714 Traction Ave · Los Angeles, CA 90013 · Neighborhood: Downtown
Think back… way back… to your fondest “Pie” memory… Smelling the aroma of your grandmother’s pumpkin pie coming from the kitchen on Thanksgiving morning… Perhaps you think of enjoying warm apple pie on Independence Day with friends. Every American has a personal connection with pie. Me? Oh, I’m a sucker for a good chicken potpie. I can eat it anywhere, any time and it always hits the spot, especially on a cold rainy day. Whatever the case may be for you, Pie is a special food that makes us think of family, friends and no doubt triggers warm fuzzy feelings. Pie makes us happy.
Sean Brennan, co-owner of The Pie Hole Los Angeles says it best…
“Who has a slice of pie and a cup of coffee and feels shitty afterwards!?”
Enter on an ambitious group of entrepreneurs who decided to bring to LA a bit of what pie means to them. What used to be a sketchy Mexican restaurant is now a place for the community to gather. After some gentle coercing from her son Matt, the matriarch of the Pie Hole, Rebecca Grasley finally realized her dream of opening up a pie shop.
Luckily for us, she brings her award winning family recipes and a family lovin’ to The Artist District in downtown Los Angeles. The Pie Hole hasn’t had their doors open for more than little over half a year, yet residents to the neighborhood are very proud and very protective of their little Pie Hole. Located directly across from the popular sausage kitchen Wurstküche, Los Angeles locals stop in daily for savory chicken potpies or mac and cheese pies and saunter over in the evenings for a sweet treat. Along with various (changing daily) specialty pies, The Pie Hole Los Angeles offers custom coffee brews from the LA coffee maker Groundwork coffee as well as an emotional attachment, family history and sincere love of the pie itself.
The Backyard Bite recently sat down with longtime friends and co-owners, Matthew Heffner and Sean Brennan to find out what makes their little Pie Hole so gosh darn special.
BYB: So, what’s your story? How did the Pie Hole come about?
Matt: We’ve been friends for 4 or 5 years now. Sean has had years of restaurant experience and my mom had always wanted to open up a pie shop. I always tell (people) the story about how my dad was going to open up a sporting goods store and then my mom would say, “We can put a pie counter in there!” When I was a kid, it’s all she had ever talked about. So when she retired, and all her kids had moved away I thought, man, I wish there was a way I could invest in this idea myself and start a business. So I said, ‘mom you should open up a pie shop! You’ve always talked about doing it, your pies have won awards in state fairs for years…’ it’s something that she loves to do, and is good at. She’s never been a shoot from the hip kinda person. But she said, “yeah, ok! Let’s do it!”
Sean: (I told them) There’s a market opportunity here, there’s sort of a trend going on now, and if you are going to do a “pie-thing”, you should do it, but there’s going to be a right way and wrong way to do it. I always give this advice to anybody starting up a business, get a partner – someone who knows what they are doing and then, invest in it and get it going. I thought they had a great idea there.
BYB: Was there a lot of compromising in taking the idea from your mom’s kitchen and turning it into a commercial brick and mortar shop?
Matt: Oh yeah, for sure. What you have to remember is that mom would bake only one or two pies. When she comes in the shop now, it’s still hard for her to get her single pie recipe out in 30 pies. She’s still living in New Jersey, but she’ll come in every few months and bring in new recipes and ideas. She’ll talk to our executive chef Adrianna Sullivan (Providence, Water Grill, Nickel Diner, Eveleigh, Manhattan Beach Post) and make sure they are on the same page. It’s really a nice working environment. Adrianna takes (my mom’s) recipes and puts them through a creative process where everything is a little bit tweeked and she is able to make them more commercial. This way, we are able to do 10 or 12 pies instead of just one at a time. My mom would come in here and do one single pie, one crust at a time and by midnight she’d finally have 10 pies. And she still does that! For Thanksgiving she flew in and she did all of our pumpkin pies. She made my great-grandmother’s recipe and made every single pie – one at a time, in one mixer.
