The Pie Hole: More Than Just A Trend
“I’ll have a mac and cheese pie and a pocket pie,” he says. That’s right—a pie filled with macaroni and cheese. Bowls are so last year.
Savory and sweet pies with a twist are what The Pie Hole in downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District is all about.
“What we do is we take pie and we give it a little bit of a snap. We change some things,” says Matthew Heffner, a towering, yet not-so-intimidating 35-year-old and the co-owner of The Pie Hole. He’s just “Matty” if you ask him, though.
Heffner was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in New Jersey, where he learned to bake pies alongside his mother, Rebecca Grasley. Grasley is the reigning “Best Pie” award winner of the New Jersey state fair, and has been for a record-breaking seven years.
Heffner has been baking with his mother ever since he could hold a rolling pin; it’s been his dream to open a pie shop with her. Pies remind him of his childhood and holidays spent with his family, he says.
“The reason I like pie is because it’s one of those foods that directly connects you to a memory,” he says. “It’s not like a pizza. If I take a bite of pie, I remember a Thanksgiving or a birthday, or a good report card I got, and that my mom baked a pie for it.”
It’s that sentiment that pushed him to set up shop with his mom and share her award-winning recipes with L.A.
“Some of my fondest memories are rolling flour out with my mom, or rolling dough out…. My mother always wanted to have a pie shop, since I was a kid. That’s why I suggested opening up [The Pie Hole],” Heffner says.
They even use his mother’s and his grandmother’s recipes. The difference, Heffner says, is that they update the recipes to add a bit of edge and to appeal to a wider audience.
In New Jersey, pie shops are a dime a dozen, he explains. Apparently, the state is filled with cutesy cafes that feature doilies and hand-stitched pillows. Opening up another pie place there would have been bad business.
“It had to be in L.A,” he says. “It had to be a little bit trendy. It had to ride the [pie] wave, kind of like the cupcake wave.”
There is a difference between loving Mom’s baking and having the rest of Los Angeles feel the same, though, so Heffner and his mother did a test run. They baked 15 pies for his fiancé’s family to see if anyone else would like them.
Everyone loved the pies, and it was just in time for The Pie Hole to open hot on the heels of what would be a noted trend in restaurants: pie, and the mom and pop shop.
Andrew Freeman, of Andrew Freeman & Co., a San Francisco consultancy that works on marketing for restaurants and hotels across the country, named pie as a top restaurant trend exactly one year before the pie shop opened.
“If I had one trend—one trend—of the year that I could predict, that’s why it’s in the No. 1 position, this would be the trend for pie," he told Nation’s Restaurant News in a webinar. "I think that we’re going to make room for pie shops in the next year.”
And it wasn’t just your grandmother’s lemon meringue or key lime pie that Freeman predicted, either. “This is not just sweet pies, this is savory pies, bite-sized pies. They are even blended into milkshakes,” he said. “I’ll eat pie if I don’t get this one right at the end of the year.”
A few months later, the pie trend started; the trend that hailed pie as the new cupcake. Heffner realized that if he didn’t hurry, he wouldn’t be the first on the scene of L.A.’s pie craze.
“Our business model at the time [we opened] was how successful cupcakes were,” Heffner says. The Pie Hole opened October of last year—a smart move, all things considered.
Opening any business in a downtrodden economy can be daunting, but the pie business seemed especially intimidating, considering restaurants like Marie Callender’s filed for bankruptcy June of 2011. Not to mention, last year people opted to save money instead of spending it, even with rising incomes.
“When we opened the doors, we didn’t have enough money to pay the people who were working here for the first day,” Heffner recalls. “We were nail biting. But that problem didn’t happen. I just closed my eyes, bit my lip and chucked forward…. “
He remained optimistic through the first months, although he admitted to being a little worried.
“I wasn’t scared. Nervous, maybe. Okay, I lost sleep,” he jokes. “It was scary.”
Heffner says there is never going to be a perfect time to set up shop; there is always a risk involved. But he had the money, the people behind it and the space available and he had the product, he says.
It was a huge step for him and his business partners (his mother and his long-time friend, Sean Brennan), but it was something he had a gut feeling about.
“The pies are something I know from my heart. I just know it,” he says. “It was a risk, but the risk was less than if I had said, ‘Let’s open a burger shop!’”
Despite all the talk about pie trends and the success that the fad has brought The Pie Hole thus far, Heffner doesn’t see the cafe as part of the craze; he sees pie as a part of the nation’s culture. He teases, “It’s as American as apple pie, right?”
But he says, on a serious note, that his shop will outlast the pie hype.
“It’s one of the desserts that’s been around since we were a country. It’ll continue to be around. It’s not like a cupcake where it’ll be a trend and then it falls away. It’s a solid business model because it’s timeless,” Heffner says confidently.
And he loves his job. “I like the people. I do more dishes than anything else, but when I get to be behind the register and meet people, I love it,” he notes.
Most importantly, The Pie Hole has a deep, sentimental value to Heffner.
“To be able to fulfill one of my mom’s lifelong dreams is something that I can’t describe to you,” he says. “It’s the greatest feeling in the whole world.”
See what co-owner Sean Brennan has to say about The Pie Hole below: