Sara Hayden says the crust is everything when it comes to a good pie. She should know – the 44 year old made a successful business out of it, one handmade pie at a time.
Hayden's the stay-at-home-mom-turned-foodie behind Sara's Tipsy Pies, one of the most underrated foods at the State Fair (in our opinion anyway).
The delicious little hand pies with a kick – each one is made with a little bit of local booze, like whiskey, wine, or beer – debuted at the fair in 2015 and were an instant hit. The booth sold about 13,500 pies that first year.
But perhaps even more impressive than the freshly baked, perfectly filled pastries (Hayden takes the filling very seriously – she's even used tweezers to make sure the fruit gets into every nook and cranny) is the woman who started it all from scratch.
The mother of five had been a stay at home mom for 11 years when her three youngest – yep, triplets – went off to school. It was time for Hayden to get a job, but she had a hard time finding a gig that would accommodate her family life.
She didn't know then that one homemade pie would change all of that.
One night, while entertaining some dinner guests (including one who happened to own a bakery), Hayden served her specialty: pie. It was a family tradition – and a top secret crust recipe – she'd learned from her mom, who'd recently died.
"We talked about my mom passing away and that I missed her, and how I think to keep peoples' memories alive you should do what they did," Hayden told GoMN. "And my mom made pie."
Hayden says her friend must have gone home thinking about that, because a couple days later he called her and said "Let's try to start a company for you."
The two got together, and through a lot of trial and error, figured out how to make her mom's crust recipe on a much larger scale.
Hayden then started selling full-size pies in her friend's bakery. She would go on to volunteer in a community kitchen and later work from the basement of the Marine on St. Croix General Store before getting her own kitchen space.
Growing the business was a slow and steady climb, but "The Pie Lady" eventually saved enough money to rent her own bakery location at 2000 Industrial Blvd. in Stillwater.
But after seeing her friend's bakery close, Hayden realized she needed to find a way to stand out. So she called Lift Bridge Brewery and said "I want to do something different with my pie. Can I put some beer in it?"
That partnership helped Hayden find her niche – and a much larger market, including retail. From there, she partnered with other local brewers, distilleries, and winemakers to create the yummy tipsy pies she's known for today. (Don't worry, the pies are for everyone – any alcohol used gets cooked out.)
The flavors she has on hand at events vary (Tipsy Pies does a ton of weddings and catering spots), but top-sellers like Irish Whiskey Apple and Boozy Blueberry-Lemon can be found in the frozen section of many local grocery stores, including Lunds & Byerlys, Kowalski's, Jerry's Foods, and Hy-Vee. (Find pies near you here.)
Pies at the State Fair
And for the third year in a row, you can find Sara's Tipsy Pies at the Minnesota State Fair.
She's bringing six different pies to the Food Building, including two new flavors: Chocolate Satin Stout, a chocolate pie infused with Fulton's imperial coffee stout, and Brown Ale Onion and Gouda, a savory pie with caramelized onions and cheese that's baked and glazed with Lift Bridge Chestnut Hill.
"I really want everybody to have pie if they love pie," Hayden said, so she created a vegan version of her Irish apple pie.
"Those poor vegans, they don't have much to eat at the fair – I think there's only like six or seven items," Hayden said.
And if you buy the Salted Caramel Apple or Maple Bacon Apple Tipsy Pies at the fair, a portion of proceeds will go to the Down Syndrome Association of Minnesota, thanks to Hayden's partnership with Finnegans Brew Co. to create Pies with a Purpose. (The campaign was inspired by Hayden's daughter Madi, who has Down Syndrome.)
Why did you want to start your own business? I had collected all these labels – I was a mom, I was a wife, I was the mom with the kid with Down Syndrome, I was the triplet mom. I didn't really have the label that I wanted to create for myself. And I think as moms, we just get bombarded and buried. I'm more than all those labels. Not that those labels are bad, but I can be more than that. So now I'm "The Pie Lady."
How did you get into the State Fair? It was just another one of those weird things where I just jumped. I was at Twin Cities Live catering, and I have this great relationship with the security guard, this delightful old guy. And he's like "I know this woman at the State Fair, and she was a lot like you about 30 years ago, and she just had this idea," and here he was talking about Sweet Martha. He goes "You should apply for the State Fair, and if you want to meet the cookie lady, I know Martha."
I got home that night, and I just filled out the application. Five weeks later I got a phone call, and I thought it was a joke because it's supposed to take five years to get in. Martha was the same way, she got in that quick as well. So we broke records getting in, and then we had five weeks to create 14,000 pies by hand.
What's it like at the booth? I don't get to serve pie because most people just wanna come and meet "Sara." It's a little strange, but you know, they want to take a picture of my sign and meet the maker. I think it's really cool and I'm really thankful for it. I love that they love the pie.
How do you balance work and family life? It's tough. Especially with the summer, because this is my peak season. Off-season, I do a much better job taking days off, and I have fantastic staff. I've learned to delegate more, and my pie is in good hands with them. But during the summer it's just not possible. So what I've learned to do is bring the kids in to work with me. We just try to make those times matter.
Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs? Keep your overhead low. Don't buy everything at once. Test your market. Branding is everything. Stand outside in the rain and the snow and the wind and the cold like we all have done, and build your brand.
Everybody has a great idea, but you can't go buy the farm first. You have to test your ideas. Farmers markets are really important to test people. Your mom, your dad, and your friends can tell you that everything is great. It's the people that don't know you who need to tell you things are great.
What's next for Sara's Tipsy Pies? Savory pies. Once the State Fair finishes, we have big plans with Fulton and Lift Bridge to do more savory pies. I've heard nothing but "Oooh is that a savory pie?" for the last six years, so I believe savory pie will probably be an bigger brand and product line for us than the sweet was.
(Hayden also told GoMN she's collaborating with the Herbivorous Butcher on future vegan pies and has been working on gluten-free treats too.)