On March 14, 2015, eager pie eaters lined up along Fourth Street NE on The Pie Chest’s opening day. They were ready to satisfy the cravings triggered by Pi Day, an annual celebration of the mathematical constant pi (you know, 3.14159265359), which the new bake shop opted to embrace.
When the door swung open at 9:26am, customers flooded in and gobbled up every s’mores tart and sweet and savory pie in the glass pastry case that two bakers had worked more than 150 hours combined to fill.
By 1pm, they had devoured every last crumb of pie.
After flipping the “open” sign to “closed,” head baker and co-owner Rachel Pennington and her partner, Tina Morrison, sat down inside the shop. Morrison looked at Pennington with glassy eyes and asked, “What have we done?”
A little more than three years later, Pennington echoes that sentiment as she looks around The Pie Chest’s second retail location, which opened last week at 1518 E. High St. It’s an added feature to The Pie Chest’s new baking facility in the same building, which Pennington says is “at least six times” the size of the bakery’s previous kitchen on Dale Avenue.
It was a necessary expansion. In addition to making by hand tens of thousands of pies each year for The Pie Chest, Pennington and her team make desserts and other baked goods for The Whiskey Jar, El Bebedero, Revolutionary Soup, Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar and Brasserie Saison—all part of restaurateur Will Richey’s Ten Course Hospitality group. Richey co-owned The Pie Chest with Pennington until August 2017, when Pennington became sole owner.
The second location will offer hand pies and Pie Chest favorites by the slice, plus biscuits hot out of the oven, honey chocolate chip cookies (the first thing Pennington ever baked, with her Memaw) and special non-pie items that’ll spotlight the small baking team’s talents. Lone Light Coffee will share the space, offering its full range of coffees and teas at the front counter, and roasting its own coffee approved by the SCAA certified brewers in the back room. Nothing will change at The Pie Chest on Fourth Street.
Pennington, a self-taught baker who years ago applied for a baking gig at The Whiskey Jar on a whim, says this growing operation isn’t at all what she and Morrison pictured when The Pie Chest was still just an idea.
They imagined a low-key endeavor, Pennington baking as Morrison worked the storefront, pouring coffee from a carafe and chatting with regulars over slices of pie. They’d both be home by 5pm.
What they couldn’t anticipate is how the community would shape what The Pie Chest has become. Within a year, the bakery had a regular clientele, those who take a slice to go, and those who order their pie to eat in the shop, a side dish to an hours-long perusal of Time magazine. They hired more staff to keep up with the demand in the kitchen and at the counter.
The Pie Chest sticks to its three original foundations—everything is fresh, everything is seasonal, everything is made from scratch—but Pennington says she’s learned to be flexible on the menu, interspersing what she thinks is good (blueberry nectarine and honey spiced pear) with what customers want (triple citrus, chocolate cream).
The Pie Chest’s Fourth Street location is just one block from both Emancipation and Justice parks, where the white supremacist Unite the Right and Ku Klux Klan rallies, respectively, took place last summer. Those who were tear-gassed by police after the July 8 KKK rally came into the shop asking for water and to use the bathroom—Pennington remembers the tear gas they washed from their skin and faces stained the bathroom sinks—and on August 12, The Pie Chest opened as a safe space, not so much “as a statement against what was happening, [but] a statement about who we are every day,” Pennington says, a humble place offering up some comfort.
Wes Knopp, who owns and operates Lone Light Coffee, which has subleased space from The Pie Chest since 2016, echoes Pennington’s sentiments. “The shop has become for myself and many others a gathering place for conversation, comfort and many new friendships. So much of who we are is the community around us,” Knopp says.
Before becoming a baker, Pennington studied divinity. On her calf, she has a tattoo of a dandelion and its departing seeds, a metaphor for life presented in the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes. “You’re uprooted, you’re going along, everything’s fine, and then the wind blows…you land where you land, figure out what your surroundings are, and you learn to be planted there,” Pennington explains. Amidst it all, “the three things that ground you are good food and wine, partnership with another human and work—that’s where the phrase ‘eat, drink and be merry’ comes from.” The Pie Chest offers all of that. It’s how she’s made sense of this whole baking thing and her shop’s place in the community.
Now, in addition to asking, “How?” Pennington says, “Of course.”