Is pie the new cupcake?
Cupcakes became so popular over the last few years that upscale bakeries sprang up across the nation to offer them in red velvet, mocha and chai latte. A fan site featured pictures of cupcake tattoos on aficionados.
But new versions of the all-American favorite — pie — are increasingly popping up at bakeries and restaurants. Pie has replaced cake at some weddings. There are pie happy hours and pie shooters served in shot glasses.
"Pie is hot," said Andrew Freeman, a restaurant industry consultant who predicts pie will be the top food trend for 2011. "We predict that there will be dedicated pie shops and pie carts and pie trucks opening in the next year.
"If I'm wrong, I'll eat pie."
Americans ordered 722 million servings of pie at restaurants nationwide last year, an increase of 12 million slices over 2009, according to NPD Group. That reversed a downward pie-eating slide that had been going on for years.
At Pasadena's old-school Pie 'n Burger, where customers ordered 900 pies for Thanksgiving alone, holiday pie sales were up 15%, said owner Michael Osborn. At Big Sugar Bakeshop in Studio City, where lime-tequila pie shooters were sold for New Year's Eve parties, pie sales soared 55%, said co-owner Lisa Ritter.
Meanwhile, servings of cake — propelled for the last few years by the cupcake craze — were down at eateries and specialty bakeries last year in the U.S., according to an NPD survey. And in homes, per capita consumption of cupcakes was down 18%.
Angela Malner had pies at her wedding. The Burbank bride ordered them in pecan, pumpkin, apple, raspberry and brown sugar from Suga' Pies in Los Angeles for her November nuptials after rejecting wedding cake as flavorless and cupcakes as ubiquitous. "There's something comforting about pie," Malner said. "I liked the old-fashionedness of it."
Kelsey Smith, who is a film production accountant by day, started Suga' Pies in her home kitchen. She has done several weddings in recent months. For one of them, the bride ordered 200 of what Smith calls her "lolli-pies" — little pies on a stick — that were handed out as party favors.
Smith initially got the word out about her pies on Facebook, but she stopped promoting them because orders were coming in too fast.
"I don't really want it to become like an assembly line," she said, "because that's not what pie is all about."
Carrie Cusack, executive chef at Simplethings Sandwich & Pie Shop near the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, started experimenting with bite-size pies after customers at her former catering company demanded dessert tables laden with goodies small enough to be eaten out of hand. "I love pie, maybe too much," Cusack said. "Everyone was doing cupcakes and I was doing big displays of these baby pies."
Shelly Kamei, who grew up in pie country around the Ozark Mountains, came into the shop. She had long searched in L.A. for pie she considered worthy. "I tell you, it's a pie desert." Kamei said.
Kamei tasted one of the shop's salted-caramel mini-pies.
"I love it," Kamei said.
Simplethings serves 18 varieties of dessert pies, plus steak-and-lager pies, pulled-pork pies, portabello mushroom pies and two types of chicken pot pies. The shop's hand-held pies sell for $2.50 apiece — that's about half the price of some gourmet cupcakes.
"I'm not going to say that cupcakes are gone, but they're an expensive, trendy indulgence," said NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs. "And right now, consumers have cut back on things that are considered indulgences."
Stephanie Shaiken, the chef at Crust by Stephanie Jayne, started selling pie as a sideline while working as a pastry chef. After appearances at the Artisanal LA food showcase and other events, she sold enough to quit her day job four months ago and concentrate solely on pie.
Her specialty is old-fashioned apple, which might be more difficult to pull off than exotic combinations.
"An apple pie, you really have to hit home," said Shaiken, 25, because it's so tied to people's memories of childhood.
Some of the inspiration for the trend seems to come from Texas, where the Blue Bonnet Cafe outside of Austin has long held a pie happy hour, and the Ozarks, where native sons and daughters like Cusack learned to make pies from mothers and grandmothers.
Now there's a pie happy hour in New York at the Hill Country Cafe, and Chile Pies (& Ice Cream) in San Francisco specializes in pies that have green chile, cheese and apples inside.
Larry Denorio, who runs a cupcake truck in the Hartford, Conn., area, will soon launch a second truck, Pie Brake, to offer all kinds of pie, from apple to pizza.
"I felt pie was the next step," he said.
Yuichiro Sato, whose mobile business the Flying Pie Man can be seen at pop-up events around Southern California, specializes in meat pies. One of his recent concoctions is a pork-belly sukiyaki pie.
"Pies can be your dessert, meal and snack," he said.
Some pie lovers bristle at the idea that their favorite treat will be the next big thing — not because they don't want people to eat pie, but because they say that unlike cupcakes, frozen yogurt or other dessert trends, pie won't ever go fully out of style.
"The Krispy Kreme doughnut came and went — it was a fad. Cupcakes are a fad," said David Burkin, co-owner of the Four N 20 pie shops in Sherman Oaks and Valley Village, which recently added two new pie varieties to their menu. "People are coming back around to pies."
Customer Adam Sampson orders pie as often as twice a week and frequently eats it before his entree.
"Sometimes it's important," Sampson said, "to have space left for the pie, first."