It sounds like the storyline of a light-hearted comedy: A lawyer working remotely for a southern California law firm decides to open a pie bakery with her mom in a quintessential college town.
“I really was naïve enough to think I would open it, I would be a lawyer, it would be super cute and my life would be like a Nora Ephron movie, and Meg Ryan could play me some day,” says Rebecca Miller, co-owner of Peggy Jean’s Pies in Columbia, Missouri. “In my head I totally felt like The Shop Around the Corner from You’ve Got Mail.”
The bakery, which opened its doors in April 2014 on Buttonwood Drive in Columbia, is a sequel of sorts, reviving what Miller’s mother, Jeanne Plumley, began 20 years ago.
The original Peggy Jean’s Pies opened in Columbia in March 1994. Friends Peggy Day and Jeanne Wagster (now Plumley) founded the bakery using family recipes. They gained national recognition for large and small pies and became a fixture during holidays and special occasions in homes throughout Columbia for nearly a decade. Then, in 2004, the shop closed its doors as Peggy’s health declined. In the years since, Plumley often thought about reopening the bakery, and in 2013, she started to make it a reality with daughter Rebecca on board.
“We sort of backed into this whole endeavor,” Miller recalls. “It all snowballed and happened so fast. I remember this point when our husbands looked at us and said, ‘Are you really going to do this?’ I think they humored us, and then we did the Kickstarter campaign, and it all got real.”
When Plumley and Miller decided to reopen Peggy Jean’s Pies, neither wanted her husband financially involved with the project. “I think a lot of it is that I raised Rebecca by myself as a single mom, and I’m fiercely independent and raised her to be that way,” Plumley says.
Kickstarter crossed Miller’s mind, and it felt like the right fit. The mother-daughter team launched a 30-day crowd-funding campaign with the hopes of gaining support from the community. “We said we’re going to do this campaign and raise $10,000 and then make a decision.”
They filmed a short video, wrote a description for the project and went through about a week’s worth of edits with the Kickstarter team. Then, early one Saturday morning in October 2013, when the rest of their families were still in bed, Miller called Plumley, and after a quiet prayer, Miller clicked the button to make the campaign live.
“Then I became a freak show because it texts you every time you get a donation,” Miller says. “For us, if it [were] funded, it meant something; it meant people remembered Peggy Jean’s Pies and appreciated it.”
Days before their campaign cut off on Nov. 4, 2013, Miller was grabbing lunch with a friend when her phone started going off like a Las Vegas slot machine. It was Kickstarter alerting her that her project had just fully funded. In fewer than the allotted 30 days, they had reached their goal.
“I couldn’t even say anything,” Miller says. “I called Mom and said, ‘Um, our Kickstarter just fully funded.’”
“We agreed if it didn’t fund, even if it’s $9,950, if it doesn’t fund, it wasn’t meant to be,” Plumley says.
In the end, they even overfunded. The public had spoken: Bring back Peggy Jean’s Pies.
Plumley and Miller selected the location for the bakery, but their hope to be open by Thanksgiving was a long shot. With fewer than four weeks until the crown jewel of pie holidays, Miller says they were hell-bent they would make Thanksgiving pies. At the recommendation of their real estate agent, they rented kitchen space at the local Elks Lodge. They baked 150 to 175 pies that holiday week – a small feat compared to the 2,000 pies they plan to make for this year’s Thanksgiving holiday. Still, for Miller, reality hit hard.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so physically tired in my life,” she says. “I remember mixing chocolate, crying, thinking, ‘What have we done? Can you give Kickstarter their money back?’ That’s when my Nora Ephron thing started to shatter.”
“I knew what to expect,” Plumley says. “I said you don’t realize how hard it gets.”
“I didn’t know how physical it was,” Miller says. “Now my tolerance has built up.”
In January 2014, after months of negotiations on their leased space, they signed the contract and renovations began at Buttonwood Drive. Meanwhile, Plumley and Miller continued to rent space at the Elks Lodge. Later that month they got their first big pushback into the community when Lucky’s Market opened in Columbia and sought out locally made products to sell in the store. Plumley and Miller delivered pies to Lucky’s almost daily to meet the rising demand that was building from news of Peggy Jean’s Pies’ return.
