There’s an antique glass cabinet inside Sister Pie, a small, corner bakery in the West Village neighborhood of Detroit. Known fondly as the “piebrary,” the inside is filled with mismatched mugs, trinkets, and assorted cookbooks. Soon, another new book will join the collection.
Lisa Ludwinski, the bake shop’s founder and 2015 Eater Young Gun, is writing a cookbook. The deal through Ten Speed Press has the book scheduled to launch in 2018. It will chronicle not only the recipes that have made her bakery so successful but also the stories of what makes Sister Pie such a distinctive and special place. “I want the whole cookbook to have that life to it,” she says.
By the time Sister Pie opened its doors in 2015, Ludwinski had already built a cult following around her baked goods with press from a local business competition as well as a clever and judicious use of social media promotion. Since then, her brand has grown exponentially to include profiles in national publications, 31,000 Instagram followers, and a semifinalists nod from the James Beard Foundation for Outstanding Baker. Though she hasn’t yet achieved the name recognition of mentors like Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar, Sister Pie has far outstretched its Detroit audience.
Despite these achievements, Ludwinski has mostly stayed the course and focused on improving Sister Pie from the inside rather than expanding. “As soon as I made the decision to start Sister Pie, the work never stopped,” she says. “There wasn’t really time to even consider what could happen — I just kept going. Every time there was a new development or some new hurdle to jump over, that’s where my mind was.” Her day-to-day goals are relatively modest. She’s recently worked on instituting new training procedures including developing a guide for day-to-day operations at the shop and best practices for customer service.
Sister Pie also holds monthly “town hall” staff meetings — Ludwinski’s way of fostering more collaboration and sense of ownership among her team. Once a month, employees are invited to sit-in on management meetings. The standard sales updates are discussed, but staff also share a meal and talk about their questions, concerns, and ideas for the business. “We have a suggestion box that people can put their suggestions into throughout the month,” she explains. “At the town hall meeting, we read out loud every suggestion from the box and talk about it together and usually come up with some sort of solution or give some sort of explanation that makes something clearer.”
She admits that she’s sometimes surprised by the press and she’s become more cautious when interacting with the media. “The amount of national attention that we’ve gotten, and local attention too, sometimes it feels a little bit overwhelming,” she says. “I’m constantly reminding myself to be grateful for what I have, because I do work really hard and we are constantly trying to set ourselves apart.”
Each small goal met has allowed Ludwinski’s team to achieve more independence, so she can begin carving out time for her own next steps. “That’s what the goal was there. Taking one step a time. You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself,” she says.
While making progress in the shop has been a professional goal for Ludwinski, writing a cookbook was more personal. At the beginning of 2016, around the time many people make their New Year’s resolutions for individual improvement, Ludwinski became determined to make her dream of writing a book happen with or without a publisher. “I just thought, ‘Well, I’m just going to take this into my own hands,’” she says. She was going to do it “kind of casually on the side, which isn’t really a thing when you own a bakery.” But as luck would have it, the right person happened to walk in the door at the right time — an editor from Ten Speed on vacation visited the shop and later reached out to Ludwinski to see if she had any interest in writing a book.
Tentatively called The Sister Pie Cookbook, it will feature seasonal sweet and savory recipes that will be familiar to customers who’ve experienced Sister Pie and its six-year evolution: salted maple pies, buckwheat chocolate chip and peanut butter paprika cookies. “There will be some new pies, but for the most part, it should really represent what you’ve eaten if you’ve come to Sister Pie before,” she says. “The book will be structured kind of the same way that we structure the menu at Sister Pie, which is pie, cookies, breakfast, and lunch.” Readers will find recipes for different types of pie dough, muffins, coffee cake, galettes, scones, short breads, and even a “Sister salad” for every season.
Ludwinski is a connoisseur of cookbooks and her experiences as a reader have helped inform the way she’s writing the book. “I’ve opened cookbooks before and felt intimidated on the first page and thought, ‘I’m never going to cook anything from this book, but it’s beautiful so I’ll keep it on my coffee table.’ I love those cookbooks. They’re great, but I really want this one to be a cookbook that you can kind of get lost in,” she says. “I want the books to be worn and used a lot. That’s my goal: ‘How can I make this a cookbook that people actually bake out of?’”
Ludwinski says that she’s also found inspiration in books like Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem: A Cookbook that weaved political voice and commentary in alongside recipes. “I’m especially thinking about how I want to be able to talk in the cookbook about my experience of being a business owner, of being a woman, of living in Detroit, of all these different things that I’m constantly thinking about, and so I’m sort of feeling inspired and able to include those more personal items.”
The experience of writing down and testing recipes for home use has also changed the way Ludwinski thinks about how she trains and transcribes recipes for the employees at her business. “It’s been a great way to examine the recipes that we do and not only learn how I can make them accessible to a home cook, but how I can make them more accessible to our staff,” she says. “I think the goal is to always be improving and to always even be making it better than you thought it could be.”