Pie in the sky
Her grandmother planted the seed.
But it was years and plenty of experiences later when the seed began to grow.
Judith Larsen, more commonly known as the Village Pie Maker, was in her 40s when she launched her livelihood from a tiny bedroom in Sumner.
Today, the pies are sold in Gothenburg and at other Nebraska businesses and restaurants.Distributer giant Cash-Wa Distributing picked up the Village Pie Maker account more than a year ago and transports Larsen’s product across 11 states.
Larsen said she never grew up saying she was going to be a pie maker.
“I was going to be a writer,” she said in a newly remodeled building in Eustis that employs 22 workers.
In fact, Larsen flunked home economics while growing up in Greeley, CO, even though she learned the art of pie- and cinnamon roll-making from her grandmother.
As an adult, Larsen operated tractors, irrigated and sprayed crops, worked on ranches and feedlots, milked cows, delivered propane and drove a school bus.
A desire to keep her high-school-aged son Weston out of mischief prompted her to leave Greeley for a job at an agricultural cooperative in Sumner.
Nebraska and its Sandhills had become a part of Larsen as a child, she said, when she visited grandparents and other relatives in Ericson.
When the seed of wanting business autonomy began to sprout, Larsen took out paper and penned her goals.
“I wanted to know financial independence, work for myself and do women’s work,” she said. “And I knew what I wanted to do.”
That wish became more defined the longer she worked delivering propane to farmers in subzero temperatures and later driving a school bus on icy roads.
“That was when I longed to be home in my kitchen baking,” Larsen said.
She mustered enough courage to quit her job as a school maintenance person and with $2,000 in savings and a 1988 Ford Escort, renovated her son’s bedroom and installed garage sale freezers and other equipment.
By the summer of 2003, Larsen was making pies full time and trying to figure out how to sell them.
“I went to restaurants and also started selling pie by the slice with ice cream at small-town festivals,” she said.
At one point, Larsen sold her pies from a pickup truck parked along Interstate 80 and played her fiddle between sales.
Looking back, Larsen said she began her pie-making business with a tremendous amount of faith.
“All I knew in my heart was that it was going to work,” she said. “And then things started falling into place.”
Larsen met people who gave her “nuggets” of advice like the Nebraska Business Development Center which assisted her with a business plan.
Baking small pies and marketing them as “baby” pastry to businesses through radio advertisements lifted sales as did freezing her product.
Larsen was still a one-woman show—baking, freezing, marketing and delivering her wares as fast as she could.
“I was dead tired,” she said about 100-hour work weeks.
As business increased, economic development groups from several towns came calling.
In January of 2004, she renovated an old creamery in Eustis and hired one employee.
Business began to soar.
After 60 days in new surroundings, the Village Pie Maker’s three-year business plan was obsolete.
“We exceeded every goal,” she said.
Since then, she and a man she calls Simon the Pieman—who Larsen hired to market her pies and later married—bought 25 acres in north Eustis where they doubled the size of a shop on the property to accommodate production and office and storage space.
The 22 full or “close to full-time” employees make 1,200 pies a day compared to the 35-40 she made during her first year.
Larsen said more freezer space and storage will be added in 2010 and up to 13 more employees to produce 2,500 pies daily.
Another goal is to offer employee benefits.
“We couldn’t do this without them,” Larsen said about her “pie divas.” “They’re vital.”
Larsen attributes her success to “attitude, enthusiasm and a belief in your business.”
Equally important is showing up every day and giving it her best in addition to excellent customer service and “shooting square with people.”
A critical ingredient in her pies which Larsen described as wholesome is making and handling dough.
“It’s weighed, shaped, filled and crimped by hand without preservatives,” she explained, noting that senior citizens come in early each morning to work the dough.
“Our recipe is more about technique and handling dough minimally,” she explained. “That’s a dying art because it can’t be manipulated by a mechanical dough divider.”
Larsen’s grandmother learned the technique from her mother-in-law when they baked pies for ranch hands.
The pie maker has taken another step toward wholesomeness by contracting the delivery of blueberries from a Michigan grower.
She plans to follow suit with other growers and varieties of fruit.
“Our product is simple and basic—that’s the way we do business and it comes back to us,” Larsen said.
In addition to believing in herself and using her “noggin,” Larsen advises other would-be entrepreneurs to not become overwhelmed.
“You can drive yourself crazy by doing that,” she said. “You have to look at it in baby steps and figure out the next logical step.”
One final word from Larsen was about the strength of blind faith.
“Expect to be amazed.”