By Brianna Chu and May S. Ruiz
The Pie Hole, located at the Indiana Colony in Old Pasadena, serves up the kinds of pies that are not found at regular cafés, diners, or restaurants. That’s because the items on its menu were created by Becky Grasley who comes from a long line of bakers and cooks in rural Pennsylvania, where pie is a way of life.
Grasley and the other women in her family showed their love through baking and marked the seasons with the pies they made. She continued this tradition with her own children, using recipes that have been passed on from one generation to the next. She baked pies after school and took them to the fair, where her apple pie won the blue ribbon.
Years later, when her children were grown, Grasly spent a Thanksgiving weekend baking countless pies for friends and family at a remote cabin. And her life-long dream of opening up a pie shop got closer to actuality.
With co-founder Sean Brennan, whose restaurant experience balanced her pie-making skills, Grasley established their first eating place in October 2011, at the Arts District in Los Angeles known as Bloom Square, in honor of a local legend and activist who owned a neighborhood convenience store. They named it The Pie Hole and it became an instant hit.
Brennan, speaking with us via e-mail, answers questions that range from where they choose to open shop to how they keep the standards in all locations. “From a real estate perspective, we look for terrific neighborhoods that don’t have great pie restaurants. Realistically, our regulars tell us where they want us to be. People invite us all the time, on social media and at our restaurants, to come to their neighborhood. And Pasadena is a perfect example – we had so many fans visiting our Arts District restaurant asking us to open in Pasadena, so we did.”
Word about The Pie Hole spread and to date there are ten locations – eight in the Los Angeles area and two in Tokyo, Japan. The Arts District, Hollywood, and Pasadena locations are owned by Grasley and Brennan and the others are either franchises or licensing agreements.
“Whether they’re owned by The Pie Hole or franchises, all of our restaurants are teams and they undergo a rigorous training program,” Brennan points out. “We start with selecting the right people – those who love coffee and pie. We always have open lines of communication and a great collaborative culture. Our chefs in Japan are constantly talking with our chefs in L.A. We also spend a lot of time visiting all of our restaurants to make sure everything is up to our standards.”
Ensuring that the quality is maintained means all pies are made with the same ingredients and undergo the same process in all their restaurants. Their founder’s recipe for Mom’s Apple Crumble, for instance, contains two pounds of Granny Smith apples. The Earl Grey Tea pie, infused white chocolate mousse with a layer of dark chocolate ganache and salted pistachios, is a house invention and a masterpiece that takes 24 hours to make.
Besides signature pot pies, individual pot pies, and hand pies, the restaurant offers galettes, breakfast quiches, and salads. Hot and iced coffee – either espresso or their own specialty blend, specialty and seasonal specialty lattes – are wonderful accompaniments to all the food items.
“We have mostly the same menu at all of the restaurants, using our Arts District shop as a culinary incubator where we test new recipes and pies,” explains Brennan. “However, we regularly add new pies and specialty coffee drinks, including the Pie of the Month and Drink of the Month. The November pie of the month is a sweet potato pie with brown butter sage in a butter crust, topped with marshmallows; the drink is spicy mocha made with our signature house blend, chocolate syrup, and ground ancho chili pepper.”
However much her business has grown, Grasley isn’t about to stop there just yet. She would like to add more locations and novel items. The Pie Hole is now open for breakfast with its new breakfast pies. Most recently, in time for pie season, it introduced Pie Holes – small, round, two-bite pies perfect for a quick snack and eating on the go. Available in four flavors, they are priced at $1.00 each or $12.00 for a baker’s dozen.
Brianna’s review below provides highlights about The Pie Hole’s food and ambience.
Tucked into the back corner of Indiana Colony’s marketplace space, The Pie Hole sits amidst the company of a juice bar, an ice cream vendor, and a tea and herb-selling stall. It’s the kind of place that seems geared towards attracting young adults who want the ready availability of caffeine, food, and WiFi of a Starbucks, but with a hipper vibe.
The café was kind enough to offer us each a savory and sweet pie, along with a drink of our choice. May opted for the classic latte and I chose a cold brew coffee; we were both very pleased with our coffees, May especially. I was given both sugar and simple syrup to sweeten my cold brew, which was a thoughtful touch.
We sampled some classic pies, the chicken cornbread and shepherd’s pie, and May picked the salted caramel pecan for her dessert while I selected the banana cream. The staff were friendly and helpful, and we received our food shortly after ordering.
Each pie was served in a metal pie tin, which emphasized the hip vibe – there’s a growing trend of restaurants using unorthodox objects in lieu of plates, and the trend is polarizing, to say the least, but I felt that in this case it actually made sense.
The Pie Hole’s chicken pot pie is a twist on the classic, what with the cornbread incorporated into their filling and the inclusion of red bell peppers instead of the staple carrots and peas. I hesitate to opine on the chicken pot pie, as I enjoy the traditional chicken pot pie and the red bell pepper isn’t quite my taste, but I will say that I couldn’t quite pick out the cornbread in their filling.
Their shepherd’s pie is more along the lines of the classic, complete with a topping of mashed potatoes. Perhaps it was just a fluke of the batches, but we found that the shepherd’s pie tasted a tad too salty for our palate, becoming less easy to eat after running out of the accompanying side salad to temper it; and the salted caramel pecan pie fell a little on the sweet side for May.
However, the banana cream pie was everything I hoped for; a big plus for me was that the pudding tasted homemade, without the slight aftertaste of the store-bought variety. The banana slices were visible and texturally present in the pie, and the shards of toffee on top provided a welcome pop of sweetness and textural contrast. The consistent high point, for me, was the pie crusts – which were dependably buttery, flaky, and everything I’ve come to expect in a good pie crust.
Two weeks after we initially visited, we were invited back to experience their newest offering – the rather fitting pie hole. Self-enclosed mini pie bites, these pie holes currently come in four flavors: caramel apple, blueberry, Mexican chocolate, and Nutella. For me, each pie hole is about a four bite proportion, a perfectly snack-able size.
Both the caramel apple and blueberry were excellent, slightly warm, and not too sweet – and I’m not even much of a caramel fan, either. The Mexican chocolate and Nutella bites were definitely much sweeter, but they were also served cold, so they were on the hard side. Like our last visit, the drinks were great – May loved her salted caramel latte, and my pumpkin pie latte was exactly what I thought it would be – the Pie Hole’s smoother and classier version of the popular Pumpkin Spice latte.
All in all, I would consider returning; and in fall, an afternoon outing in Old Pasadena definitely benefits from a good slice of pie.
Brianna Chu, a guest opinion guest writer for Beacon Media, was born and raised in Pasadena. She loves to cook and to eat, is a lifelong viewer of Food Network, and enthusiastically introduced the tradition of Thanksgiving dinners to her British and European friends while earning her degree at the University of St Andrews. While they absolutely hated going around the table and saying what they were grateful for every year, they also loved the excuse to get together and feast with friends enough to endure it anyway.