred to me that (baking) could be a career.” Her first baking experience came at a coffeehouse in Bloomington. She went to school at Indiana University where she initially studied to become a political reporter. It was shyness (“I couldn’t talk to strangers”) that led her to pursue a different career path, and ultimately it was her husband Craig who convinced her to open a pie shop after years of working for fine dining restaurants. “My husband said, ‘Why not be a baker? That’s what makes you happy.’”
Once she opened Hoosier Mama Pie, Haney was all in. She quickly learned the importance of documenting everything. She and her staff depend on three metrics: time, visual cues and time “suggestions.”
“You have to use all of your senses to tell if something is done,” says Haney, spoken like a true baker. “You can tell by the sound the pie dough makes in the mixer when it’s done. You’ve only got a few seconds on either side. It’s cool, but it’s terrifying.”