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  • 26 Nov 2014

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The life of pie

Grand Central Baking digs into sustainability as Thanksgiving blitz heats up


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Kaylyn Hacklander, a baker at Grand Central's new Beaumont cafe, prepares a batch of pumpkin pies for the store's holiday rush. The company doesn't hoard its recipes: both sweet and savory recipes as well as baking tips and video tutorials are posted online.Gina Langley eyeballs about four cups of dried beans and pours them into a large coffee filter, completely filling the unbaked pie shell.

She pops it in a 350-degree oven and retrieves it 25 minutes later: a golden, flaky shell, the perfect vessel for bourbon pecan goodness.

“See how nicely it comes out?” she asks the six bakers watching as she gently lifts the coffee filter full of beans out, to use again for the next pie. “Butter’s a wonderful thing.”

Langley, the tattoo sleeved, ponytail-braded retail manager for Portland’s seven Grand Central Baking Co. stores, led a quick workshop last week to the half-dozen lead bakers who are new to the company and haven’t yet experienced what they call the “Thanksgiving blitz.”

The two or three days before Thanksgiving each year are by far the busiest time for Grand Central and most other bakeries, as they sell hundreds of pies, specialty breads and other items for the family dinner table.

As anyone who works in the food industry knows, it would be easy to end up with a lot of waste in the process.

But Grand Central — which began in Seattle in 1972 and expanded to Portland 20 years later — has made its mission to eliminate as much waste as possible.

“It’s a tricky science,” says Piper Davis, daughter of Grand Central’s founder and the company’s cuisine manager. “The better ingredients we use, the better we have to be about controlling waste.”

Fresher pecans

Ingredient-wise, Grand Central has been one of the pioneers in local and sustainable food sourcing. The company is constantly on the lookout for better-quality, tastier and more sustainably grown products, Davis says.

Nuts used in the 200 or so pecan pies sold last year, for example, were ordered through a standard bulk shipment from Texas, since they aren’t native to the West Coast.

This year, however, Davis had come into contact with a pecan purveyor in North Carolina, “Farmer Elbie,” and his boutique company called “The Nut House.”

The nuts are “buttery tasting and super fresh,” Davis says. “It’s this year’s crop. Most (others) are last year’s crop.”

While North Carolina might not be considered “local,” Davis explains the change: “Our ethos is for an ingredient we can’t source locally, let’s find something special from a farmer we can connect to. We take the middle man out as much as possible.”

The new pecans’ moisture and freshness meant the baking time had to be adjusted, so a taste-testing session was promptly organized.

The premium ingredient’s cost and labor also meant a price increase of $2 to $23.95, but most customers will appreciate the difference, Davis says.

And, if they’d rather make their own pie from scratch, Grand Central is happy to help.

The company sold about 1,200 U-Bake pie dough and shells last year, about twice their sales of fresh pecan and pumpkin pies. It also doesn’t regard its recipes as secrets: they’re printed on take-home cards at the register, as well as the company’s website and the Grand Central Baking hardcover book, co-written three years ago by Davis.

Raising the bar

In its two decades of business in Portland, Grand Central has taken a cautious approach toward expansion, Davis says.

The seventh and latest cafe to open was in Beaumont this past summer, where sales have been bustling but not yet near that of the city’s busiest stores, Hawthorne and Multnomah Village. Sellwood and Irvington are next busiest.

It’s Davis’ job to study the sales at each location and the trends in that neighborhood to try to order and produce just enough to sell without waste. Before Thanksgiving and Christmas, they encourage and sell mostly through pre-orders.

“It’s a lot of guesswork,” says Langley, the retail manager. “We could bomb completely.”

Just before Thanksgiving, the walk-in freezers at North Fremont — the commissary and central kitchen — stood full of U-Bake pie shells ready to be filled with their pumpkin filling or “pecan goo,” as it’s called. The pie assembly and baking happens at each cafe site.

The formula seems to be working. The company’s sales never bottomed out during the recession, just flattened.

“It’s not the rockin’ ‘90s around here, but it’s solid,” Davis says. “Portland prioritizes really good baked goods. It’s stable, and it’s safe.”

Even as artisan bakeries have popped up around town, she says, it just raises the bar for quality products.

“I never worry about competition,” Davis says. “I want everybody eating better baked goods. We’re not slicing up a single pie — we’re growing the pie. I want a bigger and better pie out there.”