It's the night before opening day at Sister Pie, a new bakery in Detroit's West Village neighborhood. Inside the lights are on and the '80s Starship ballad "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" is pumping through the sound system. The lengthy list of to dos that accompany opening your first brick-and-mortar bakery don't seem to phase Sister Pie founder Lisa Ludwinski. Mittens on and hair tied up in her trademark pink scarf, Ludwinski is dancing. Not only is she dancing, but she's documenting the moment for one of her trademark #dancebreak videos, soon to be uploaded to Instagram for the pleasure of her growing list of followers.
The Sister Pie #dancebreak has become a bit of a calling card for Ludwinski's brand. Her fans have come to recognize the short, amusing videos shot in her kitchen as much as her buckwheat chocolate chip cookies. Ludwinski likes entertaining, which comes as no surprise since she holds a degree in theater arts.
In 2006, Ludwinski graduated from Kalamazoo College and headed to Brooklyn to live out her dream of becoming a theater director. But the city's thriving culinary scene proved far too captivating. "As soon as I got there I became really distracted by the food culture. I'd never really been so excited about food before," she says. Ludwinski pursued odd jobs while working as a nanny and at juice bar, but in her spare time turned to Youtube as an outlet for her cooking hobby, filming short videos for a series titled "Funny Side Up."
Then Milk Bar opened. "I was just obsessed with it. There was just something about it that was calling my name," Ludwinski says. "I would go into the East Village shop and there were all these women behind the counter baking together. I was like, 'Oh my God. I just want to be doing that.'"
I'd never really been so excited about food before
She made her move and was hired to work the counter, but soon worked her way into the kitchen. It was there that she received her first real bakery training. Interested in experiencing how other bakeries operated, Ludwinski applied for David Chang's scholarship program, which offered funding for externships in other kitchens across the U.S. Even then, Ludwinski says she somehow knew she wanted to return to Michigan and build a business.
In her scholarship proposal, she expressed her interest in returning to her home state of Michigan to work at the respected Zingerman's Bakehouse and Avalon International Breads. Momofuku accepted her proposal and with that Ludwinski was making her way back to the Mitten. "I wanted to just kind of strengthen my confidence," she says. "Milk Bar gave me a wealth of knowledge, but I wanted to see what else was out there."
Several weeks later, she returned to New York invigorated by her experiences in Ann Arbor and Detroit. Momofuku offered her a full-time role in the kitchens.
"I spent the following year diving in and was doing everything from baking the cookies and pies to all croissant prep to menu development with Christina Tosi." If that wasn't enough, she spent her free time working at Four & Twenty Blackbirds "making pie dough and rolling out lattice."
For Ludwinski, working at Momofuku and Four & Twenty wasn't "always all about the pastry or the pie," she says. "It was about having a cool place for people to work." Both bakeries offered a feeling of sisterhood that she found inspiring and hoped to mimic in her own kitchen one day.
In 2012, Ludwinski returned home and earnestly started her business out of her parent's kitchen in Milford, Michigan. With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching she began taking orders for pies. It was a jumping off point for Ludwinski, but slowly her business grew from home baking to commercial kitchen, and, in April, she opened the shop in Detroit. Ludwinski specializes in seasonally rotating pies produced with local ingredients, but her signature pie flavor is the salted maple pie. Made with Michigan maple syrup, it pays homage to Momofuku's Crack Pie and Four & Twenty Blackbirds salty honey pie.
They call it the 'Sister Pie hustle'
At times, Ludwinski says she still feels insecure about not having gone to culinary school, but what she may lack in experience she makes up for in dedication. Bakery assistant Anji Reynolds refers to it as "the Sister Pie hustle." Today, Ludwinski manages 10 employees and is working to build a culture of sisterhood, while both maintaining quality and having some fun.
For the last two years, she's had a hand in nearly every aspect of the business, but with the new shop she's learning to give up some control to her growing number of employees. "Right now I've been telling myself I've got these first three months to just focus on getting this bakery moving like a well-oiled machine," she says. "It's very hard for my personality."