By Sue Botos
Joe Schlott, owner of Gray House Pies, had good news and bad news for the audience during his recent apple-pie-making demonstration at the Rocky River Public Library.
“The bad news is that there are no samples, so if you want to leave now, you can,” offered Schlott. No one budged, so the baker revealed the good news. “You get a free hand pie (single serve) if you come to the store and give the password ‘Trix are for kids,’’’ Schlott told the group of about 50, which “oohed and aahed” in anticipation of the treat.
“Your pies are the best I have ever had,” called out one woman.
Area pie lovers agree. An enterprise that began as selling a few pies from the front porch of his Westlake home has become a recipe for success for Schlott.
Schlott began his sweet career “just hanging around kitchens” and working in restaurants while in college. He then was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
“I was going to be a chef,” stated Schlott, who was working at Pier W in Lakewood at the time. But after seeing the long hours worked by the executive chef, Schlott re-evaluated his career plans. “He was there at 6 a.m. and Friday at midnight he was still there. He worked 70 to 80 hours a week, and I decided I didn’t want to do that,” recalled the baker, who said he ended up in the mortgage business.
Schlott continued to bake and cook, discovering a knack for bread and pies. (“I can’t make cookies,” he admitted.) “At the holidays, I would make bread and pies for everyone I know,” he recalled.
In fall 2003, the move to a 150-year-old farmhouse, the Gray House, in Westlake added a new ingredient to Schlott’s pie-making venture.
“We’re near St. Ladislas Church (on Bassett Road) and on Sundays we can’t get out of the driveway. In the spring, my wife (Darlene) said, ‘Why don’t you sell pies on the porch?’” recalled Scholtt, who said it took a lot of encouragement from Darlene to give it a try.
“I hung a chalkboard from the lamppost with the price ($8.50). It was the honor system and I counted the cars going by while peeking out from behind the curtains,” Schlott said with a laugh.
After about 300 vehicles went by, the four or five pies finally sold. “That night, the phone started ringing and people said, ‘These are the greatest pies I ever had,’” he remembered.
With the opening of the Crocker Park Farmer’s Market the next year, Schlott took the advice of another family member and rented a booth. “I would have been happy to sell 10 pies,” said Schlott. But by the second week at the market, and the sale of 60 pies, Schlott said, “We knew we were onto something.”
That something evolved into Gray House Pies, at 26075 Detroit Road in Westlake. Schlott said his baked goods, which, in addition to pies, include quiches, savory pub pies and muffins, are made of natural ingredients. “There are no preservatives, and no trans-fats,” said Schlott, adding that he uses locally grown fruit in his pies as well as free-range pork and sausage in his quiches. Only eggs from free-range chickens are added to the baked goods.
As Schlott demonstrated his pie technique, he offered pointers. “If your butter is too soft, your crust won’t be flaky,” he said. He even gave away his secret crust ingredient (two tablespoons of sugar) and a quick overview his caramel recipe. Although he used to guard his secrets more carefully, Schlott said, he is not worried about competition due to the amount of work required to start a small business.
As for the “Trix are for kids” password, Schlott is always experimenting with new pies, the latest featuring the taste of favorite childhood cereals in the pastry cream. “You remember how good the milk at the bottom of the cereal bowl tastes?” he asked.
One thought he left with the home bakers anxious over their own creations: “Don’t worry about it. It will be fine.”