Food

What It’s Like to Be a Baker

Pie Bakers: Four Twenty Blackbirds

Pie Bakers: Four Twenty Blackbirds

This month, our food series will be all about industry experts. We’ll reveal a day in their life and tips of the trade. First up, the sisters behind the adored pie shop Four & Twenty Blackbirds share what it’s really like to be a baker (everyone’s go-to flight fantasy!)…

Emily and Melissa Elsen opened their first Brooklyn pie shop in 2009. They worked grueling 17-hour days, making all the pies themselves. “I am not a baker, I’m a pie baker,” Emily told us. “Melissa and I both know there’s something special about pie: they’re approachable, not fussy or pretentious.” Eight years later, Four & Twenty Blackbirds has 50 employees, a beautiful cookbook and four storefronts, including a new one in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

1. Pie-making takes a village.
Emily: “Our mom and her sisters ran a family restaurant in Hecla, South Dakota [population 240]. It was our playground growing up. Our grandmother baked the pies. She passed away the year before we opened the shop, so it was definitely in her honor.”
Melissa: “Our mom knew how much work a food business takes. We said, ‘We might start a pie shop, what do you think?’ She was like, ‘Ehhhhh.’ She wanted me to be a lawyer. When she first visited the shop, we were both still putting in 17-hour days. She insisted that we each step out of the pie shop and take a walk around the block and then promptly suggested that we hire more help.”

2. Pies can make you cry.
Emily: “The first time one of our regulars came in, he had tears in his eyes. His mother, who had recently passed away, used to bring him Shoofly pie from Pennsylvania, and he came by to see if we’d make him one. Lo and behold, the night before we had decided to make Shoofly pie, for no reason, other than maybe his mother willed it so.”

3. You set your alarm clock for 3 a.m.
Emily: “At first, we worked all day, starting at 3 or 4 a.m. Thanksgiving really threw us for a loop. People were lining up at 6 a.m. — one woman told us she had gotten up at 4 a.m. to drive from New Jersey! We quickly sold out of pies, and some people were downright mad at us. It was hard because we just wanted to make everyone happy. This Thanksgiving, we ran 24 hours a day, from Sunday night to Thursday morning, and made 4,500 pies.”

4. You make mistakes.
Emily: “Any crazy scenario you can imagine has happened — from our manager slipping with a full tray of pies, to people getting locked out in the middle of the night with pies in the oven. It can be dangerous.”
Melissa: “One night, we had to make a pear pie for an order for the next day. We were all done, just waiting for it to finish, because pears can take a long time — if they’re not ripe enough you have to let them sit in the oven. Waiting, waiting, waiting, we just wanted to go home, it was so late. Finally, it’s done and we pull it out of the oven and it flips and drops on the floor face down. We had to start all over. We were there until 6 a.m.”

5. You can play Cupid.
Emily: “In the early days, when we were baking late into the night, people would come to the back door and holler into the kitchen asking for pies, usually without success. One summer evening, a young guy knocked, begging us for a pie so that he could ‘get out of the doghouse’ with his girlfriend. For him, we obliged.” 

6. Weird flavors can work.
Emily: “In the beginning, we’d try anything. I made a fresh fig and cheese pie that I thought would be amazing, but was really gross. We did a lot of florals like lavender and rose, but people would be like, ‘Why does your pie taste like soap?’ Apricot and lavender didn’t work, but lavender blueberry was fantastic (we still do it). Apple and rosewater is really nice, and we did a peach and tomato pie, but these aren’t the ones that blow people away like salted caramel apple. I’d recommend experimenting with flavors at home, but overall you want to keep it simple.”

7. Go ahead and buy your crust.
Melissa: “Most store-bought crusts have palm oil, and I am not a fan of the taste. You could buy ours, and the Whole Foods crust is also good, because it’s all butter.”

Pie Bakers: Four Twenty Blackbirds

Pie Bakers: Four Twenty Blackbirds

Pie Bakers: Four Twenty Blackbirds

Pie Bakers: Four Twenty Blackbirds

Thank you, Emily and Melissa!

P.S. Chocolate blackberry pudding and six favorite Brooklyn restaurants.

(Photos by Christine Han for Cup of Jo.)

  1. I just want to eat now! They look delicious and eye catching!

  2. Oh, the cakes look delicious and attractive

  3. Gently mentioning that these women are absolutely professionals too – their office just happens to be a (industrial) kitchen! I know many professionals who don’t work nearly as hard, or achieve anywhere near as much business success, as these incredible women. :)

  4. This kind of story really inspires me to know how someone starts from scratch ding everything by themselves until they are now employing so many people.

