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Mom's Apple Pie Business Heats Up

The business has four retail bakeries in Virginia now.

There is no smell quite like that of a bakery, especially if the aroma is that of an apple pie.

Consider 280 apple pies baking in one oven. Or raspberry, blackberry, pumpkin and 20 to 30 other pie varieties, plus cookies, brownies, bread, quiche and more.

For those living in Sterling, the desserts are only a few minutes drive. “Mom’s Apple Pie” has opened a 10,000-square-foot bakery at 22510 S. Sterling Blvd. If the business name has a familiar ring, that’s probably because bakeries of the same title have been mainstays in Herndon for 20 years and in Leesburg for five years.

Husband and wife team Steven Cox and Avis Renshaw also have opened new shops in Occoquan and Herndon, all three in April. The bakeries in Sterling and Leesburg go by the same name. The owners closed the Herndon bakery in Sunset Business Park a year ago, and opened a new retail shop, “Mom’s Pies,” at 317 Spring St., Herndon. The bakery in Occoquan is “Mom’s Apple Pie/Bait & Bake.”

Renshaw said she and her husband have changed the focus of their business, which the couple started in 1981. Instead of selling primarily to grocery stores and farmer’s markets, they are concentrating on marketing the goodies from their own bakery counters.

“I drastically have changed the way we do the business,” Renshaw said. “I’m concentrating on retail versus selling to 30 or 40 Safeway stores. I can’t tell people how darn good my pies are at a Safeway store.

“With retail, they can come in and talk to us and know we have picked the berries that are in the pie. In the land of Costcos and Wal Marts, it is kind of refreshing to know the person who is growing your food,” she said.

COX SAID HIS FARMING efforts are paying off. “This year, it’s really coming into fruition. We are producing so much fun stuff,” he said. “There is a special value in keeping those unmatched flavors. I want to keep those flavors alive. I’ll keep some good hard farm work alive.”

He and Renshaw started baking pies in their kitchen and selling them to the Reston Farmer’s Market 23 years ago. “We would sell just truckloads there,” Cox said. “The guy there said we needed a name. We were so busy we hadn’t gotten around to that.”

They were about to have a baby, and decided “Mom’s Apple Pie” would be appropriate. “We knew we were taking a chance. It could be negative. Nobody could believe we’d be as good as Mom’s apple pie,” he said. “We have tried to live up to the name, and we have convinced people.”

They started with the Herndon bakery, and then Renshaw recommended opening a retail shop in Leesburg. She calls it the “Gateway to Old Town Leesburg,” because it is located where Route 7 divides into two of the community’s main thoroughfare’s Market Street and Loudoun Street.

“My wife insisted on trying the first store in Leesburg, and it worked,” he said. “The response to it was so huge. The retail was successful.”

Cox said he favored opening the three new bakeries in April, because he felt like the business was being held hostage to the whims and shelf space of the grocery stores. “The next couple of years will tell the tale,” Cox said, referring to their potential success.

IN STERLING, Mom’s Apple Pie has a warehouse-sized kitchen and two eight-shelf ovens. Industrial-sized pans are used to prepare the ingredients, such as 300 gallons of blueberries and the secret spices to make pies. Add six bakers, a front counter, two small offices, a driver, and an octopus, and you have one sweet operation.

An octopus? That’s how Renshaw refers to her “right hand woman,” Ivania Vargas. “She does everything,” Renshaw said. “She is not just right- handed, she’s the octopus.”

Vargas has been working for “Mom’s Apple Pie” for 14 years. “I tell you the truth. They are very nice couple, Avis and Steven,” said Vargas, who has sampled all of the deserts. “They want us to try them, so we can tell people how good they are.”

Her favorites are flan and butter pecan apple crumb. The flavors change, depending on the season or holiday, so there’s always variety, she said. The price of the pies ranges from $9 to $20.

Renshaw and Cox opened the Sterling operation and closed the bakery at the Sunset Business Park, because the park’s new owner gave them an ultimatum to either buy the building they had rented for two decades or move out, they said. “It was going twice the market rate,” Renshaw said. “It wasn’t worth it to us.”

Tractor trailers (semis) make deliveries daily. “This is much better over here with a loading dock,” she said.

Renshaw said she thought she could rent a new warehouse and move within six months. “I had a Realtor laugh at me,” she said. “Entrepreneurs are always more optimistic.”

Permitting, moving the equipment and rebuilding have taken a year so far. “I still have tweaking,” she added. Two of the greatest challenges were moving the pie line and ovens.

A pie line is similar to a Congo line, said Renshaw, moving as if dancing to imaginary music. “It’s a big metal thing, old fashioned, with no electronics on it,” she said.

She hired Willow Spring Trucking of Fairfax County, to move the 40-foot pie line. “They told me it was the longest flatbed on the East Coast.”

The employees had to take the ovens completely apart, and reconstruct them. “It took months to rebuild them.”

MOVING AND OPENING three retail stores were exhausting, said Renshaw, scolding her body for slowing her down. “I still think I’m 18. I’m surprised I need to get seven hours of sleep.”

Her voice rises and her hands gesture. “I never thought this would happen to me! Thank God I have kids.”

Four of them.

Clancy, 24, runs the Occoquan bakery.

Petra, 19, is studying sculpture at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Every weekend she’s up here, taking a shift at whatever store needs her,” she said.

Renshaw said Petra uses her creative flare in writing the baked goods and prices on the bakery menu.

Tyson, 16, and his mom did a lot of the driving this summer, delivering baked goods to the retail stores, which have smaller kitchens. “He has been driving farm equipment since he was 11,” she said.

Tyson also sold the pastries and worked on the farm. He has cut back his 60-hour week now that school has resumed.

Ansa, 22, lives in Brooklyn, and comes home to the family’s Lucketts farm three days a week to do the bookkeeping. “Clancy was here most of the summer, picking strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and rhubarb,” Renshaw said.

She joined her father, who spends most of his time farming about 25 acres of pumpkins, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, asparagus, spinach, and rhubarb. “He also does all of the formulations for the pies, the scheduling and ordering,” Renshaw said.

Cox has to change the formulation or recipe for the pies and other baked goods depending on the time of year. “Our rhubarb is really juicy right now,” Renshaw said. “It was so juicy in the middle that the pie didn’t cook all the way through and we had to throw it out.”

BAKING A PIE can take one hour and five minutes or one hour and 50 minutes, depending on the juiciness of the fruit. “Steve does all of that,” Renshaw said. “He is sort of physics oriented, and chemistry oriented.”

Cox also will alter the recipe for the apple pie, depending on the freshness of the apples, she said. The fresher the apple, the sweeter it is.

Cox, who wants to preserve the tradition of farming, said he sometimes seeks advice from his father, a retired farmer who also served as an inspector of munitions and dairy plants during World War II. C.D. Cox lives in Herndon.

Even with the family pitching in, harvesting is difficult, Renshaw said. “After doing all the planting and harvesting, it’s terrible to pick. It’s hot,” she said. “Picking is such hard work to get such a little reward.”

She said she feels like “royalty” when she eats the fruits of their labors — the raspberries, blackberries and strawberries in their open face pies. “It’s the height of decadence to have an entire mouthful of fresh raspberries,” she said. “It feels like heaven.”