BYB: Ooh, I bet those were good.
Matt: We’re talking like 40 pies over 3 days. It was just a lot of love and a lot of work going into them. I like to think that those Thanksgiving pies had a little something extra special in them.
BYB: Your pies change seasonally?
Matt: Oh, yeah. They change and everything is fresh. Nothing comes from a can, we don’t freeze anything. Everyday, we have a truck here delivering produce every morning.
BYB: Where do you get your produce?
Sean: We have local purveyors. Our strawberries for example, come from a farm where Chef Adrianna lives.
Matt: My machinist boss (from my other job) owns an avocado and lemon farm and he came in today with a huge box of lemons and was like “Hey! Can you use these!?” They are in the lemon meringue pie’s today! I’m going to text him later – that will really make his day. It’s called “Baker’s Green Acres.” It’s great.
Sean: We have regular deliveries that come. We always know the source of everything. It’s all local. That’s the best part about running a restaurant or pie shop in California; it’s the largest agricultural state in the country and there’s so much good stuff. Plus we keep the menu really limited. We felt very early on that there’s no way you can execute a massive menu well. We wanted to be the best pie shop in L.A., and we wanted to be able to offer the best quality product. That’s our goal. And the only way to do that is to focus on 5 or 6 sweet pies during the day so that you can just really kill it.
BYB: How many pies get made throughout the course of the day?
Matt: Well, it depends on the day. I just got done talking to our chef and she just finished 80 chicken potpies, it’s 4 pm now, and they are still going. The base of the pies – the “stuff” that goes inside is cooked off in the morning – but baking and cooking are just so different. In a restaurant you can run your kitchen until that individual stuff runs out. But here, for instance the chicken, you have to slow simmer and reduce down and everything gets set up each day. It’s not like we can just say, ‘ok, now we need 5 more pot pies.’ That decision had to be made three days ago. So it IS like a bakery in the sense that there’s a cap. Though it’s also kinda like a restaurant where we are working all day towards that end goal. It’s an interesting hybrid that we’ve created here.
BYB: Matt, do you make any of the pies?
Matt: Sure! I do when my mom flies in from Jersey. I’ve baked with her for years. It’s a nice mother-son thing we’ve got going on. It’s one of the things she looks forward to because owning a pie shop is something she’s always dreamt of doing. She likes to watch the kitchen work – it’s a well-oiled machine.
Sean: It’s really important, in doing anything, but especially in doing a restaurant, to focus on the elemental parts and just try to execute it really well. And we have a true love and passion for what pie represents and what it can do for people. Who has a slice of pie and a cup of coffee and feels shitty afterwards? By far, for the folks that are here right now, this is going to be the highlight of their day.
BYB: Did I hear you right? Did you say “Pie-light” of their day?
Sean: No, but I will now, that’s pretty awesome! Where we feel super strongly about is in the experience, and scaling that was interesting.
“Matt and his mother grew up LOVING pie and it meant so much to them. I think everybody can relate to something like that. (People come in and say) ‘Oh, my grandma made pies… I make pie… pie reminds me of the holidays and the holidays make me feel good!’ and that’s exactly what we want to do for people.”
Matt: For my family, the history was never passed down. We don’t have these long standing family heirlooms, but what we do have is our recipes. So my mom and I on Thanksgiving will make my great-grandmother’s recipe, (she’s someone) whom I never met, but it’s just a little something that I get to experience from her.
Sean: Yeah, and for them to be able to do that, on Thanksgiving – I mean, we’ve got a full staff and some people had never met his mom before and it’s like, now here she is; she’s coming in and making pies. This is what grounds us and this is what we do. You can’t front on pie. For me it’s that emotional attachment, that family history and that love of the pie itself. That is what sets us apart from any other pie establishment, I think. I just really like it. It’s such a blast to be here everyday.