  5. This is great if you live in or near Brooklyn. The rest of us will just have to imagine from afar <3

  6. I loved this serie!!! hope you do more food experts like this! I’m right on the process to open my own food shop and like seen other’s people experiences!!xoxo

  7. Last summer I was in NYC for the day and made a point to get out to Brooklyn to try pie at this place. I took the subway and then walked and finally hopped in a cab to get there. The pie was so good and it was a memorable adventure!

  8. tsampamama says...

    Thank you for starting this series. It’s great insight for those of us who have fantasized about running a bakery, a cafe or a bed and breakfast (hint! hint! Pretty please!) to learn about the reality of the business and day to day. Both the joys and the heartache.

  9. amanda june says...

    i’ve never been a big pie fan but that’s started to change in the last couple years. i’ve started to make pie more since my husband loves it (apple, chicken pot…) but my problem is making it pretty. i always wind up with tasty, ugly pies. i mean, i realize that’s better than a beautiful horrid-tasting pie, but still…

  10. Ingrid says...

    I love pie, and I love the story of the shoofly pie. I believe his mom really did give you the idea. Moms love their babies forever! I’d definitely be a regular customer if I lived anywhere near.

    • the shoofly pie story!! I especially think this had to have come from his mom because honestly, shoofly pie is pretty obscure/unheard of unless you live in PA (or are part of the Mennonite/Amish community). It has been one of my favorites my whole life…would love to try theirs! So cool.

  11. I loved reading this! Especially their pie failures because A) I’ve never been able to master pies and B) I’ve also made flavorless or disgusting desserts. Glad to know it happens to even the professionals. I’m a back from scratch kind of girl but a friend recommended buying dough from Trader Joes. Never again, now I always make the dough but still can’t make a really good pie. I think I’ll stick to cookies and cakes and try again this summer when it’s Strawberry season (mm my mouths watering just thinking about that).

    x Tali

  12. Love this series! I used to work for a Culinary School so I know a lot about what it takes for those in the industry to get to where there are. It’s a fascinating peek into that world and I highly respect it (and realize how hard it is to do it!).

  13. Danielle says...

    Give me a pie over cupcakes or cake anyday. Too bad they aren’t down here, but I discovered a local pie joint where I live and it is oh-so-lovely. :)

  14. Annalise Wagstaff says...

    I live in Switzerland and when I eat apple pie I feel like I am back in my beloved Boston with friends or in my parents home again. Its truly one of the coziest foods. On that note, I think I will make some pie this weekend.

  15. ok, now I have to bake a pie LOL

  16. I just gasped out loud when I read about the pear pie flopping on the floor… that would have been devastating… and how amazing are they to stay until 6am to make another pie so they wouldn’t let their customer down. They’ve really earned every ounce of their success. Good on them!

    I love these kind of success stories :-)

    Now I need to buy one of their pie crusts and get baking… feeling inspired!

    http://www.thislifeisbelle.com

  17. I love how you guys can make everything interesting. I don’t even love pie but I loved reading this…Side note: How do you come up with interesting interview questions to get people to talk? It seems like you always get your interview subjects to dig deep when they respond, which brings so much life to these blog posts! I’d love to know your secret.

  18. Vanessa says...

    I used to live down the street from the original shop in brooklyn. This place was my haven while pregnant and my treat after sleepless nights with a newborn. I can remember many late mornings with my infant when she refused to nap and me teary/bleary eyed with yet another slice of pie. So happy for their success. Love 4 and 20 blackbirds dearly!

  19. Vicki says...

    Anybody else singing Andie Macdowell’s song from that movie, “pie, pie, me oh my, I love pie”? Because I do, I love pie. It’s so pretty and homey and yummy!

  20. PIE!!! My favorite! But oy vey, the stories of the pies dropping and the bakers being locked out with pies in the oven – THE STRESS.

  21. This is such a cool series! Love it!

  22. Yay Emily and Melissa! It’s been incredible watching Four and Twenty Blackbirds grow. Love the little anecdotes shared in this post. xo

  23. I run my own floral design business and I completely get everything they’ve mentioned about big ideas at the beginning, keeping it simple, hiring help, working 24 hours. Huge standing ovation to them. Running your own business is hard, hard work but it must be so rewarding for them now (while continuing to be hard work!) I wish I was near one of their stores.

  24. I love this! I grew up in a family business that was cut flowers and a native plant nursery, which was all on the same property as our house. I worked for our family business all through my twenties and know how hard it is. People always think its so easy or pretty from the outside. I really like hearing these behind the scenes stories and real life failures. It takes an enormous amount of fortitude to run your own business!

  25. Abesha1 says...

    Interesting interview…… Where’s a recipe? A pie-baking tip?

    Would have been icing in the cake. Pun intended.

    • Abesha1 says...

      Icing “on” the cake. Messed up my own joke!

    • Stephanie says...

      ???

    • Erin says...

      If you click on the shoofly pie link, there is a full recipe. Looks hard though :)

  26. Tiffany says...

    I just spent way too much time on their site and instagram, the list of places to visit (and EAT) in NY just keeps growing. Cheers!

