Dinner gave way to dessert, and Panek brought out a fan favorite: her apple pie. As she laid it down on the table, she heard Land quietly say something that caught her notice. “He said, kind of under his breath, ‘Wow, it’d be great to get one of those in a care package,’” she remembers.
Panek knew immediately that she had to find a way to make that happen. But you can’t just mail a pie. So she came up with an idea: bake a pie in a jar.
She purchased some glass half-pint jars from the hardware store, baked a mini-pie in each one, complete with crust, and sealed them up. True to Land’s idle desire on Thanksgiving, it was apple pie. Panek put each pie in another go-to item for the soldiers—socks—and mailed them.
“He must have been like, what in the world is in my socks?” Panek says. Whatever his reaction, he was very happy with what he found when he received them right around Christmas. A week later on Panek’s birthday, Dec. 31, she made a resolution for the coming year: She would make a business out of her durable little pies.
For Panek, who sat on the Syracuse Common Council for 10 years (four years as president) and has owned bars, restaurants and a gentleman’s club during her long career in the food industry, this undertaking was a personal challenge. She wanted to prove to herself she could make this work without investing $20,000, the amount her early calculations seemed to point toward.
But it was important to her that this in some way helps U.S. military members. Her husband, son and, now, grandson have all served in the armed forces. She searched for a charity to which she could donate some of the earnings from each “pint-sized pie,” as the company would become known. She found it in the Habitat for Humanity’s Veteran Build project, which provides houses for military veterans. To them, she donates 50 cents of the $6.50 cost of each pint-sized pie sold.
About 12 pint-sized pies equal the amount of pie in one of Panek’s full-sized “deep, deep dish pies” she also sells. This means for each dozen of the smaller variety, she needs 21/2 to three pounds of fruit, which she requires to be fresh, with the exception of pumpkin, which would be too difficult to keep from spoiling. She also is emphatic that all ingredients be grown or made in the United States, from the apples and rhubarbs to the glass jars in which she packages them.
“It’s a process, let me tell you,” she says.
Panek offers eight colorfully named flavors, dependent on the season and availability: Granny Smith Apple, Georgia’s Favorite Peach, Strawberry Blonde RhuBarbie (her best seller), Thrillin’ Blueberry, Triple Berry Treat, Pumpkin Patch, Jazzin’ Razz Berry and Cherie Amore. The pies can be made gluten-free or with reduced sugar if ordered in advance. One of her goals with the pies themselves is to make them not too sweet, even if you don’t request a reduced sugar version. She succeeded: The apple variety tastes of distinct use of brown sugar, with a touch of the fruit’s tartness cutting through.
Since she premiered the pies at the Regional Market on May 3, bringing at least three dozen of each variety each day, she reports a modest success. She has repeat customers that show up at the market, which she is at on Thursdays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. She says the peak pie-buying time seems to be closer to closing time.
On a warm Thursday morning at the Syracuse Regional Market’s shed A, tucked between hanging plants and some garden seedlings, Panek and her husband, Brian Rounds, worked steadily peddling these pies.
They didn’t rush, but they didn’t miss a beat. Panek sported a bright American flag apron; her husband was more subtly patriotic with a gray shirt that nondescriptly read “America” on the front. They knew exactly where any pie they’re looking for sat on the tables that surrounded them on three sides. The tablecloths covering these tables featured red-and-white firework bursts on a blue background.
One thing is clear: Susann Panek and her little pies are as American as, well, apple pie.
Since she is retired and doesn’t want to run a large operation, she thinks she might enjoy opening up a small storefront at some point, if business proves to be good. Right now, she will sell her pies at the Syracuse Nationals, July 20 to 22, at the New York State Fairgrounds. She also has her eye on afternoon, municipal farmers markets, since business seems to peak after lunch. This Christmas, she’ll take her pies on the road to a five-day holiday exhibition in Harrisburg, Pa.
She thinks pies evoke a little bit of nostalgia in people, especially
older people. They conjure the classic Americana setting, with the
fresh pie cooling on a warm summer’s day. Says Panek: “I hear people
say: ‘Oh, my grandmother made a pie just like that,’ or ‘Oh, this
reminds me of when I was a kid.’”
Contact Panek at 486-2520 or pintsizedpies.com.