For Sister Pie, a beloved bakery in Detroit’s West Village, the last several weeks have been a series of pivots in an unknown landscape. Days after the first novel coronavirus cases were identified in Michigan, the bakery went from preparing its usual crop of Pi-Day orders to operating under limited hours with a skeleton crew for curbside pickup of sandwiches, salads, and pie. Now, Sister Pie has suspended regular service entirely to focus on directly serving their immediate neighbors. These days the bakers now spend their time surrounded by containers of locally distilled hand sanitizer and bags of grain, filling box after cardboard box with groceries for delivery to neighbors
In a conversation with Eater last Friday, after helping her team pack and deliver 60 grocery boxes, owner Lisa Ludwinski tried to sum up the strange feeling of trying to keep a business alive in the midst of a pandemic: “It’s exhausting in a very unique way,” she says. “Because not only are we doing this business model that we’ve never done before, but we’re doing it in this crisis and trying to figure out the safest and best ways to do things. And that is a whole emotional exhaustion.”
Sister Pie started promoting grocery options in addition to its carryout menu in the first week after Michigan’s “stay at home” order went into effect. However, operating that way proved unmanageable, and Ludwinski decided to temporarily close Sister Pie on Saturday, March 28, and focus on servicing the bakery’s immediate area by offering services through neighborhood listservs instead. Sister Pie’s grocery boxes are now filled with bags of flour and beans — items that the bakery typically has on hand — as well as produce supplied by Cherry Capital Foods.
Ludwinski feels that she and her managers have developed a good system for fulfilling orders, and wants to continue to offer people in the area an alternative to going to a store. “I really want to be able to provide this service to the neighborhood, especially given the fact that we still have stuff that we can sell.”
However, each day brings its own challenges. Staying open, even in a limited capacity, can feel “overwhelming,” Ludwinski says. While at first she limited the staff to just four managers and herself, there are now only three managers who are still able to work. She’s grateful for the women on her team who are willing to come in and help. “It feels especially challenging as a boss to put any pressure or expectation on an employee to work right now,” she says.
At the same time, Ludwinski and her staff are trying to strategize how to keep the lights on and continue offering employees health care during a severe public health situation. Outside of payroll, Sister Pie is currently spending roughly $3,000 a week on rent, utilities, and loan payments. The bakery was fortunate to receive help from its landlord for the month of April. “He reduced our rent by a third. I was really, really happy for and super grateful that he was willing to do that, because I know that it can be tough for landlords too right now depending on their situation,” Ludwinski says.
When asked whether there might be a point where Sister Pie would completely close up, Ludwinski says she’s instead focused on the next pivot. She’s considering selling baking kits with popular Sister Pie recipes like buckwheat chocolate chip cookies, perhaps bundled with the Sister Pie cookbook and free online cook-a-long videos based on the recipe of the week. For Ludwinski, who started out her career as a hobbyist sharing cooking videos on YouTube, it’s a bit like coming full circle.
For now, Ludwinski is focused on getting through each day. “It’s really hard to say what tomorrow will look like,” she says. “I can barely focus on what day it is right now.”
Eater is tracking the impact of the novel coronavirus on the local food industry. Have a story to share? Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.