When you spend time at the Three Babes kitchen in South San Francisco, you’ll inevitably see a lot of pie. An employee is shaping dough, the mixers are whirring, a friend is making streusel, family members are slicing fruit, rap is playing from the ipod, and there’s a certain controlled chaos that makes it feel like one big ol’ pie party rather than an obligatory baking production. I went to interview the Three Babes to find out how the business started, how they got such a kick-start so early on, where they find inspiration, and what keeps them going as new business owners in an expensive and competitive city. What I found out: they’re driven by late nights, a strong friendship and admiration for each other, close and supportive families, and heart. Lots of heart.
Anna Derivi-Castellanos, Lenore Estrada and Katrina Svoboda are the gals behind the booming pie business that specializes in a pie subscription service, deliveries, and fantastic pop-up cafe on Saturdays and Sunday as Stable Cafe. You’ll also find them soon at the Civic Center Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays and Sundays. They’re a busy bunch. Most strikingly, they’re a busy bunch that just started the business in March of this year. March! They’re gaining new pie customers and fans each day, and are making anywhere from 65-85 pies each week. That’s a lot of pie for a company that’s barely six months old.
When I visited the kitchen on a Thursday evening in August, the babes were in full pie-baking mode. Lenore’s family was having a big reunion that weekend, so her brother was in the kitchen helping along with a few friends. Lenore was whipping up a chocolate custard, stopping frequently to ask for taste-testers: “Okay, what does this need? What does this need?” She and Anna debated about whether to add honey or a little more sugar. This was all happening as Anna was preparing a simple staff meal of sausages on wheat rolls with sauerkraut. She cut them in half and laid them out for everyone, and in unspoken agreement, the kitchen stopped and everyone shared a bite to eat. Rolling pins down, knives down, mixers stopped. Anna said at first she was a little nervous about how to feed the kitchen, but now it’s almost natural. She had to buy sausages for the week’s savory pie as it was, so she just folded it in to the kitchen meal. It was important. They work together, they eat together, they tell stories and share jokes together.
This teamwork and reliance on one another is really how the business began in the first place. Anna and Lenore have been friends since grade school in Stockton, CA, and Katrina and Lenore attended college together and went on to work at the same company. After a few years of struggling to feel at home in a career and feel truly happy with what she was doing, Lenore started thinking about pie. Anna had finished pastry school and had helped open a restaurant and Katrina had always been an avid baker and was blogging about food on the side. It seemed like good timing. The rest is history. Lenore decided to move from Boston to the Bay Area and begin working with the gals full-stride to help make the pie business a reality. Now, they just needed a name.
The girls decided on the name “Three Babes Bakeshop” over the phone. It had been quite a long process that involved three families, numerous friends, and one growing Google Doc. And a lot of head scratching. Finally, one day we just laid it all out and started fresh: “What do we all have in common?” we asked ourselves. To get the ideas rolling, the conversation started out with: “Well, we’re three babes who…” That was it. A name had been cemented. If fit perfectly.
The three women knew that they could make some mean pie, but they obviously needed somewhere to sell it. They pounded the pavement looking for a spot with good foot traffic that would allow them to sell their wares in some mutually beneficial arrangement. When they approached Stable Cafe, the timing was just right: they made arrangements to essentially lease out the shipping container in the garden/courtyard each weekend. Customers come and buy a slice of pie from The Babes, a cup of coffee at Stable, and everyone is happy.
When I asked the gals why they chose pie, they mentioned how they grew up in Stockton constantly surrounded by fresh, seasonal fruit. “We always knew we wanted to do something homey–something all-American. We thought for awhile about doing biscuits, but Anna’s always been known for her pies and growing up we always had birthday pie instead of cake,” Lenore said. Pie was just the obvious choice. Anna’s great-grandfather was a pastry chef and Anna and her mom frequently bake pies together. Lenore’s mom bakes as well, and Lenore began playing around in the kitchen when she was five.
