Our Piece of the Pie

Lenore Estrada of 3 Babes Bakeshop and Elizabeth Simon of Revenge Pies
Top L-R: the signature criss-cross lattice of Three Babes Bakeshop, Elizabeth Simon of Revenge Pies, the signature lattice of Revenge Pies “Fuck You Pie,” Lenore Estrada of Three Babes Bakeshop. Photos by Nicola Parisi.

Elizabeth Simon, Lenore Estrada and Jaynelle St. Jean are baking some of the most buttery and jammy pies in the Bay while speaking up for local businesses.

“You want some pie?” Elizabeth Simon of Revenge Pies arches an eyebrow, leans out of her window, and hands over a slice. She knows she’s got the goods. The crust crumbles into butter, the pumpkin is truly flavorful, not watery or tinny, and the custard is luxuriously creamy and deeply spiced, coating the roof of one’s mouth. The best pies aren’t just a flood of flavors, but also memories and emotions—they taste like the place where the produce grew, remind you of the person who handcrafted the crust, and the people who gathered around it. Pies are so simple, but they truly hold so much. In San Francisco, at the end of a sweet harvest, before rolling into the holidays, it’s the moment to thank our city’s bakers, who showcase our extraordinary local produce in golden crusts.

In the Bayview, Lenore Estrada of Three Babes Bakeshop comes from the farming heartland of California in the Central Valley. One of seven kids, she was part of a big Mexican family on her father’s side, who were originally migrant workers and sheep shearers. Growing up baking with her dad, she would trim the apples from a nearby orchard, while he cut lard into the crust. She was one of the first kids in her family to go to an Ivy League school, but later bounced back to San Francisco, and called up a couple of childhood besties with an ambitious idea.

“We wanted to found a socially conscious food business,” Estrada explains. “We thought, if we focus on pies, fruit will always be the star. We can work with our favorite farmers and have fun with creative fillings, but also celebrate our agricultural roots.”

Her pies are beautiful, highlighting the best of seasonal produce. The crust is all butter, smeared in a mixer and folded in a sheeter, to create distinct flaky layers. The fillings vary by season, and she truly knows her farmers. She sources sweet-tart berries from Yerena Farms, run by Poli Yerena, who reminds her of her dad, and walnuts from Old Dog Ranch, farmed by Mollie Sitkin, who she’s known since the first grade. Predictably, people can’t get enough of the pumpkin, pecan, and apple at Thanksgiving, but her personal favorite is the blackberry crumble. “I love bright, juicy fruit,” Estrada says. “The berries have a delicious, jammy quality, and the crumble is kind of like tiny, crunchy oatmeal cookies.”

Across the Bay in Oakland, Jaynelle St. Jean of Pietisserie got started by handing slices out of a kitchen window, an unexpected act of sweetness that made people smile. Growing up with a single working mom in the Sunset, she baked at home with store-bought crust and canned filling. It was a high school boyfriend’s mother who pulled out a rolling pin and showed her how to shape dough. “It was a revelation,” St. Jean says. “The best pies are so simple, but inspire delight and disbelief.” She moved to New York and dabbled in media, lived briefly in Hawaii, but eventually, came home and crashed on her mom’s couch. On a whim, she decided to rig up a pie window with cute curtains, and hand out free slices on glass plates, so people had to stay and chat. The pie lady had found her medium, and the window was the frame for the story. Almost like an art installation, she built a mobile pie window out of pipes, which she could stash in the back of a car, quite literally popping up at events. She calls herself a protagonist, not a pastry chef, and she’s a creative with high style—into pinks and florals, but with a certain edge.

Her pies can be graphic and stylish. The crust is all butter, and while that boyfriend is long gone, she’s still relying on his mama’s recipe. (“It would be nice to see him again, but I must stop by and give her a pie,” St. Jean muses.) She also makes chocolate, graham, and pretzel crusts. She covers the holiday classics but does modern updates and striking designs, like black-and-white lattices. The pumpkin chocolate has a dramatically dark crust. All of the creamy citrus curds are popular, but the lemon zings with ginger. The pink apple crumble contains rhubarb for extra bite and cardamom for a twist on the expected cinnamon.

At home in the Mission, Elizabeth Simon of Revenge Pies got stood up by a guy, left a “fuck you pie” on his doorstep, and transformed that experience into a sweet business that empowers women. She grew up in Burlingame with a single mother and was never much of a baker. She was just into this dude, wanted to plan a creative date, and decided to bake him a pie. They texted all day, but five minutes before the timer rang—he bailed. She still had leftover dough and apples, and shaped them into a mini pie, with a middle finger slapped on the center. “I left it on his doorstep and walked away,” Simon laughs. But after her friends kept begging her for pie, she built up a business, hiring more than 40 women (and “a few good men”) over the years. Coming from the music industry and a decade of waitressing, she knows the customer is not always right. “As the home of the ‘fuck you pie,’ we allow women to represent themselves fully,” Simon says, “I hire smart and creative individuals with humor on their side, and we provide a safe workplace so they can completely be themselves.”

