“I would get somewhere, covered in flour and looking crazy because I was working so hard, and then put on the dress and be the business woman,” reflected Jaynelle St. Jean, owner of Pietisserie, a wildly successful pie bakery based in Berkeley, CA. “If you didn’t work in food, you wouldn’t know how hard I was working.” Her loyal customers, we suspect, know all about the hard work that goes into making Jaynelle’s unique pies. With their unusual flavors (think beet, grapefruit and chocolate pumpkin) and striking looks, it’s no wonder that these pies have garnered coverage in People Magazine and The New York Times, as well as a following in Mexico and a customer base that ensures robust attendance at its eagerly anticipated holiday pop-ups. Jaynelle’s success didn’t come overnight; when she was still doing all the baking herself, she often had to be prepared to change roles and transform from slightly harried baker to composed businesswoman. It was early on when the back breaking nature of the labor and the challenge of being a one-woman-show became clear to her. “It’s such hard work. I remember the day when I realized – maybe three or four months in – ‘I haven’t sat down in 15 hours!’.”
Jaynelle’s path to professional baking success didn’t begin in the way one might expect; she rarely baked as a child, had no interest in becoming a pastry artist when she was growing up, and never went to culinary school or did an apprenticeship. Before Pietisserie, she worked in event planning and public relations in New York City. Born and raised in San Francisco, she initially found the fast pace of New York life rewarding. “A lot of my social environment was very much design, culture and media – all of the cool stuff, all of the cool people – experimental, creative people.” When she moved to Hawaii with a boyfriend, Jaynelle saw her life in New York from a different vantage point. “I slept when I was tired, I woke up when I was rested, I made really good food. I got lots of sunshine. And then I started really questioning if the fast-paced lifestyle was for me – trying to come up, trying to make it, very transactional. I just felt like maybe that wasn’t what was right for me. Around that time, I became seriously interested in food.”
Still, she had not yet formed any concrete plans for a food business. But when she left Hawaii to return to New York for an opportunity to work on a travel television show, the opportunity didn’t pan out and her interest in food deepened and became something of an anchor. “It was actually quite difficult to be there. I found food to be grounding, because it was real. In a world that has a lot of superficiality, food was always true and beautiful at the same time. What gave me peace was going to the Union Square Farmers’ Market on my lunch break. I would take conference calls at the kitchen in my office and make food from scratch in the toaster oven. I had vases of fresh produce on my desk. I started to volunteer at green markets, doing cooking demos and teaching kids how to cook from scratch.” Having determined that New York City was no longer for her, she returned to California, and decided to explore selling pies to the public. She baked pie in her mother’s kitchen and gave it away to people gathered outside, handing slices through the kitchen window. “I decided to just make the three pies I knew how to make at the time, and give slices away as an ode to how I wanted to feel in my life, which is not rushed. I was doing this because that’s how I wanted to feel; that’s where the business came from. It was a gathering, and an offering.” A friend who attended the event suggested that she open a pie business, and Pietisserie was born.
In addition to being a powerful statement, Jaynelle’s pie giveaway made good business sense. In effect, it was a market test, a relatively inexpensive way to gauge interest in a new product. Although the test was extremely successful, she continued to experiment and improve the pies. “One pie after the next, one makes observations and improves. It was good enough to make it worth getting better.” Perhaps relying on her New York City design awareness, she built a mobile version of her mother’s kitchen window and brought it with her to farmers’ and produce markets, where she sold her pies, handing them through the window just as she did when she gave away pies from her mother’s kitchen. “So for two years, I had this little window – it was adorable. It was made from PVC pipe, so I could break it down and stick it in my car. I could show up anywhere. It had salmon shutters and a black and white awning. I had a lot of fun going to markets in my neighborhood, looking at different produce, and combining those with other things that I loved. It was just this blossoming of creativity for me, and that’s what I became known for. I became known for this pie window, and for delicious pies that were really pretty, and for flavor combinations that people hadn’t had before.”
