Michigan Pie Lady Rewards Kindness with Pies

Food, Hometown Heroes, People
on October 28, 2010
Robert Hendricks Linda Hundt (center), flanked by daughters Ellie (left) and Betsie (right) and the staff of Sweetie-licious Bakery Cafe in DeWitt, Mich., makes award-winning pies from scratch.

Linda Hundt places a plump cherry pie into a pink box at Sweetie-licious Bakery Cafe in DeWitt, Mich. (pop. 4,702), ties it with a ribbon and adds one final sweet touch: a little card with a pie story.

Pie brings people back to a joyful time of life, says Hundt, 47, a national pie champion on a mission to cheer the world one homemade pie at a time. Its the paramount comfort food.

Hundts pie vignettes describe childhood memories of Aunt Margie arriving for visits in a big blue Buick and bearing chewing gum, comic books and delicious banana pie, and of sitting by a campfire on Lake Michigan while savoring her mothers blackberry cobbler baked in a Dutch oven. Hundt creates such carefree pie-eating moments at Sweetie-licious.

With Big Band tunes in the background, she and her staff visit with customers while rolling out and crimping pie crusts on a wooden table behind the pastry cases. Hundts daughters, Ellie, 20, and Betsie, 17, often are among the pie makers, who wear 1950s-style hostess aprons. Hundt usually wears pearls. Ive always wanted to be Donna Reed, she says.

By mid-morning, the bakers have stocked the antique pie cabinet with take-out pies in pink boxes: Aunt Ellas Cherry Rhubarb Pie, My Brothers Caramel Cashew Toffee Pie, Grandma Rosellas Vanilla Bean Cream Pie and some of the 50 other varieties made from Hundts family recipes.

 These are like grandmas pies, and the place is kind of like Mayberry, says DeWitt Police Chief Larry Jerue, 56, who is among the cafes regular diners. There arent any strangers here.

When Nancy Noyola walked into the shop one day last summer, the staff surprised her with a cutie pie, as Hundt calls her mini-pies. Noyola earlier had come to the rescue of a customer who ordered a slice of pie, then realized with embarrassment that hed forgotten his wallet.

Nancy asked him what he wanted, then proceeded to have us box up, not just a slice, but a whole pie of his choice and insisted we add it to her bill, says employee Drew Peabody, 20. Awarding cutie pies for random acts of kindness is part of what Hundt calls her pie it forward mission.

Good people and good deeds deserve good pie, she says.

Noyola, 44, began stopping at the homey bakery three years ago after her husband died. She found comfort and molasses cookies drizzled with lemon-orange zest like those her grandmother made.

One day I was just sitting there and Linda came around the corner and gave me a hug, Noyola recalls. Our friendship developed from there.

Bakery signs proclaim Pie Fixes Everything and Oh, the Power of Pie! and Hundt tells of pie miracles, such as the time a staff member took an order for a custard rhubarb pie without realizing the shop was out of rhubarb. That morning, Hundt frantically called her husband, John, who found enough rhubarb in their farm patch for two pies. Later that day, a Florida woman stopped at Sweetie-licious and before long confided in Hundt that she was in town to visit her dying brother.

She said, Oh, I remember my brothers favorite pie was rhubarb custard, Hundt says. Call it serendipity or Gods way, but that sweet man who was dying had his pie.

Hundts best pie story may be her own. At age 5, she enjoyed baking treats in her Easy-Bake Oven. It was the only time my brothers liked me, she says. Though Hundt longed to attend culinary school and open a pie shop like the one she visited on her honeymoon in 1985, she became an elementary teacher because the hours were more compatible with family life.

I never stopped dreaming about my pie shop, Hundt says. She collected furnishings, including a wooden pie cabinet that had been dumped on a country road. Hundt, who struggled with depression, found that she could bake away the blues, and in 2002, she began peddling pies to restaurants and farmers markets and selling them off the back porch of her 1898 farmhouse. Customers helped themselves to pies in the porch fridge and dropped money in a bucket.

Bite by bite, satisfied customers spread the word about Hundts pies, which are bursting with 7 ½ cups of fresh fruit and other fillings in golden flakey crusts. In 2005, she was able to lease a retail shop for Sweetie-licious.

From the start, Hundt enteredand wonnational pie contests. Her most prestigious recent awards include four first-place prizes and the $5,000 Best of Show in the 2009 Crisco National Pie Championship, and three first-place prizes at this years contest. Today, Hundts pies lure people from hundreds of miles around, and she has a two-year waiting list for baking classes.

Something as simple as a pie can make a person feel good, Hundt says. My mission is to make everyone feel revered and loved when they come into Sweetie-licious and to change the world one pie at a time.