A year after she took Portland by storm with her globally-inspired sweet and savory pies, Bri Warner of Maine Pie Line is closing up shop. She made the difficult decision just this week, and after informing employees and business accounts, Warner announced the "bittersweet" news via Facebook last night.
The former economic officer who traveled the world while perfecting her pie crust is returning to her passion: Public service. Anyone who has tried her treats could argue Warner provides a much needed public service with Maine Pie Line, but the baker apologizes to her fans that she won't be an integral part of their holiday celebrations this year, as the oven will be pre-heated for the last time November 8.
Eater sat down with Warner to learn about her exciting new opportunity with Maine Island Institute, to dream about pies she never quite got around to making, and to find out what explicit comment provided the most memorable customer feedback she ever received (it was positive, so positive). And to any bakers in the audience, Warner is willing to sell her beloved recipes; her contact page is a good place to start.
You've gotten a ton of press, accolades, and business, both in-state and out. Is it safe to assume you're walking away on a high note, rather than bailing because you're bankrupt?
I am walking on an extraordinarily high note, and I'm extremely proud of the business and everything it's done. I'm at a really good place in the business where I got the good fortune of being able to sit back and consider the future of the business and where I wanted to go with it. Looking at that, I realized that while the business has been great and I've gotten a lot out of it and I've enjoyed it a ton, my heart is more in public service. I'd like to return to that in Maine, so I'll be joining the Maine Island Institute in December. I'm thrilled to do that and I think my heart is much more that. However, I've had a great time, I've enjoyed working with everybody, and I'm proud of the business.
What will you be doing with the Maine Island Institute?
I'll be the Economic Development Director. It's a new position that was just created in Rockland. I'll be there working on small businesses, building and diversifying economies on the islands in Maine. I'm excited to engage with those communities and with such a great organization.
Is it a "Bring them a pie and they'll eat for a day, teach them to bake pie and you'll diversify their economies for life" situation?
[Laughs.] Something like that. I'm sure they could teach me a few things about making pie on those islands, but I like that analogy.
Do you plan on selling the whole business as a turnkey operation?
I'd like to sell the recipes, for those who are interested. Feel free to contact me. I'm also happy to put people who are doing similar things in touch with some of my contracts. I have great contracts and I'd like to see that gap filled.
As Maine Pie Line, or is that name being retired?
The name is going up on the shelf. It was a child to me, and I wouldn't sell my child.
How are your employees taking the news?
It's tough, but they all have second jobs. I'd love to encourage employers to look into hiring from the refugee community. Portland Adult Education and Catholic Refugee Services are wonderful resources for tapping into the refugee community for employment. Hiring from this community is the right thing to do, and we found amazing employees through these organizations.
When will you sell your last pie? Can customers still order for the holiday season?
We're not doing Thanksgiving this year. I can't tell you...it's kind of exciting. I was dreading Thanksgiving. But I also enjoy doing Thanksgiving because I love that people line up for the pies. Last year was our first year doing that holiday and I had so many people ordering I had to cut off orders a week before Thanksgiving. It was just me at the time. I don't think I slept more than three hours in two weeks.
We won't be doing that, so I'm very sorry to those of you out there who want holiday pies, but I'm sure my parents-in-law will be excited to get personal pies made just for them this year.
Where would you send customers now to get their fix?
I've spent the last year focusing so much on making pie that I haven't had other people's pies. I go to Standard Bakery all the time for their bread, and I go to Scratch all the time for their cookies and croissants, but I can't say I've tried another pie in Portland. I know there are a lot of people out there. I heard Tandem's doing a great job, I know that Two Fat Cats has pies, I know that Katie Made has pies, and I think Little Bigs is also doing pie ordering, so I'm sure there are a ton of good places and people will be in great hands. But they might not have the flavors we have.
Unless they purchase your recipes.
Unless they purchase my recipes.
That sounds like an upcoming story idea, a holiday-season pie crawl with Bri Warner.
I love that idea. That would be great. I would love to try everyone else's pies. That'd be fun.
You suggested you'll continue making pies at home, not giving the skill up entirely?
