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April 8th, 2014
Melissa and Emily Elsen
Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie shop in Brooklyn, New York owned and operated by the Elsen sisters, Melissa and Emily has become one of the most beloved pie shops around.
They opened Four & Twenty Blackbirds back in 2010 with a limited budget, but have taken the business to new heights. Now one of the most celebrated pie shops in the country, with flavors that follow each season, and a style that is warm, yet bursting with a fresh new approach.
What are your culinary backgrounds? Where did you study?
We grew up working in our mother’s family restaurant in our hometown of Hecla, South Dakota. We learned everything from dishwashing to working the line as short order cooks and also baking and preparing all types of approachable food. Our Grandmother Liz also worked there baking all the pies for the restaurant. Melissa studied finance and business administration in college, and Emily studied Sculpture and Photography.
Who or what influenced you to start a career in foodservice?
Growing up in our family restaurant where the commitment was to serve the community with well-made food in a welcoming environment was our inspiration – a shift in the dynamic of the food scene in Brooklyn fostered our ambitions and a sincere desire to make our enterprise succeed is what keeps it going.
Where did the idea come from to open a pie shop and how did 2 sisters from South Dakota end up in Brooklyn?
Emily came to Brooklyn in 1999 and completed a BFA at Pratt Institute. Melissa moved to Brooklyn in 2009 in pursuit of work in Finance – which was particularly bad timing with the economic downturn of that year.
The desire to start a business together was something we had always shared – we found that we had both gravitated back to baking and cooking and that we were excited by it and good at it. Pies came out of a love and respect for what our Grandmother Liz had established at our mother’s restaurant (she was the pie-maker for all their pies) and a mutually shared interest in the challenge of making a better pie than what we found locally.
Do you sell your pies to restaurants that want to add your offerings to their dessert menu? Are you working with any local distributors?
We do sell to a small group of local restaurants, and one upstate location called Table on Ten. We do not work with distribution – we do it ourselves, or clients will pick up the pies for themselves.
Do you source your ingredients locally and since many of your pies are seasonal, do you purchase ingredients according to the particular season?
Yes – we source according to the local season – we work with Wilklow Orhcards from Highland, NY on the majority of our fruit; we source from California and Florida for citrus. We also work with a local forager from Spring until Fall for unique wild edibles.
On the equipment side, do pies require a different type of oven then what’s used in traditional restaurant kitchens?
We use a Blodgett convection oven at the pie shop – for our production kitchen we will use a Revent roll-in oven that enables you to bake on an entire pastry rack – these are pretty standard for bakery operations. Deck ovens (i.e. pizzeria ovens) also work well for custard pies.
When you found the location for Blackbirds, was there an existing kitchen there? If not, what was the approach; work with any local consultants or dealers? Any restrictions for planning and zoning?
It was a drywall space with no plumbing, and a mess of electrical wiring. Since we had very little budget, we did a lot of the work ourselves and with the help of some very generous friends. The process of finding a good electrician, plumber and contractor in NYC can be frustrating and disheartening, but taking the time to find good people to work with makes the project go much more smoothly. There are strict DOB and DOH guidelines in NYC and we familiarized ourselves with all aspects of those guidelines that would affect our business – for example, whether you are a gas operation or electric only dictates how you set things up –in particular ventilation. We have not had many roadblocks on our first location because we worked hard to be aware of these guidelines.
You host a Fresh Fish CSA and a Vegetable CSA. What’s that all about?
In keeping with our commitment to serve our community, we want to share fresh, local produce that is healthy and delicious. In this way we support other small local businesses (the CSA’s and the farmers that supply them).
Do you see more Four & Twenty Blackbirds opening up in different allocations throughout Metro New York down the road?
Yes, we hope. Our goal as a bakery is to provide a fresh delivered product. We opened our second location at the Brooklyn Public Library in Grand Army Plaza in March of 2014 and also broke ground on a larger production kitchen and retail location a few months prior. We expect our expanded operations to be up and running in Summer of 2014 and this will enable us to provide wholesale on a larger scale as well as open multiple locations in our area.
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