Lately, a trend in the food service industry has taken shape that is difficult to label with one word, even as it continues to develop. It involves food we generally associate with childhood, comfort food of a specific type, mostly sweets, ordinary treats elevated so that adults will notice and pay a premium for them.
The Cereality franchise, located in Texas, Minnesota, Florida, Ohio and West Virginia, calls itself a "cereal bar and cafÃ©," serving familiar brands of cold cereal that can be mixed and matched with any of two dozen toppings. In Greenwich Village, the Peanut Butter & Co. Sandwich Shop serves inventive interpretations of the peanut butter sandwich, like the spicy peanut butter, pineapple jam, and grilled chicken sandwich.
In this genre of haute-childhood cuisine, cupcakes, donuts, and ice cream have caught on particularly well in cities all over the country. Voodoo Doughnut in Portland has acquired a national reputation. Here in Seattle, Mighty O and Top Pot have charted similar courses. Cupcake Royale and businesses like it have saturated upscale neighborhoods in Seattle and other prosperous cities. Baskin-Robbins boasts 31 flavors but none like those found at Molly Moon's (cardamom, balsamic strawberry, honey lavender), whose lines are legendary in Wallingford and Capitol Hill. Reviews of the ice cream shop appeared in Bon Appetit.
This week, one more entrant has entered the field: A la Mode Pies, online baker of gourmet pies and tarts. Its founder and, so far, sole employee is Chris Porter, 37, a former public relations executive and television journalist, who, in a storyline that is familiar in these types of ventures, quit his perfectly good corporate job to pursue a passion fired by childhood memories. His target audience is presumably people not unlike him, young, educated professionals who will gladly pay $25 for an expertly executed pie that not only tastes good but connects them to a chapter of their childhood, or maybe provides a sense of their childhood they never actually possessed but wished they did.
That is the conceit of cupcakes, donuts, ice cream, and the like. More than food, they represent the innocence and purity of childhood, and the bliss that comes with it, a state of mind that is certainly worth the mark-up.
"These trying times,' Porter said, referring to the recession, "call for comforting measures. In times like these, you go back to your roots. When you were a kid, you ate pie made by grandma. I'm trying to emulate that but make it better."
Soon enough, Porter will find out whether the market will bear yet another addition to the retail category of high-end, wist-and-whimsy-comfort dessert. He pointed out that while cake is readily available in bakeries, pie is not.
"If you want pie, you have to go to a grocery store," he said, calling to mind only two bakeries in the city that specialize in pies, the Seattle Pie Company in Magnolia and the Shoofly Pie Company in West Seattle.
Porter distinguishes his business by delivering his pies to your door rather than selling them out of a shop. His operation has started very small. He bakes all his pies himself in the kitchen of the Knee High Stocking Company, a bar on Capitol Hill, and the only establishment in the city that serves Porter's pies. Eventually he hopes other restaurants and coffee shops and maybe stores will carry his pies, but for now is selling them only online.
The finished product, he hopes, will speak for itself. As part of his business plan, he uses organic ingredients from local sources whenever possible. He makes all of his dough from scratch, mixing and rolling his pie crusts by hand, always trying for that extra yard.
His blueberry pie, called the "blue Hawaiian" is blended with pineapple and topped with coconut, giving it a complexity that goes beyond a typical berry pie. He makes the crust for his chocolate cream pie with pulverized pretzels. A la Mode's banana cream pie is baked with white chocolate. Porter's chocolate-caramel pecan tart, his best-seller so far, is as dense as a candy bar.
His pies and tarts come in individual sizes (six inches) for $10, which can also be purchased in a four-pack for $30. He also sells three varieties (apple, cherry and the blue Hawaiian) as "lollipies," donut-sized pies on a stick, that go for $35 per dozen. The lollipie is A la Mode'ês signature product and was a hit at a recent wedding he catered, in which every guest received a lollipie. Sensing a shift within the wedding industry away from cake and toward pies, Porter plans to market his company heavily at wedding expos.
His storefront is his website (www.alamodeseattle.com), which does not come with the benefit of baking smells that drift down the block, or a crowd of customers that will attract more of them.
"We have great photographs," Porter said. "Hopefully the descriptions of the pies will elevate them and help you know what they taste like. Once you get one for the first time, you'll be hooked. When it arrives at your door, it might still be hot."
While a retail store is a long-term goal, Porter plans to build the business online, hoping the delivery service will set his business apart in a city that embraces technology, rewards ingenuity, and values sustainable agriculture. "I can see a bunch of Smart cars buzzing around this city with our logo delivering pies made with locally sourced, organic ingredients," Porter said.
Porter is a self-taught baker who started young. Left at home alone during the summer with his older sister, his favorite way to pass the time was to bake. At age 10, he was already more than capable of making a pie from scratch even if he left the kitchen a mess.
"When he baked, I'd get on the phone and call my mom and tattle on him," said his older sister, Heidi Stenzel.
He cooked, and in particular baked, all his life, refining recipes that would ultimately become the product line for A la Mode.
He was also that rare, modern American child who grew up with a culture of cooking at home. His mother, Anne Porter, prided herself on preparing meals from scratch, attempting personal touches when so much home cooking was done out of boxes and cans. When she made a roast, she did not coat it with instant, onion-soup mix out of bag; instead, she prepared it with a peach marmalade. At the time, Porter said, he complained and wished he could eat macaroni and cheese out of a box but now realizes he has become his mother. Among the children of the post-war generation, he is one of the relatively few who learned to actually cook from his mother.
Part of the premise of this column is that our country in particular, because it is young, large, and splintered among so many tribes, lacks long-standing food traditions that are typically passed from generation to generation in more traditional societies. In lieu of a food culture, we have a food industry that values efficiency, homogeneity, and marketability. While there is a lot to be said for inexpensive, highly storable, familiar, transportable food, we are also now paying the price of that efficiency with our health and the loss of a culinary identity. Most of the modern-food movement (organic, local, raw food, whole food, slow food) can be called the backlash against how we spent most of the past century eating, an attempt to recapture or assert our own eating traditions.
One way of doing that is by looking to and adopting the eating traditions of other cultures, like the Italians, or the Chinese. Another way is to revisit our own past for long-lost rituals and the comfort they provided.
This marketing strategy works especially well with the generations that followed the baby boom. Perhaps it is latch-key syndrome, a reflexive desire to repair a deficit left by divorce or some other emotional deficit. Perhaps it is the extended childhood that adults today are allowed — how many times have you heard "40 is the new 30?" — that has turned aging into a circular rather than linear process.
So many television commercials aimed at serious adults deploy cues from our childhood, like the AT&T commercial whose soundtrack is borrowed from the 1971 movie, "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," and the song "Pure Imagination." The line between child and adult, and relationship between the two is more blurred.
Or maybe, as Porter said, when times are tough, you look to safe memories. When Porter became disillusioned with work, he did the same. After graduating from Pacific Lutheran University — he grew up in Mountlake Terrace — he went to work as a television reporter in Missoula, Mont., and Fort Wayne, Ind., moving back to Seattle to work in corporate public relations, representing technology clients.
The idea of baking pies for a living appealed to his creative instincts, which have always lived strong inside him. He realized that he has wanted to bake all his life. When he finally worked up the nerve to quit his salaried job and start his company last year, he said, "I had a lifetime of practice.
If you go: A la Mode pies are served by the slice at: Knee High Stocking Company, 1356 East Olive Way, 206-979-7049, 6 pm-2 am daily. Order pies at www.alamodeseattle.com..