Poorhouse Pies of Underhill “Pie fixes everything” By Phyl Newbeck
● By John Gales
Poorhouse Pies of Underhill
“Pie fixes everything”
By Phyl Newbeck
Paula Eisenberg jokes that she is the cranky baker (she even contemplated a tee shirt with that slogan), while her wife Jamie is the friendly baker. Whatever their respective demeanors, the two women are the chefs behind Poorhouse Pies, which has been sweetening the dessert options of people in Underhill and beyond for the last nine years.
The couple met in 2002 after being introduced by a mutual friend. “We have a lot of common interests, so it became obvious that we were destined for something,” Paula says. In 2003, she moved into the Underhill home where Jamie has lived for almost 25 years. “Our first commitment,” Paula says with a wry smile, “was that we’d never have a business together because that’s too hard on a relationship.”
Jamie had worked as a chef and cooking instructor at NECI, City Market, and Healthy Living, but in 2009 she lost her job as a result of the recession. “It was kind of shocking, to say the least,” she says. Paula, a baker by trade, had always wanted to open her own small bakery.
“I was one of the naysayers for that,” Jamie says, “but in the middle of this crisis, one of us—it might have been me—suggested that we empty out the garden shed and sell pies as a side income. I was only half joking when I said I feared we’d end up in the poorhouse, so that’s what we named the business.”
The two women did empty out that shed. Then they baked some pies and made a small sign advertising them for sale. People started stopping by to purchase the treats, and the rest is pastry history. “We never dreamt it would be a full-time thing,” Jamie says. “I went back to teaching, but by the next summer, we’d doubled our sales, and we continued to double them every year for the first six years.” After a program on Vermont PBS in 2015 boosted their visibility, Jamie left the Community Kitchen Academy where she had been teaching to join Paula working full-time from the house.
Divvying Up the Labor – and the Pies
Although both women are bakers, there is a division of labor. “I do the grunt work,” Paula says of her work with fruit pies. “Jamie makes the fancy cream pies and our more unusual items like wholesale pastries.” Paula is able to bake 12 pies at a time and does so as often as three times a day. Jamie’s work is different since she makes her crusts and pie fillings separately and can put them together as needed.
Their most popular pie is maple cream, followed by chocolate cream and blueberry as the next most requested items. In addition to selling from their home, the women provide pies for sale at the Jericho Center Country Store, Sweet Clover Market, and Natural Provisions, and Jamie sells soups and cookies to Dobrá Tea. They even do some occasional catering.
On many holiday weekends, the two make donuts, but they are reluctant to publicize that because the demand is greater than what they are able to produce. On the Sundays when they announce that donuts will be available at 8am, they have people lined up at their door as early as 6am. “People bring chairs,” Jamie says, “and it becomes a badge of honor to wait on line in the winter.” The donuts sell out quickly. The very few pies that don’t sell are brought to an Essex food shelf known as Aunt Dot’s Place.
Pies on Your Honor
The pie shed is run on the honor system, and for the most part, that has worked out. “Kids might steal a pie on graduation night,” Jamie says, “and a few years ago a transient tried to jimmy the lock on a Monday morning when there wasn’t anything in there.”
While the occasional customer underpays, many actually overpay rather than knock on the door to ask for change. During the winter, pies are moved to a smaller cupboard-like compartment in front of the house. Paula designs the signs telling customers which shed to approach. The sheds are technically open from 8am to 8pm, but regulars are allowed to visit during off hours.
The pie business can be a bit stressful, particularly during the holidays. The couple estimates that they bake 300 pies, including 180 special orders, in the three days preceding Thanksgiving. Labor Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July are also extremely busy. And while they have no desire to expand the business or hire employees, the women beat the stress by heading to the Bahamas at the end of each holiday season, as well as to their camp in Addison during the summer.
An Unexpected Benefit
Although the name Poorhouse Pies was their own idea, they
did get a little help with their slogan, “pie fixes everything.” “A couple of
our neighbors bought a pie,” Jamie says, “and we saw her sitting in the car with
a cast up to her hip and a pie on her lap. When I asked her if it hurt, she
replied ‘pie fixes everything.’” Conceding that it is probably not an original
slogan, the two have used it ever since.
“We’ve both been at this for a long time,” says Jamie. “I’ve been in the food industry for almost 40 years and Paula has been at it for 41. This wasn’t a whim.” One unexpected benefit of Poorhouse Pies is that it has brought Paula and Jamie closer to their fellow Underhillians. Jamie says that before she started baking, she knew only her immediate neighbors. Now she has more of a sense of community. “The pie shed has become a pride of Underhill,” she says. “We never set out to do that, but it feels good.”
23 Park Street