BYB: It’s the “pie-light” of your day.
Sean: Haha, it is now!
BYB: I was so impressed by the buzz surrounding The Pie Hole even before you had actually opened. You have such a large social network presence. How did you guys get that going?
Matt: That wasn’t so much us. We definitely helped propel it, but I think it just caught on. We made pies for Bloomfest, which is a festival that is on this street every year. People were so excited after that, they just kept emailing us and twittering us. They just couldn’t wait to try the pie and were just really excited about it. All that buzz was organic.
BYB: How did this location come about?
Matt: I thought this was a fantastic little neighborhood. I remember thinking – wow, this is so cool! There were people walking their dogs at 11:00 at night…
Sean: Our criteria, was that we were looking for a really well developed sense of community. Foot traffic and things like that, but we always stuck to the basic premise which was: pie means family; family brings an emotional connection and that means something. The neighborhood down here is SERIOUS. They are not messing around. Now that we are a part of it – if something were to happen to us, they would rally around – there would be protests – it’s so cool. There’s something really special going on down here and it’s not yet defined either, it’s still growing. There are so many other cool things happening around here too in the Arts District. Over by Church and State there’s a bunch of stuff over there too. I just feel like we got here just at the right time.
Matt: I’ve lived in a lot of neighborhoods and I’ve never felt the sense of togetherness that this place has – ever…. Pie is a community-based food. Everyone has an emotional attachment.
Sean: We wanted to focus on accessibly. Your abuelita should come in feeling that this place is just as accessible as the hip kids from the Arts District do. It should be the same experience.
BYB: Pie should not be intimidating.
Matt: No way. It’s pie!
BYB: I hear that you handmade all of the décor in the shop? It’s actually the first thing I noticed when I walked in. The shop is very simple, it’s minimal, but you can sense that there was a lot of care that went into the making of the furniture, there’s a personal touch to it all.
Matt: We made it together.
Sean: I still have splinters.
Matt: Every piece of décor you see in there was thought of and executed by us and a group of friends. Everything. It was a pretty awesome experience to be able to do that. We were going for a wood and steel (theme), the chairs were made locally. The wood is from a reclaimed wood place. From May of last year to October, this place was a wreck, there was spackle and holes in the wall… it’s really neat when somebody walks up to a counter that you made and puts their purse down on it and there’s a transaction being made.
BYB: Tell me about your collaboration with Groundwork coffee roasters.
Matt: Our beans are organic and they are our own beans. Nobody else has our beans.
Sean: They roast for us, but it’s our own blend. We went through an exhaustive testing. We want people to come in for a cup of coffee and know it’s gonna taste the same (every time). There are a million different coffee options, but we wanted to use local businesses and focus on that… keep it as L.A. as possible. After all, we are called, “The Pie Hole Los Angeles” and if we ever open up a location in New York, it’s still going to be called The Pie Hole Los Angeles.
We really want to represent the L.A. food community and restaurant scene. We are proud of it and it’s really on the come up. (So) we put it in our name… This is L.A. and we are super proud and we don’t want to be doing anything else.
BYB: Last question, I just gotta ask… what are your favorite pies?
Sean: I like the lemon meringue.
Matt: My favorite, I think possibly of all time is the maple custard. It is to die for. It’s probably our best seller.
Sean: Bi-Coastal customers say it’s the LA version of the crack pie from Momofuku. I’ve had people tell me, THIS is your crack pie “don’t touch it, don’t change it, this is serious.”
Matt: One of the coolest things to do is to switch somebody over from their favorite pie, they say “well, I’m thinking about this one, but what’s your favorite?” and I’ll say it’s the maple custard and if you haven’t tried it you have to. You can see the trepidation in their face and they go “ehh, alright.” And then they’ll come back and say “that was AMAZING” and they are so excited. Two days later, they order three more and it’s really cool to see that. It’s one of my favorite things, to bring out an emotion in people.