Her crust is all butter and vodka. It’s a unique style: incredibly tender and closer to a crumbly shortbread than a traditional flaky crust. She makes whatever she feels like every weekend, based on season and mood. For the holidays, she rocks all the hits, but right now, she’s into frangipane, which she grinds from scratch, dollops over apples and pears, and bakes until nutty and chewy. Her “Death Star”—a blackoutchocolate pie—has a cult following.

Sweet, stylish, and sassy, these women have cute bakeries, but don’t be mistaken—they’re fierce. They’ve worked out of home kitchens and shipping containers, battled to get permits, bounced from shared space to sublease, done stints at drag bars and clothing shops, pulled all-nighters to fill holiday orders, and stood in tents at farmers markets. Owning a small bakery in San Francisco in 2019 is not for the faint of heart. It’s been a particularly rough year for local pie shops, illustrated by two events: the Munchery bankruptcy at the beginning of the year and Mission Pie closing in September.

When Munchery, the tech startup, went belly-up in February, they owed dozens of vendors money. Three Babes had just invoiced for their biggest Thanksgiving order ever—Estrada says she is still owed over $20,000. In a series of Instagram stories that went viral, she pounded on doors, left letters on cars, and publicly called out the CEO and VCs. For a small business owner, the consequences were clear: She gave up her salary for a few months to pay her employees and farmers. It prevented her from buying new equipment and delayed plans to open her own space. In contrast, James Beriker, the CEO of Munchery, received a salary of $36,000 per month while running the company into the ground. His salary continued at $18,000 per month during bankruptcy proceedings, and he was promised a success fee of up to $250,000.

“We didn’t get paid a cent, and he totally got away with it,” says Estrada. “The people who profit are already incredibly wealthy. The people who pay are small businesses, and we have few means to fight back.”

Mission Pie owner Karen Heisler posted a heartfelt note to the community to announce plans to close in September after a dozen years as a beloved neighborhood shop. She also prioritized employees, and she specifically called out delivery apps as part of the reason they were closing. Restaurants have tiny profit margins, and labor is the most expensive part of the business. Restaurants with more than 20 employees are legally required to pay employee benefits. In contrast, the delivery apps, which have millions of dollars in funding, classify their drivers as contractors and don’t pay benefits. Yet delivery apps charge restaurants 25 to 30 percent commission on orders, according to Heisler, who compared quotes with many other restaurant operators.

“Customers are lulled into a market of convenience,” she says. “If you pay the same amount when you visit your favorite restaurant as when you order through an online app, consider who’s eating the cost of delivery, and the change that it’s driving.” Even though Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), was signed intostate law, promising to reclassify those workers, the tech companies continue to fight it: Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have raised $90 million dollars to support a ballot measure that would exempt them.

It’s an interesting moment in California right now, where big tech is clashing with local food systems. Teetering on tiny margins, each of these bakers has to navigate the opportunities, which include selling to the big tech cafeterias, through online grocery, and via delivery apps. Three Babes is going for broke and trying all three. Estrada estimates about 60 percent of her business goes to Google, Lyft, and others, while tiny slivers go to online grocery and other delivery apps. After eight years of renting shared spaces, Estrada plans to finally move into her own location before the end of the year, tripling her oven space, and putting out a few thousand pies for Thanksgiving.

At the other extreme, Revenge Pies is staying small and going underground. Simon might close her pie window entirely, focusing on wholesale and custom orders. She’s baking solo these days, only offering an exclusive few hundred pies for the holidays (get those preorders while they’re hot). “Honestly, you want to know what my biggest challenge is?” says Simon. “It’s the city of San Francisco. There is no place for Revenge Pies in this city.”

So when you start craving pumpkin and spice, and wonder how to support your local bakery during the holidays, here’s a hot tip: Order a pie from one of these hardworking bakers. Go pick it up yourself at the pie window or the farmers market. Say hey. Order a coffee, while you’re at it. Give them the biggest tip they’ve seen all year. As of right now, that’s still the best way to make sure they get the biggest piece of the pie, and we get to keep cute bakeries in our neighborhoods.

Three Babes Bakeshop
Current address: 2501 Phelps St., SF (through October) New address: 2797 16th St., SF (slated late November) Farmers market: Saturdays at the Ferry Building threebabesbakeshop.com

1605 2nd Ave., Oakland
“Sweet Thursday” holiday hours, open 24 hours from Wednesday 11/27 at noon to Thanksgiving Day at noon. pietisserie.com

Revenge Pies
160 14th St., SF
Pie window: Saturdays and Sundays, 12 to 5 p.m. revengepies.com