In 2014, after searching for some time, St. Jean found a brick-and-mortar location for Pietisserie in Oakland, and opened the store at the beginning of the Christmas season. The neighborhood was a bit rough, with homeless people frequenting the surrounding streets, but business was good. “A slice of pie is five dollars. Most people can enjoy a slice of pie, as in most cities, there are people who are down-and-out and there are people who are not.” The somewhat gritty location didn’t deter customers coming from other neighborhoods. “People came from afar; you know, pulled up in their SUVs and pulled out their three-wheeled strollers to come in and get pie.” Many restaurants and bakeries were devastated by the onset of COVID, but Pietisserie escaped more or less unscathed. When the pandemic began in March 2020, the store’s lease was up, so Jaynelle simply decided not to renew and closed the store. But the bakery continued through her quickly developed Bay Area delivery service, and as Jaynelle had begun to offer pies in select grocery stores just before the pandemic hit, the pandemic was a bit of a boon for Pietisserie. “That was very fortunate, because if people were leaving their houses, it was to get food. We expanded my grocery account through COVID, and we started doing direct delivery to people’s porches. We just had people going all over the area to people’s homes,” she said. “The roads were empty, so you could get places really fast.”
COVID also gave Jaynelle time to reassess her business model. “With the store being closed, I got this chance to lean into the idea that I always had that we should be a seasonal store, because we would be empty in January and February, and in November we would be open literally for 24 hours at Thanksgiving.” Jaynelle also used the respite provided by COVID to revisit the creative structure of Pietisserie. “It was during COVID that I really built the brand with these five visual categories of pie.” The five categories are woven, crumble, cocoa crust, pastel, and open pies. “I kind of took some of the recipes I had made and organized them into the way I think about them,” she explained. “That’s what we were able to bring to life. It’s just serving people when they really want pies, instead of having the store open year-round and pulling every marketing trick out of the box to try and get them to buy something from you all year. It’s easy to be awesome for seven weeks when everyone is excited about what you have, but when it’s January, and everybody is on a diet and a budget, that contradicts pie.”
Jaynelle’s ability to gauge and respond to what her customers want isn’t limited to the United States. She has an active collaboration with Niddo, a small Mexican bakery and café chain operated by a mother and son team, Eduardo and Karen Plaschinski, in Mexico City. The cafes are popular enough that patrons can’t expect to get a seat for breakfast unless they make a reservation. Her collaboration has been profitable, perhaps because she was willing to be flexible and respond to local expectations. “There were some pies that we didn’t do, because Eduardo thought they were too, essentially, Mexican. Mexicans eat a lot of sweet potatoes, and he told me, ‘I don’t wanna do sweet potato pie.’ Or lime custard, because that’s something people are very familiar with in traditional desserts.” In fact, pie itself is often new to Mexicans – so flavors that might seem common to Mexicans can seem odd when used as the star ingredient in a pie. “We’ve done peach, we’ve done more traditional fruit pies with lattice tops, we did pecan. Having people meet all these pies at once is just part of this pie experience – without the same cultural reference for it – just kind of new and different to people who may have never had pie before.”
Now living on a small farm that she owns in rural Northern California, these days Jaynelle has plenty of time to garden and raise pigs. Pietisserie is growing and running smoothly, so although she may miss the days of working 15 hours at a time on her feet, they are long gone. She advises that anyone seeking to enter the business not rush the process, beginning slowly and building from there. “Start small. And if you do love it, then do it. But you’re gonna have to love it, because it’s gonna be hard.”
(This article appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Genevieve Sawyer is a freelance food writer who graduated from the Culinary Institute of American in 2009. She is the co-author of The Rookwood Inn’s Guide to Devouring the Berkshires – One Cultural Bite at a Time, and is also an expert in the care of horses and the maintenance of horse farms.