I think I'll probably make a pie or two for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I'll probably take it down for a while and start doing other things that I like, like truffles, some sort of tiramisus, something other than pie. I was trying to make pumpkin bread at home the other day, and it'd been so long since I'd baked at home since I was so tired when I got home every day, but I didn't have any flour or sugar in my house. I think it's time for that to change. Time to restock and rediscover my passion for baking.
What was your most successful pie?
I would say it's split between three because we changed every season. Obviously for fall the Salted Caramel Apple Pie was out of control. People bought that days in advance or put orders on it and said, "When's the next time you're carrying that because I want to put my order in now." For the winter, our Dave's Decadence was the biggest. It's the chocolate ganache with salted caramel and olive oil. For summer a big hit was the Pelky Peach. It was an almond custard with sage- and wine-poached peaches. And then I think the last one would be our Halverson Humble, which was rum-spiked pastry cream, chili-chocolate ganache, and fresh whipped cream on top.
For savory, our best seller for retail customers was definitely Korean Beef BBQ with Kimchi, and for our wholesale customers was The Portlander, our vegetarian one with portobello mushroom, goat cheese, caramelized onion, and cranberries. That was a huge hit, and an unexpected one. I think we were buying ten 5lb boxes of portobello mushrooms every week.
What would you consider your most underrated pie?
Probably our Lemon Buttermilk Pie. I think that people didn't know what it was, so they didn't get it. But then when we would sample it, everyone would buy it. It's a wonderful custard pie made with buttermilk from a dear friend's farm, Swallowtail Farm, and it's the most pure tasting milk pie. I think people see buttermilk and think "extra fat," but buttermilk is actually only 1% fat, less fatty than regular milk. Definitely up there with my favorites. It made a fantastic pie.
Is there a pie you wish you had made? The pie that got away?
This winter I experimented a ton with Maine products to try to stick with our Buy Local mission, but at the end of February or middle of March it's tough to find anything to put into a pie that's made in Maine. So we got really creative and started making Sweet Beet Pie. We made it with red beets, and it was this gorgeous pie. And we did the same for carrots. I would really like to try it with parsnips, so I'm going to do that this winter on my own. But I was worried about the color, that it wouldn't be quite as dashing as the sweet beet pie or the carrot pie. I think parsnip pie is in my future.
What was the most memorable feedback you ever got?
I had one customer come in and tell me that she had a bite of The Portlander and she was moaning so much it sounded like she was having an orgasm. I think that was probably my favorite. She really enjoyed the pie, and she came back.
You had a lot of wholesale accounts that weren't necessarily obvious to your regular customers. Which one was most surprising to you?
They were all great. I feel so fortunate that I had the restaurant and cafe scene in Maine. It's so awesome and cordial and supportive. That can't be undersold, these people were fantastic to work with and great customers.
So with restaurants and cafes you kind of know what you're doing as far as traditional pies and what will work for them. Most cafes got savory pies, most restaurants got sweet pies. But Empire Chinese Kitchen carries our pies, and that's not something I would have expected from them. The owner and I had talked about trying out our Green Tea Chocolate Pie there. And it was a hit, but then we started moving into other pies, and we changed their pies weekly. It's not something I expected but it's worked really well. I think it complements the menu well.
What are you most looking forward to once Maine Pie Line closes?
Not waking up so early. Bakers' hours are tough. I'm looking forward to getting back into public service more than anything, though. I think I'll be able to use the experience I've gained from owning my own business in helping to build others.
Now that you've been in it for a year and are getting out, any advice or perhaps a warning to aspiring bakers?
Make sure you find a specialty and stick with it. There are a lot of great bakeries in Maine in general, and in Portland and South Portland specifically, so I think one of the reasons we did so well is because we found what we were good at and we stuck with it. We did pies. We didn't do cakes, we didn't do cupcakes, we didn't do cookies. That worked for us because we were entering a nearly-saturated market. I think anyone starting a new bakery business needs to find what it is they want to specialize in and stick with it because that'll carry them a long way.
Pies are a pain in the butt, that's why most people don't do them. We were happy to take on that pain because it's something that I love and something the company was based on. I found a specialty other people didn't want to do and that's great, and I think it worked out as a business model.