The Bay Area has a lot going for it. Our summer lasts longer than most, fresh produce and farmers markets abound, and around every corner there’s something interesting going on—from museums to music festivals to a new hike or a scenic drive. The local food community is fiercely supportive, and small businesses and food trucks are popping up in neighborhoods all around San Francisco and the East Bay. Jaynelle St. Jean, owner of Oakland’s sweetest pie window Pietisserie, and Gillian Shaw of Black Jet Bakery are among those businesses.
St. Jean started baking in high school, but never thought she’d actually have a business featuring pie. And she didn’t necessarily set out to do so, either. One day, she decided to give pie away out of the window of her mom’s house in San Francisco: “I dressed up the window with striped curtains and I served pie by the slice to anyone walking by on a glass plate—the point was that I’d get to meet them and they’d stay there. People loved it. I loved it.”
After moving around to a number of commercial kitchens and locations to sell her pies (St. Jean even does “Random Acts of Sweetness,” showing up unexpectedly at parks and street corners to give away slices), she has slowly become known as “the pie lady” and is constantly thinking about how to grow the little pie window from its Friday home in Old Oakland’s Swan Market to a bigger, more permanent home.
“I think that what I found is that pie does for other people exactly what it does for me. It’s about what it represents– about sustenance,” St. Jean says. “I used to be a legal assistant. I used to do a lot of thing, actually. But now, at the end of the day I make pie. It makes people happy. I get psyched about how I can impact people’s day and mood.”
Gillian Shaw of San Francisco’s Black Jet Baking Co. shares a similar experience in starting small, moving around, and hustling to gain customers and brand recognition. Shaw moved to San Francisco from the East Coast to attend pastry school. After graduating, she started baking at Moose’s in North Beach and then moved on to The Liberty Café where she really learned how to make pie. There Shaw also met Max Newman, who now works closely with her at Black Jet, and made an important realization: “I’m a baker, not a pastry chef. I like rustic.”
Shaw rented out a commercial kitchen and began pumping out nostalgic sweets like pop-tarts and devil dogs to anyone who would try them.
“When I first started Black Jet, I was working two jobs and the insanity of that was too much--it was time to quit,” Shaw said. There was a lot of juggling and not a lot of sleep. “When your dream is coming true, it’s kind of scary. It doesn’t feel like a Disney movie. You ask yourself, what if I mess this up? And those days of driving around with Black Jet samples and putting yourself out there and really selling it...that was really challenging.”
Today all of the sampling and small-scale deliveries have paid off and Shaw has a much-coveted booth at San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace, which attracts six million visitors each year. You’d think she’d start settling in. She’s not.
While she feel very much at home in the spot in The Ferry Building, Black Jet Bakery has outgrown their kitchen space and are working to find a brick-and-mortar that would house a kitchen and a storefront, hopefully, in a year’s time. “We definitely want a home,” Shaw said. “As much as the commercial kitchen is collaborative and great in that way, we want a neighborhood spot. The Liberty Café gave us a taste of what that means. Liberty was an open baking space and I loved getting to see all of the customers. We really want that.”
St. Jean is also working towards brick-and-mortar. “I think that Pietisserie offers great pie but also offers an experience, and for that to be fully articulated, that has to happen in a place,” she said. “I’m concerned with neighborhoods and being a good neighbor and living a certain pace.”
Neighborhoods are also important to Shaw. She loves the loyal food community in San Francisco, and having the opportunity to bounce ideas off of friends like Sara Spearin of Dynamo Donuts and Eileen Hassi of Ritual Coffee. It’s work, sure. But at the end of the day, it’s not just about you anymore. When you’re in the food business and you’re producing a product that sustains and nourishes others, it’s bigger than that. It’s about your friends, the people on your block, the visitors you meet who write letters telling you how much they love your pie; it’s about your city; it’s about the life you choose to create for yourself in the community you’ve come to love. A community that loves you back and will constantly welcome you home.
Find Jaynelle at Swann’s Market every Friday from her 7-foot tall, 5-foot wide window in addition to other locations around the Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook for updates on specials and events.
Photos of Pietisserie courtesy of Robin Jolin.
Find Gillian Shaw at her Black Jet Baking Co. booth in the San Francisco Ferry Building, and enjoy her treats at the following Bay Area spots. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook for updates on specials and events.
Photos of Gillian Shaw courtesy of Paige Green.