So do they wish they had started with something easier and more cost effective like cupcakes? “No way,” Lenore answers. Looking around the kitchen at all of the beautiful figs that Lenore’s dad had just picked that morning and her brother and husband were so carefully chopping — you could see why. With their pies, they’re paying homage to the seasons, to their families and where they came from, and to the one dessert that truly nourishes in a way that others just can’t. What really struck me was the variety of pies and the fact that, with a few exceptions, they’re all new flavors each week. This takes a great deal of planning, creativity, and innovation. When you’re in the midst of building a business from the ground up, this isn’t easy.
So the rest is pie making history, then? Not really. Anna and Katrina both work full-time jobs, so Lenore and her younger sister do a lot of the daily errands, farmers’ market runs and deliveries throughout the week. Anna tests and plans out the week’s recipes in her (not so) free time and puts in long days Thursdays and Fridays transitioning from her day job into Babe baker at night. I asked Lenore and Anna how they keep each other going and if they ever look around and ask themselves, “what are we doing?” Do they ever have doubts?
In my own business, Marge, I’ve definitely had days, particularly after a difficult, rainy week without earning a profit, when I wonder why I’m not working a traditional job with great health benefits and reliable pay. Anna says she thinks about this issue frequently and there are moments when she suffers from a significant lack of sleep and wonders, “Is this what I really want?” But the answer always comes up with a resounding “Yes.” “The cool thing is, it’s up to you. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she says. Anna’s doing what she loves, working for herself, and getting to spend more time with Lenore in the kitchen. The two women haven’t had the opportunity to really spend time together as adults in this way and their friendship just continues to grow and strengthen as they rely on each other not just as childhood friends but as adults, confidants, and business partners. Lenore agrees, noting “The finances scare me, sure. But I actually don’t have those ‘what am I doing’ moments. Even when we were staying up all night; I’m still so excited!”
So what’s up next? The gals are interested in having a storefront at some point and know that they can’t live at Stable forever. They’re constantly inspired by local bakers like Gillian from Black Jet Baking Company who just secured a sweet kiosk in The Ferry Building. They find inspiration for pies from old Southern cookbooks and their mom’s stash of family recipes. The week I visited, they were featuring a new Pink Lemonade Pie that was one of Lenore’s mom’s favorites. As written it was made with a can of pink lemonade and cool whip, so they knew that wasn’t going to fly. They reworked the recipe to include mascarpone cream, fresh raspberries and plum pulp. It sold like crazy. On a sleepy Sunday morning, I tried the Lemon Lavender Custard with Green Figs and their signature Salty Walnut. The custard pie is perhaps the most perfect late summer pie: the figs were sweet and tender and the custard was oh-so-lightly scented with lavender and lemon. The Salty Walnut was heartier with plenty of chopped local walnuts and little-bit-gooey filling. Not too sweet like so many nut pies with the perfect amount of salt. I can see why there were so many regulars. The couple sitting next to me in the Stable courtyard recounted some of their favorites this past summer. So far, the winner was the Red, White, and Blue Pie the gals did for the Fourth of July although to come to this conclusion, there was some major debate: “No remember that Berry Crumble one they did? Oh, wait what about that Lemony Custard?”
For these women the weeks start to run together. Weeks that are filled with slices of pie–a feeling the Three Babes can obviously relate to. But for The Babes, the pie flavors and the weeks don’t so much run together as create a very full picture of a successful spring and summer that they’re ready to grow from and build upon. As their production numbers keep rising and they question what their next move will be, they continue to make deliberate decisions in the kitchen not to grow too quickly. When I asked about saving time and using a sheeter instead of hand-rolling each pie, Lenore told me that just wasn’t an option. It resulted in an inferior crust–something they’re not willing to sacrifice for speed or greater production numbers. While they’re looking ahead towards future opportunities, it’s always with one foot firmly planted in place to remind them of the families that support them, the town that they came from, the farmers that supply their fruit, and the city the call now call home. From an outsider’s point of view, regardless of the direction, it’s looking bright and sunny for these women every which way.