In February 2010, Jaynelle St. Jean found herself in a funk. Having traveled cross-country after a relationship break up, she’d just moved back in with her mom in San Francisco and was sleeping on the couch. She didn’t have a job. Well into her late twenties, she wasn’t sure where she was headed, professionally or personally. Did we mention it was Valentine’s Day and St. Jean was broke?
She could have thrown herself a little pity party. Instead, St. Jean, who learned how to bake from a high school boyfriend’s mother, decided to make pie to share with strangers. The budding baker stood outside her mother’s home, where she fashioned a country pie walk-up window of sorts, sharing free slices on glass plates to passersby in what she now calls a random act of sweetness. People responded in droves and chatted while they tucked into a slice of blueberry-pear, sweet potato, or pecan pie. It was just the kind of small-town, close-knit community that St. Jean hungered for. The day was a defining moment in her life. One little boy returned with a Valentine for the pie purveyor and dubbed her the Pie Lady. “I was trying to find my way and dealing with a lot of stress and uncertainty and I wanted to feel different,” says St. Jean. “And one way I thought I could connect with people and offer sustenance was by giving away pie,” she adds.
Encouraged by the experience, this Pie Lady went on to launch PieTisserie. The mobile pie business began in San Francisco, where St. Jean sold her sweet treats at the Underground Market and street cart gatherings. Then she moved across the bay and PieTisserie found a home in a temporary pop-up in Old Oakland. Along the way St. Jean experimented with pie ingredients and flavors and received assistance from the Women’s Initiative for Self Employment, which helps low-income women start businesses in the Bay Area. (The nonprofit has funded other food startups, including Bakesale Betty and the Cultured Pickle Shop.) The nomadic St. Jean, who is currently scouting for her own store, jokes she has keys to most of the commercial kitchens in Oakland where she bakes her signature pies.
St. Jean has a reputation for creating unique takes on traditional offerings. For instance, her Spiced Apple features a cardamom oat crumble topping with fresh ginger. She’s also created a following for exotic options like the brightly hued Mojito Custard, a spin on key lime pie that gets its vibrant color from freshly juiced mint leaves, or the equally eye-catching Okinawan Sweet Potato Pie, which showcases a purée of vivid purple yams popular in Hawaii, where she has lived.
Back in October 2012, PieTisserie carved out a cute little space in the Mexican restaurant Nido, tucked away on a side street near Jack London Square. St. Jean left Nido in August in anticipation of a return to Old Oakland and her very own storefront, but that space fell through in September. At press time, leading into the busiest pie season of the year, St. Jean had plans to pop up in Oakland with pies for sale in addition to taking online orders. “Pies evoke feelings of nostalgia, comfort, and the holidays,” says St. Jean. “And sharing something with people you love. It’s a heart food.”
Fans of PieTisserie can expect to find seasonal favorites like Roasted Pumpkin in Chocolate Crust, Ginger-Lemon Cranberry, and Blackbottom Walnut, which features a thin layer of bittersweet chocolate. And her most popular offering, the Chocolate Cream Pretzel, a sweet-salty-creamy party in your mouth, will also be in the mix. The price of her pies: $26 for large pies to share, $5 for individual minis.
St. Jean, who landed in Oakland by happenstance, says it’s a sweet spot to launch a pie business. “My sense was there was a gap in the market here: This is a place filled with avid food lovers and so there’s opportunity for small food businesses to meet the demand for good, creative food,” she explains. And people want pie, especially the kind that promises a flaky, golden-brown crust filled with fruit, nuts, and cream. “I never set out to be in the pie business, and it’s been a huge lifestyle change,” says St. Jean. “I love clothes and I used to buy a lot of them and I was the kind of person who was always traveling,” she explains. “I’ve stopped buying anything, except for the business, and I’ve stayed put. I’m satisfied where I’m at. A lot has changed in my life since the day I decided to offer people a slice of pie.”
For orders and to find out where PieTisserie is popping up: pietisserie.com