On a cool morning, Sharon Stevens of Stevens Family Bakery & Orchard in Springfield, welcomes the warmth of the kitchen ovens baking the day’s first batch of pies. She mixes more apples with sugar and spices, fills the crusts and crimps the edges with the equipment her husband Chris designed.
“All of our pies are made from scratch,” said Sharon. “No preservatives. No fillings. Just like your grandmother would do.” Once baked, today’s 220 pies will be delivered to nearby restaurants and independent grocery stores.
Sharon and Chris haven’t always baked rackfuls of homemade pies. For two decades, Chris worked in construction while Sharon worked as a dental assistant and later a stay-at-home mom. As the travel of Chris’s construction projects took a toll on family life, they searched for ways to earn a living from home.
Sharon was inspired to start a pie baking business after winning a blue ribbon for her pecan pie at the 1998 Champaign County Fair.
They hoped to build a secondary income and retire from their day jobs in five to 10 years. “Business grew so fast I had to quit after one year,” said Sharon. “I would return home from work to find orders for 50 pies on the answering machine.”
When the couple went looking for ingredients, they stumbled upon the idea to plant an orchard.
“We thought, ‘This is silly; we sit on 22 acres of wooded property.’”
So in 1999, they planted 25 peach trees and 200 apple trees. Over the next several years, they added 1,000 more trees in two additional orchards. Their plan was to grow a variety of apples to harvest in succession. However, they soon realized the orchard couldn’t consistently produce enough fruit to support the pie business and pie customers preferred the consistent taste of a single apple variety (They now exclusively use Jonathan apples). This led them to take the orchard in a different direction. They started offering u-pick sales on designated weekends and opened a market stand to sell apples, pies and eventually other products such as maple syrup, honey and beeswax candles.
The pie business continues to grow, currently selling about 25,000 pies per year and contributing 90 percent of the two businesses’ revenue. The Stevens say Thanksgiving is the biggest sales week with 2,500 pies.
To grow their customer base, they expanded on positive experiences. For example, their success with pie sales to Crabill’s Hamburger Shop of Urbana spurred them to reach out to other restaurants. The same happened with pie sales at farmers markets. In the fourth year of business, an apple crop failure pushed them to make up the difference with even more pie sales. Another farmer at the Springfield Farmers Market suggested they try the Worthington Farmers Market. They also went to the Clintonville and Short North farmers markets in the Columbus area. They found their presence in a new geographic area expanded their customer base and resulted in continued orders through the winter season.
“When the farm markets close for the season, customers ask, ‘How are we going to get pies?’” said Chris. “So we started calling on independent grocers.” The Stevens now deliver pies to grocers in central Ohio. One takes 100 a week.
“A constant battle is watching costs, especially ingredient prices that can change daily,” said Chris. “It can sneak up on you.”
Other challenges include maintaining reliable sources for these quality local ingredients.
“We don’t have a price advantage so we have to keep our quality up,” Chris said. Sharon recalls one instance when their source for pastry flour had an explosion at its mill and shut down production. Another year, they couldn’t find quality local peaches because of widespread weather damage. “I can’t put an old brown or not ripe peach in our pies or the customers won’t want to buy another,” she said.
Then there’s the issue of staffing. To help meet the work demands in the orchard and bakery, they have recruited their two children, a niece and their five grandchildren. “Without their help we couldn’t do it.” Their 14-year-old grandson, Jacob, takes pride in working various jobs from weighing dough to cleaning up after orchard prunings.
Chris’s construction experience and inventive mind have been valuable in saving costs and improving efficiency. He renovated their home’s kitchen to start up the pie business then later built on a bakery addition as the business expanded. Chris also installs equipment himself and invents new pieces like the “round man” pie crimper to simplify tasks. With the round man, pies are placed on a lazy Susan and rotated through a top crust press that crimps the edges and reduces the job from three days to one.
The couple said they have avoided taking on any debt with the business and invested in new equipment “as we go.”
As they’ve grown, they remain committed to sharing their faith and purchasing local materials. Their new pie boxes, no doubt, illustrate that commitment. They’re produced by Lewisburg Container in western Ohio and printed with a Bible scripture, “With God, all things are possible.”
As they built the businesses, the couple said they have experienced a significant learning curve. “We are still in the middle of that learning curve,” Chris said.
One lesson they’ve learned: “You can’t plateau a business—you either grow or decline.”
Teresa Woodard is a freelance writer from Galloway.
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Pick a Pie
- The Stevens Family Bakery & Orchard sells 23 varieties of homemade 10-inch deep dish pies.
- Flavors include apple streusel, blackberry, strawberry-rhubarb, toll house, peanut butter and banana cream.
- The orchard offers 13 varieties for pre-picked or u-pick, from August through October.
- Apples are stored in crates handmade by the Stevens’ uncle.