meet lisa: baking pies and building sisterhood in detroit

“The thing about being an entrepreneur or following a dream is that you have to give it your all, and there’s no time as an adult when nothing will distract you.” It’s one thing to realize that, but Lisa Ludwinski articulated it perfectly—and it sure resonated. She lives in Detroit and runs her pie company, Sister Pie, from home (for now). She got started in November 2012, and her momentum hasn’t stopped building.

Lisa Ludwinski, Sister Pie, PWP

Sister Pie is Sister Pie not just ’cause it’s a nickname, but because of sisterhood,” Lisa says, “and the bonding relationships women can have with each other.”

Kate and I began a weekend in Detroit picking apples with Lisa—Cortlands and Jonathons for her fall pies—and couldn’t have planned it better. Lisa was full of inspiring thoughts for anyone following a dream, and she had the best recommendations to kick off our time in Michigan. (Vinsetta Garage might be worth the drive alone!)

People with Panache: Where did the name Sister Pie come from?

Lisa Ludwinski: I lived in Brooklyn for 6 years after college and moved back to Michigan with the goal of opening a business. I knew that I wanted to have a bakery/restaurant in Detroit, and pie seemed like the perfect way to introduce it. I named it Sister Pie because it was a nickname my little sister and I called each other when we were younger.

PWP: Cute! So when did you start cooking and baking?

LL: I started by doing a cooking show in my Brooklyn apartment, called “Funny Side Up.” And my mom used to make pie when I was growing up, so I probably learned apple from her, but it wasn’t till I started my show that I learned to master pie crust from scratch. The thing about pie-making is that the first won’t be beautiful. Even now it isn’t always—though it is a lot of times.

Lisa’s apple pie tip: Use a variety, and always mix in a really tart apple, like a Granny Smith.

Lisa’s apple pie tip: Use a variety, and always mix in a really tart apple, like a Granny Smith.

My last year in Brooklyn, I worked at a bakery called Four & Twenty Blackbirds with the two sisters who own it. That was the repetition I needed to make me confident.

I learned through my cooking show that there’s always going to be a moment in baking when you’re convinced you messed everything up and it’s going to be terrible. But unless you put in more salt than sugar, there’s no bad pie.

PWP: True that! We’d guess it’s something pie-related… but what makes you happiest?

LL: I think of two things: One is being able to enjoy the nature of Michigan while exercising. One of the reasons I love that I’ve returned is that I can bike in spring, swim in summer, maybe run in winter. I get to experience the beauty of the state and the connection to nature I feel with Sister Pie, especially with the seasonal aspect of pies.

The other thing is making pie. Really whenever I’m feeling down about the business or stressed out, I remember: “At least you get to make pie, because that’s what you like to do, and you’re doing it!” Not a lot of people can do that or have chosen to. Making the pie, being able to give it to someone and seeing them get excited about it makes everything worth it.

“There’s no time like the present. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity.”

PWP: We can imagine it’s taken a ton of love and hard work to get here and actually make a living. Can you tell us more about how you got to this point?

LL: Well, I was a theater major in college. I wanted to do directing. I moved to New York with the intention to get into theater but realized I didn’t have the passion to keep going. With something like theater you really, really, really have to have passion or you’ll be miserable.

I’d never been in such a food culture before. Right around that time was also when the food revolution was really starting to happen and becoming a more important part of our culture.

I worked at Starbucks for a while, and someone older and wiser told me: If you can figure out the basic action that you want to do and that makes you happy, then you can do any career as long as you know what that is. I liked working at Starbucks. I liked making drinks and handing them off. So I figured out there was a part of my personality that makes me want to give to people.

“One aspect of my business is to make a point that you don’t have to follow a recipe to a T,” Lisa says. “You’re only going to learn if you keep trying. Every once in a while you’ll do something and it will be amazing…and you won’t be able to re-create it and it’s fine! It’s like life.”

“One aspect of my business is to make a point that you don’t have to follow a recipe to a T,” Lisa says. “You’re only going to learn if you keep trying. Every once in a while you’ll do something, it will be amazing and you won’t be able to re-create it—and it’s fine! It’s like life.”

I also spent 4 years as a part-time nanny. They were my family away from home, and it was actually a great job for somebody who’s kind of figuring things out.

Then I started doing “Funny Side Up,” eventually started working behind the counter at this bakery I really liked, and applied for a scholarship to come back to Michigan for a series of internships at Zingerman’s and Avalon International Breads in Detroit. All those things led me back here.

PWP: It’s so cool you did this without going to baking school!

LL: I realize I’m a self-starter. In this day and age, you have to be a DIY person. Before people started making changes in Detroit, there weren’t systems in place to get started, but now we’re working together so people can move here and have a chance to be successful.

PWP: What was one of your proudest accomplishments?

LL: When I started the company. Starting it at Thanksgiving time is an equally good and crazy idea—it’s the biggest pie holiday. I had an order of 40 pies in the first 2 days I was open. When they were done, I just looked at all those pies on the table, and that was truly a proud moment.

For Thanksgiving I donated all the actual profits to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. I thought it would be a good way to start my business: with giving. It was my way to introduce myself to Michigan again but remember that New York is a part of me, too.

PWP: What’s your advice for others wanting to start something?

LL: As Nike would say, just do it. There’s no time like the present. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity. If you get into the mindset of putting things off, you’ll regret it.

And remember everything changes. I think it’s important to have a mantra at all times. Everything changes.

Lisa Ludwinski, Sister Pie, People With Panache

Another Lisa gem: “At the end of the day you just have to be ready for change, and be a person who’s able to adapt.”

[Photos by Alysse.]

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