Photo Credit: Starchefs.com
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Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits in Chicago, Illinois
Sometimes the part of your business that you are most passionate about is not the obvious thing. When you start your own business, people assume that your passion is the thing that your company represents.
I opened a pie shop so I should be obsessed with pie, and sure, I am. However, after 7+ years of owning Pie Bar, my passions have evolved, and although I still love pie, it is not the only part of the business I think about anymore. I spend time thinking about our guests’ experiences in our shops, our teams' happiness as they bake and serve pie, and how we can develop meaningful relationships with the people in our communities. I can tell Pie Bar and I have grown because my thoughts are no longer consumed with just one passion inside of my business: the pie.
A large part of this transformation comes from spending time with people and businesses that I admire. These people and businesses are generally known as “mentors,” but I prefer to think of them as my Business Crushes. When I come across a business that I admire and look up to, I crush hard. I study how they are doing certain things and why. My stomach fills with butterflies simply at the idea of getting to learn from them.
One of my OG Business Crushes was Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits in Chicago, Illinois.
Cody and I drove to Chicago in January 2016 specifically to visit Bang Bang. This was one of the stops on our very first Pie-Cation, a trip where we went to pie shops all over the United States to meet with their owners and talk about how to run a successful pie shop.
The first Thanksgiving season at Pie Bar was simultaneously soul-crushing and exhilarating. We opened our shop in September 2015, only a few months before the onslaught of holiday orders and demands. At the time we were a small team of about four people. We made everything by hand, including using a hand-held peeler for the apples and rolling pins for the pie dough. Each pie was truly a labor of love.
Around 8pm the night before Thanksgiving, we had a couple hundred pies left to bake. Our team was scheduled to come in at 3am in order to allow enough time to fill the pie crusts, bake the pies, and allow them to cool and be boxed by the scheduled 8am pick-up. I sent our team home, knowing how exhausted we all were. After everyone had left, I made my rounds turning off ovens and checking cooler temperatures. I opened our pie crust freezer, and my heart sank. It was almost empty, and there were not nearly enough pie crusts for the rest of the Thanksgiving Day orders.
Dazed, I walked into the shop's office and found Cody folding pie boxes. "I can't go home tonight," I told him. "What do you mean?" was all he could say before my tears began to fall. "I mean.. I counted wrong. I don't have enough pie crusts to make the pies for tomorrow." We both stared at one another, took a deep breath, and put a plan together. (Him: I'll go home and check on the dog. Me: I'll step into the bathroom and cry some more before pulling it together.)
Over the next several hours, I made, rolled, and crimped pie dough. There were lots of tears and pots of coffee. At 3am our team started to arrive for their Thanksgiving Day shifts. One of our bakers was shocked to see me standing over stacks of pie dough, rolling pin in hand. "Why didn't you call me?!" she yelled. She immediately began grabbing pie crusts and filling them with apples, pecans, and pumpkin pie filling. We barely pulled the last pies out of the oven just in time for guests to arrive to pick them up.
This is where the idea of a Pie-Cation was born. We knew that in order to make Pie Bar a long-term and sustainable business, we needed to learn from people who knew what they were doing. One of the “must visits!” on the list was Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits. Come January, we loaded up our car and hit the road. We pulled into Chicago and up to Bang Bang only hours after a fresh snow had blanketed the city. It was magic.
We entered the shop under Bang Bang's signature striped awning and were immediately engulfed in the smells of freshly baked biscuits, savory pies, and coffee that filled the air. We placed our order and took a seat. Not long after arriving, Bang Bang’s owner, Michael, descended upon our table. He carefully placed slices of pie in front of us, quickly telling us to "enjoy" before moving around the shop, clearing tables and chatting with guests like old friends.
The pie was fantastic, but mostly I couldn’t take my eyes off of Micheal, who was interacting with the people coming and going from his shop like I had never seen a business owner do before. He made his way over to our table, and without missing a beat he pulled up a chair and graciously spent the next several hours with us. He shared his story of starting Bang Bang and his love for great service. Before meeting Michael, I didn’t know there was a word for what I had just witnessed. Service. It sounds so simple now, but at the time, I didn’t realize that there were people that build their careers around giving great service. Turning customers into guests and employees into team members. It changed my thinking instantly.
There are very few people in my life that I can say I instantly took a liking to as much as Michael. He was kind, generous, and obviously passionate about his work. He was frank when we asked questions about growth, finances, and even if running a small business ever becomes less work and more fun (hint: it takes a little while!)
We toured Bang Bang's kitchen, and when that was done, he asked if we had time to visit one of his favorite local bakeries. We climbed into this SUV, Cody in the front seat with Michael, and me in the back in between car seats, and we drove a few blocks in the snow before parking in front of another pie shop. Cody, Michael, and I sat at the vintage counter while we ate slices of pie and talked with the husband-and-wife owners about their story and their shop.
Michael’s willingness to host us was generous, but his openness and honesty were completely unmatched. Six years later, Cody and I still talk about our visit to Bang Bang and having the chance to spend time with Michael.
After returning back to Georgia, I knew I had to find ways to be more like Michael, and to allow my passion for baking pies to translate to other parts of my business, including serving our guests. Michael taught me that in order to have a lasting and beloved business that is a genuine part of the community, you have to recognize the people that are a part of that, and you have to serve and treat them well.
Since then, great service has been something I work on giving daily. We train our team on this and remind them that people may come to Pie Bar for the pie, but they return in large part thanks to the great service. The genuine connection that we work hard to create each time someone visits our shops is in large part thanks to my experience at Bang Bang.
During the month of July, Pie Bar will be paying homage to Bang Bang in Chicago by recreating their Triple Berry Pie. Blueberries, Blackberries, and Raspberries folded together, topped with a sweet streusel, and baked into a Super Flaky Pie Crust. This pie is the perfect blend of tart + sweet and is best served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
I chose this flavor to represent Bang Bang because of a video I saw of Michael a few years ago. He was being interviewed in his shop and was describing a few of their signature pie flavors. When he got to the Triple Berry Pie, he spoke about where the berries were sourced and how each berry is delicious on its own, but how "together they create the perfect combination of flavors." That sentence is exactly what Bang Bang represents to me. Individually, all of the parts of Bang Bang are fantastic (the pies, the service, the physical space), but together they create something truly special. They make my favorite pie shop.
The Inspired Pie Series is my way of saying thank you to four amazing pie shop owners that I have had the pleasure of learning from, whether they realized it or not. Pie Bar would not be celebrating 7 years of business in the fall if it were not for these people and their pies.
Thank you, Michael, and the team of Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits. You have created something incredibly special, and I am so pleased that you are willing to allow me to share something of yours with the people of Pie Bar during the month of July.