It started out as a joke of sorts. Local restaurant owner Will Richey was chatting with a buddy about a newly vacant storefront on Fourth Street. “Hey man, you should open a pie shop there,” the friend suggested. Richey originally laughed it off—he already owns Revolutionary Soup, The Whiskey Jar and The Alley Light, and with downtown rents continuing to go up and a potential meal tax hike on the horizon, the thought of opening a new eatery on the mall wasn’t something he took seriously. But when he broached the subject with Whiskey Jar baker Rachel Pennington, her response was a quick and emphatic “Absolutely, yes.” Thus, The Pie Chest was conceived.
“My theory on starting any new project is look into it, and if all the planets align, why not? If they don’t, walk away,” Richey said. “And all the planets started magically aligning one by one.”
Richey and Pennington spent months designing the space next door to Daedalus Bookshop and developing recipes for sweet and savory pies, which they beta tested at Rev Soup. At 9:26am on March 14, 2015—Pi Day—The Pie Chest made its official debut and opened its doors to a line that had already formed.
“Putting yourself out there like that makes you really vulnerable, and you want people to like it,” Pennington said. “I thought people would like it, but the way people have really embraced it has been a pleasant surprise.”
Now that it’s been more than a month, Pennington—whom Richey describes as the “creativity and muscle” of the operation—is settling into a groove as a baker and business co-owner. After selling out every day for the first two weeks, she added five new bakers to the duo that had originally made up the kitchen staff.
“I naively thought we could handle it with two people,” said Pennington, adding that in addition to dozens of pies every day, she’s also responsible for the desserts and baked goods for both the Jar and Rev Soup. Pennington and her team make the crusts, the fillings, everything—right down to the marshmallow topping globbed on the kid-friendly chocolate graham cracker s’more pie—by hand from scratch in a commercial kitchen on Dale Avenue.
Now that the team is large enough to keep up with the demand, the glass case remains full of freshly baked pies, sweet and savory, throughout the day (8am-6pm Monday-Thursday, 8am-8pm Friday and Saturday). Half the case displays savory little pot pies including broccoli and pimento cheese, Devils Backbone braised pork and pepper and Timbercreek Farm chicken with bacon and roasted garlic. Richey’s favorite is one of the vegetarian options, which features leeks, mushrooms, sweet green peas and ribbons of melty Gruyère cheese in a thick, caramelized gravy. The savory options—which Pennington said she’s far more likely to indulge in because she spends most of her kitchen time up to her elbows in sweet ingredients—also include breakfast hand pies, like scrambled egg, sausage, goat cheese and honey, and scrambled egg, salsa and white cheddar.
In the neighboring case is a selection of more than 10 sweet pies, ranging from classics like bourbon pecan and lemon chess to chocolate hazelnut and mint julep. One of the most popular desserts, which developed a following when Pennington originally started baking a few blocks down the mall three years ago, is The Whiskey Jar chocolate chip pie, with its gooey, brownie-batter-like filling and thin, crispy top layer that’s just begging for a scoop of the shop’s homemade bourbon vanilla ice cream.
The owners are determined to keep the menu as seasonal as possible, Richey said, and they’re all waiting anxiously for fruit and berry season.
“There won’t be cherry pies unless there are cherries, there won’t be strawberry pies unless there are strawberries,” he said. “We’re all dying for the fruits to start coming out.”
The shop opened at a time when other business owners on the mall decided to pack it in. Cappellino’s Crazy Cakes and Cha Cha’s both shut their doors in the last month, and Richey and Pennington admit that the mall presents a distinct set of challenges when it comes to running a business: parking, pricey rent, decreased foot traffic in bad weather. But they also said they’ve felt a tremendous amount of support from neighboring businesses, and for Pennington, opening the shop has brought her Charlottesville life full circle. Like so many others, she fell in love with the mall when she visited from Harrisonburg to see a play in 2008, and four years later came to call C’ville—and the Downtown Mall—home.
“The fact that now I’m a business owner in this same place that caused me to live here, it’s just awesome,” Pennington said.
And believe it or not, Pennington had no professional baking experience when she showed up at The Whiskey Jar for a job interview three years ago. Richey asked her to bring “the best thing she made” as her resumé, so to speak, so she presented him with her homemade peanut butter pie—which, of course, is now available at The Pie Chest.