Pietisserie’s Jaynelle St. Jean’s whimsical pie origin story has been told again and again: In 2010, she spontaneously set up a pie window in her mother’s San Francisco home and offered slices to people walking by.
“I thought it would make me feel good to give away pies ... and then I started thinking: This is weird. I am sitting here asking strangers if they want to eat a piece of pie,” she laughs. “And I served it on glass plates, so that the people would stay there.”
Then 29 years old, and recently returned to San Francisco after living in New York City and Haleiwa on Oahu, Hawaii’s north shore, St. Jean was considering opening a business related to food, and naturally gravitated toward immersing people in the moment. “It was an experience no one in the city would have, eating pie from a country-style window,” she says. “Everyone recognizes pies cooling on the windowsill. It resonates with people, and it resonated with the people that day.”
Fast forward to more than ten years later, and her successful company — formerly an Oakland storefront and now an online-only business — still buzzes with that same energy and a commitment to top-notch comfort food served with an edge of experimentation. A quick look at the pies available through her website shows the memorable twist she puts on everything she offers; Woven Pie with seasonal fruit combos like Tropical Guava, Pineapple & Strawberry, and a monochromatic Key lime pie with a bright green crust made with spirulina are just two examples.
With her nationwide shipping, St. Jean has been able to attract pie lovers across the U.S. and has garnered a social following of over 13,000 people. Even more impressive? With her use of local ingredients, patrons can enjoy the seasonality of California’s bountiful agriculture — no matter their location.
An eye (and a pie) for good taste
It’s easy to see how St. Jean’s keen artistic sensibility plays a huge part in what makes Pietisserie shine. From her newly custom-designed pie box that provides an unprecedented full-on view of her creations to a “pie mandala” that serves as a stunning menu, her brand clearly cares about beauty and design.
With a background in journalism, St. Jean says she originally wanted to be a fashion editor but quickly got turned off by the heavy consumerism and the ways women were exploited through fashion. Art remained important to her, however, even as she worked various jobs — such as legal assistant and event planner — while living in New York City during her 20s.
She recalls attending Afro-Punk shows in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park and bringing pie to give out to the small, tight-knit crowds. Interacting with food and people has been a thread throughout her life, even back then. She would also give live cooking demos and teach kids how to cook with whole food ingredients in New York City.
When she eventually returned to San Francisco, she even thought she might get into sustainable agriculture and considered seeking out worldwide opportunities to work on organic farms.
“Then I made the three pies I knew how to make,” she says, of the pies she sold in her mother’s window. “I wasn’t thinking of starting a product business ... but my friend said, you should start a pie business. It seemed too utilitarian to sell pies to restaurants. If I am going to do that, I said, I am going to spend the time building a brand, which is what I did, very slowly.”
Building a brand
While Pietisserie emphasizes the visual by using natural ingredients like matcha and turmeric to create monochromatic designs and adding unexpected twists to “classic” pie elements like chocolate crusts, St. Jean goes much deeper.
In choosing to pursue food as a livelihood and passion, she explains, “it was both from being a person who loves to cook and eat, but also philosophical, in terms of pace of life. I thought that food and eating is something we do every day, and that how we approach it would really shape our day-to-day life.”
Staying local, going bigger
With her business recently pivoting away from brick-and-mortar retail to local pickup and nationwide shipping, she’s constantly asking big questions about how to scale with excellence, which means identifying areas where she can simplify. “I am trying to not make everything so precious ... I have decided we won’t peel our own potatoes,” she says, laughing. And at the same time, she’s committed to not cutting corners where it matters. Her pies continue to be handcrafted by a small staff, and she works to source ingredients locally when she can, including the purple potatoes used in her unique sweet potato pie.
Luckily, in the age of COVID-19, St. Jean seems, by nature, to be comfortable embracing and even celebrating change. And she knows how to play off the zeitgeist in fun, unexpected ways. She says she’s “pulling out all the stops” with a pop-up shop in Palo Alto, California, this holiday season. Conceived as a play on the temporary Spirit Halloween stores, the Pietisserie pop-up will be open from November 5 through Christmas Eve. “I’ve been bubbling over with pie ideas that I now get to bring to life in this holiday shop,” she says. “It’s going to be great accenting so many holiday tables with our pies again this year.”