On April 17, without a lot of fanfare, Peggy Jean’s celebrated a soft opening at its new home on Buttonwood Drive. It was the Thursday before Easter, so it didn’t take long for word to spread and customers to pre-order their holiday pies.
Inside, the shop design is an open concept with handmade industrial light fixtures and wooden display cases decorating the front. Upon stepping through the front door, the aroma of fresh pie fills the entire space, and Plumley and Miller greet customers – many by name – with a sample of the day’s off-the-board creation.
Peggy Jean’s Pies has at least 14 regular pie flavors and three or more daily varieties sold in 12-inch, 9-inch or the 5-inch pans they refer to as “baby pies.” The shop celebrates Throwback Thursdays by offering its classic meringue topping for longtime customers who prefer it to the whipped topping that comes standard on pies all other days of the week. Chocolate Bourbon Pecan is consistently the most popular flavor, followed by French Silk and Strawberry Rhubarb. Plumley and Miller are always happy to bake any pie on any day of the week for customers who call in orders the day before pickup. Or if you don’t mind waiting in your car, they’ve been known to fulfill urgent requests on the spot.
They would like to ship pies out of town but have yet to find a way that keeps the pie fresh without having to be frozen – “We refuse to freeze the pies,” Plumley says. In the meantime, they discovered a way to ship a small sampling of pie in 4-ounce jelly jars. Imagine an adorable miniature jar with its very own pie baked inside, complete with a sealed lid and a tiny fork. Wells Fargo recently shipped 27 boxes of jelly jars to its employees throughout the U.S., and brides are increasingly requesting them as wedding favors.
This summer, Peggy Jean’s held monthly pie happy hours at the bakery for 25 to 30 people to sample 15 unlabeled pies and compete to guess each flavor, simultaneously serving as focus groups for the bakery’s newest creations. Miller and Plumley have also partnered with local craft distillery DogMaster Distillery to hold monthly #pieandbooze events, where attendees learn to make a Peggy Jean’s baby pie and a complementary DogMaster cocktail.
“I don’t ever come up with pies,” Miller says. “I tried a Margarita pie, and it was an epic fail. Everyone’s like, ‘Is this a piña colada?’ She’s way more creative than I am. She built the light fixture, she built the display unit and she makes all the recipes. She’s over here in her creative world.”
“And you’re in your world, and you never meet a stranger,” Plumley replies.
Those characteristics – the quiet creative type and the social butterfly – make the perfect balance. Plumley is in the shop by 3am every day, mixing and preparing the dough using her grandmother’s recipe of flour, salt, water and shortening. The exact recipe is something only Plumley and Miller know. “It took me three years of practicing before I could get it down,” Plumley says.
Miller joins her at 7:45am after dropping her kids off at school. “We have a great system,” Plumley says. “I’m a morning person; I love it. In the afternoons, that’s my low point of the day, and she’s going strong. She does such great customer service. That morning time gives me time to think, plan and bake. She’s all about the social media and customers and knows many of them by name.”
“If someone had told me when I was 20, ‘You’ll be almost 40 and baking pies with your mother,’ I would have said, ‘There’s no way,’” Miller says. “I have zero regrets. I didn’t think that I would do this every day – I thought I would own it and it would be cute.”
Until this past August, Miller was still working as a lawyer while balancing her role at Peggy Jean’s.
“I went through this whole period of my career where I felt very lost,” Miller says. “I have these moments in here when I’m like: ‘What is that feeling? Oh, that’s happy? That’s weird.’ I’m finally at the point of knowing this is where I was supposed to be; this is why I couldn’t shut up and go with the flow because I wasn’t in the right environment to get what I needed. I wish I could go back and tell my 25-year-old self that.”
When talking about the future, Plumley and Miller aren’t shy dreamers. “I’d like to get to the point where we’re franchising, but without the pies being mass produced at a factory, frozen and put on an 18-wheeler,” Plumley says. As of September, they’ve started offering chicken pot pie, and they’d like to continue experimenting with other savory pie flavors, plus baby cakes and dough sculpting.
“She needs her own test kitchen where we could leave her alone and let her come up with these amazing creations,” Miller says. “I just keeping thinking about ‘Peggy Jean’s Pies World Pie Domination.’”
Peggy Jean's Pies, 3601 Buttonwood Dr. Suite E, Columbia, Missouri, 573.447.7437, pjpies.com