Sisters Elsie Van Horn and Mary Etta Durham, alongside Mary Etta’s daughter, Debra Flategraff, stand around a stainless steel countertop at the Schaefer’s Foods bakery, assembling dozens of pies in a seemingly effortless assembly line.
Of course, anyone who’s baked a pie knows that they can be tricky. Rolling the crust to a nice, rounded shape at the right thickness, getting it into the pie pan without rips, and making a presentable top crust are all challenges. But after tens, probably hundreds of thousands of pies, the women behind Grandma Bettie Jane’s Pies have it down.
Mary Etta combines a crust mixture with water until she finds the right consistency, then forms the crust into baseball-sized balls. She rolls out the balls of dough to a uniform thickness, her hands operating on pure muscle memory, before placing the crust in a pie tin. Elsie fills the shells with berries, levelling them off perfectly. Sometimes she adds or removes just a few berries to get the filling just right. Then, Elsie takes a top crust, folds it in half, and places it on top of the pie. She unfolds the crust and the pie goes to Debra, who puts a perfect, pretty pinched edge around the pie before putting it in a plastic case and loading it onto a cart. Each of the women is patient with each other and obviously happy to be working with one another, and with the other Schaefer’s employees who are in the bakery or stop by.
The assembled pies are then frozen, and then the nighttime bakery crew bakes pies every night so they’re fresh the following morning.
Today Debra and Elsie are the main force behind Grandma Bettie Jane’s Pies, though they get help from Mary Etta, the woman behind the well-known Mary Etta’s Pies business that many Lakes Area residents will remember. All three have been making pies for years, but the business side of things was started by Mary Etta. After making pies for restaurants and bakeries for years, she decided to start her own business.
“If I was going to make money for everyone else, I figured I might as well make it for myself,” Mary Etta said.
The Mary Etta’s Pies business was born in 1999, but after many years with the business, Mary Etta made the decision to sell. She worked with the purchasers for a few years before retiring. When Mary Etta’s Pies seemed to fall off the radar, Schaefer’s invited Mary Etta to make pies in their bakery. Mary Etta was joined by her sister, Elsie, and her daughter, Debra, and together they make Grandma Bettie Jane’s Pies, named for Ted Schaefer’s mother.
Most of the time Debra and Elsie take the lead on making pies, and Mary Etta takes it easy after years of working two jobs (she was both a pie baker at area bakeries and restaurants,and the head cook at Pequot Lakes Schools for 30 years). But, Mary Etta still comes in to help with the baking from time to time. All three women are from the Jenkins area, making Grandma Bettie Jane’s a true local, family-run operation.
All the Grandma Bettie Jane’s pies are made by hand without any preservatives and, befitting of legendary pies, with a recipe that has at least one secret ingredient. Mary Etta said the crust recipe isn’t from any particular book or relative, it’s just the same recipe she’s followed as she’s made pies her entire life. The three do still measure their ingredients, though, to maintain consistency in their pies.
There are 36 different varieties of pies the trio makes, and that’s after paring down the list. They make fruit pies, cream pies, meringue pies and more, decidedly covering everyone’s favorites. The three admit that there are some varieties that they’ve never tried but are customer favorites. Their favorite pies? Mary Etta said that in all honesty, she’s not a huge pie fan. But, she does enjoy pumpkin at Thanksgiving. Elsie said the same; pumpkin is her favorite. Debra, on the other hand, enjoys cherry raspberry, which has a tart bite she enjoys.
Cherry pies, incidentally, have become more and more popular in recent years. Apple and caramel apple, though, are the top sellers.
While Grandma Bettie Jane’s pies have become a staple in the Lakes Area, their fame goes far beyond north-central Minnesota. Debra said that on several occasions she’s struck up conversation with a friendly stranger while at the airport, only to have them ask if she’s ever tried those awesome pies available in the Lakes Area.
In the past year, the women made nearly 10,000 pies that were sold in Schaefer’s, plus thousands more that were sold at the A-Pine or for fundraising. They agreed that they easily make more than 15,000 pies a year. Since Mary Etta’s Pies started in 1999, it’s probably safe to say that the women have made more than 100,000 pies- perhaps more than 200,000. The pies have gone with customers to Florida, California, Iowa, Missouri, New York City and beyond. One couple even flew to the area in a private plane to pick up pies, Elsie said.
The popularity of the pies has drawn attention from newspapers, magazines, television media and more. They’ve been featured in On the Road with Jason Davis and received a mention in Food Network star Simon Majumdar’s book.
The pies have been used to celebrate birthdays, served at weddings, funerals and everything in between.
“If you can put a smile on somebody’s face, at least one a day, that’s a great thing,” Debra said. Grandma Bettie Jane’s Pies do just that.
Find Grandma Bettie Jane’s Pies at Schaefer’s Foods in Nisswa and at the A-Pine in Jenkins. Special orders are welcome one day ahead, and nearly all the pie flavors can be made sugar-free on request. Call Schaefer’s to order.