  27. Alice says...

    This was a really interesting read, loved it! I’m so looking forward to this month of foodie careers.

    I also would love to see this as a regular feature in any field…go on, go on!

  28. Angela says...

    I normally make my own pie crust, but good to know about Whole Foods. I try to stay away from palm oil in products, as it’s harvesting contributes to deforestation and habitat loss for many animals. Plus, I mean, butter. How do you go wrong there? ?

  29. Summer says...

    I love this series already! I’ll definitely be visiting the next time I’m in that area (and I’m curious about the name also – sounds very Beatles-esque :P).

    Also, I’ve been going through some stress lately, but that story about the pear pie…. I PHYSICALLY felt that feeling yall probably had. Comforting that we all have those “pear pie” moments, but man, it’s awful going through them.

    • RBC says...

      It’s a nursery rhyme :)

    • Joy says...

      Four and twenty blackbirds is from a classic nursery rhyme!! (The birds get baked into a pie!) I have toddlers, haha, so we read nursery rhymes often.

  30. caro says...

    A recipe with the article would be better ;-)!

  31. Lo says...

    Lavendar as an ingredient has always bemused me, but I’m so down to try the lavender blueberry mix!

    Lo
    http://www.themixtures.com

  32. Andrea says...

    There is something about a floor that calls out for pie. My mother is the best pie maker out there and one day had created a beautiful lemon meringue. Being a foolish teenager, my older brother one handed her finished creation and singing its praises. Of course, he ended up losing control of the pan and flipping the pie face down on the kitchen floor.

    She hauls out that story every time she makes pie.

  33. Karine, from London says...

    I am reading this… In London! I am a little bit mad at you Megan because I really want to taste the lavender blueberry one! More seriously, thank you ladies for regularly making us discover women having their own businesses. The hard work, the doubts, the wonderful products, everything!

  34. Tshego says...

    I just love when people put their heart & souls into their work. The customer parts made me so teary! The pear pie though :(

  35. bisbee says...

    This is great if you live in or near Brooklyn. The rest of us will just have to imagine from afar…

  36. As much as Ioved reading this article, it probably wasn’t the best decision to read it at lunch time, as now ALL I can think about is pie!!

    What a great read though and I am so excited about this month’s food series :)

  37. This was such a lovely read. My dream is to open my own bakery one day (My name is Sarah Lee after all), and I have this ideal image in my head. I’m glad I know the reality isn’t always as dreamy. But hey~ Nothing good comes without struggle and hardship.

  38. Kathryn says...

    Love this post! And now I want some of their pie :)

  39. Lily says...

    In love with this series idea! Can’t wait for the next one, and now I want some pie.

  40. Laura says...

    Four and Twenty is just beyond. I loved getting to read about these badass sisters! And to see how adorable and svelte they are! If I had a pie shop I think I may eat all of the profits.

  41. Emilie says...

    I recently took a class at Magpie, the pie bakery in Philly, and the owner similarly shared a lot of behind-the-scenes stories of how she launched the business. It’s fascinating! I love to bake and have always dreamed of opening a cafe, but these women show the incredible work that is involved. It’s not at all like the hobby!

  42. Ines says...

    I would love for you to feature Elena Reygadas from Rosetta here in Mexico City – Leny Letter recently profiled her and I think Bon Apetit is featuring her too. She does amazing recipes mixing local ingredients and traditional mexican cuisine from all over the country with european techniques and flavours.

    I could even interview her for you! :)

  43. Amy says...

    This was fantastic!! My husband is a small business owner (makes solid wood furniture) and it’s so humbling to read the behind the scenes of others businesses as the struggles are so relatable no matter what you do. Especially when things go wrong and the hours you put in to make it work!
    (If you are curious his site is http://www.kentonjeskewoodworker.com)

    :)

  44. lauren says...

    I am SO excited about this series!! Thank you!

  45. I love this look behind the curtain – and I LOVE Four & Twenty Blackbirds! When I was pregnant, “want to meet for some pie?” was my “want to meet for a drink?”

  46. Allyson says...

    Love this! My good friend owns a local bakery and the entire family literally doesn’t sleep from about Monday at noon to Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. I have a whole different kind of respect for bakers after helping them out last year!

  47. Sydney says...

    If you guys are looking industry experts I would highly recommend the owners of Earnest Ice cream, Erica Bernardi and Ben Ernst. It is all the way in Vancouver but it is such a cool company, they sell pints of their ice cream in reusable glass jars and everything is small batch so that they can use local seasonal ingredients.

    I’m a little biased since it is co-owned by my cousin, but the whole family is so incredibly proud of her for growing such a successful business with great values. They started with just a bicycle towed freezer at farmers markets and are now opening their third storefront. Also as a bonus she is married to a donut maker!

    • Summer says...

      That sounds amaaazing!

    • Laura says...

      my in laws own the building they’re in at 2nd and quebec! we LOVE earnest!

  48. Li says...

    I love this post and this series! How insightful. It’s so inspiring to see them work so hard for their dreams.

  49. Kirsten says...

    Wow! Their pies look like pieces of art. So impressive that they have four storefronts now!

  50. This is such a fun interview!! I keep crossing my fingers they come out with gluten-free pie soon; my husband says the pies are AMAZING!

  51. on pies will make you cry: yes, they make me cry. i am not a pie girl, without fail making pie crusts will render me into tears. my sweet husband though. oh swoon, the man can roll out pie crust like a dream. so in our relationship, he does the pie, i do the cakes and cookies. <3

    • Carrie says...

      Sounds like me when I tried to make calzones. I felt like having a straight up toddler style tantrum. I haven’t tried to work with dough since.

  52. Tawny says...

    “I’m not a baker; I’m a pie baker”…that’s my line too so I totally get it. My friends have been trying to get me to open a pie business. I even had people ready to invest. So anyone who has actually gone out there and done it—I applaud you!!! For now (and probably forever), my pies will just be for my loved ones.

  53. Cait says...

    I LOVE behind-the-scenes posts like this! And glimpses into the food industry especially. Thank you thank you! I confess I’m not particularly a pie person but I’d love to try one of their famous pies.

  54. Jami-Lin says...

    What a cool series!!! And omg that pieee :0

  55. Joy says...

    Loved this. My pie-loving brother (who tragically passed away a couple years ago) used to tell me it was my destiny/duty to open a pie shop, when I got married and moved to the beautiful countryside in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania. That was about 6 years ago, now… and I never did open that pie shop, though I dreamed of it often. It was fun to relive that dream vicariously through this honest and mouth-watering post!

    • Summer says...

      Awww, that’s so lovely. So sorry about your brother, Joy.

  56. Sometimes I fantasize owning a bakery (in another life), but it’s easy to forget just HOW MUCH WORK IT IS. The long hours, the grueling physicality of it, the dangers! Really admire what these bakers do, but I’ll just keep it in my daydreams, haha. <3

  57. This is great! I’ve been secretly wanting to open a pie shop for ages (they’re my specialty), but there’s a super famous one right down the street from my house already, and I really really really hate waking up early. I guess I’ll stick to baking pies at home!

  58. I love seeing this glimpse into the behind-the-scenes of other people’s lives and businesses! I’m probably just really nosy haha

    xx

  59. Denise says...

    O my.. pie! & rhubarb is almost ripe. Tart rhubarb pie and tart cherry pie are my favorites.

    • Myra says...

      Denise I am totally counting the days til rhubarb is ripe and I can start baking rhubarb pie! Have you ever tried rhubarb and strawberry pie? I have been making the joy of baking version for years and every spring my entire family asks for it :)

    • kristen says...

      Smitten Kitchen has a fabulous recipe for strawberry rhubarb pie. Deb knows what’s up!

  60. I love this series! And it’s really interesting to read about this line of work.

  61. Char says...

    Love this idea and am looking forward to the rest of the series! I’m curious what their days are like now, 8 years later…

  62. Tricia says...

    Three cheers for shoofly pie! (says the Pennsylvania girl…feeling homesick)

  63. Carrie says...

    I loved this! These girls are so inspiring. Hard work pays off!!

  64. Giulia says...

    This is brilliant! Thank you Megan!! I am a part-time baker in a shop, and have a little dream about this, it kept me going all through PhD! :)

  65. kayla says...

    so inspiring! two girls from south dakota who are living the dream! i am now so incredibly hungry for pie.

  66. Brittany says...

    I think this is a really neat series, but I would also like to see interviews with professionals-scientists, historians, lawyers, doctors, social workers, IT, etc.

    • Elizabeth says...

      Gently mentioning that these women are absolutely professionals too – their office just happens to be a (industrial) kitchen! I know many professionals who don’t work nearly as hard, or achieve anywhere near as much business success, as these incredible women. :)

    • Emma Bee says...

      And also the other employees. The food industry is run on the backs of immigrants and I’m sure there are some interesting stories there.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      yes — this isn’t a career series, it’s part of our weekly food series, so we’re focusing on food professionals only. but more careers are coming up in other categories of the site!

    • heather says...

      I’m a lawyer, and I feel inspired by these women. I’m reading Angela Duckworth’s book, “Grit,” right now, and these women HAVE IT. I can imagine just what that must feel like, to dump the pear pie on the ground and have to start over and not sleep, and I deeply admire the passion and motivation that got that replacement pie done by 6 am. I’m going to be picturing that dusty pear pie on the floor the next time I have a tight deadline and a crummy set of facts.

    • Leah says...

      My thoughts exactly