Step inside an unassuming white bungalow in Alanson, Michigan, and find a crumb-topped, meringue-swooped, buttery-good, small-town pie shop. Welcome to House of Pies.
At Cindy Sischo’s House of Pies in Alanson, the beginnings of the pie shop’s annual float for the downtown Petoskey Christmas parade sit outside. Cindy’s hands are stained with red paint. The first year she was in the parade, Cindy wanted to build a miniature house to replicate her House of Pies. The plan was to cobble some old cardboard boxes together and paint them, but as she was sitting at her kitchen table, a light bulb went off: Wouldn’t it be even homier to use her husband’s ice fishing shack? She’s the kind of person who makes things happen. So, that first year, parade-goers saw an ice fishing shack dolled up as the House of Pies.
The real house is an unassuming bungalow with a screened-in porch across the road from Crooked Lake. It began as a residence, was a deli, then an Italian restaurant, and now, it’s the House of Pies. The enterprise began almost two decades ago, with Cindy’s mother selling pies out of her antique shop. One day, she put up a sign for fresh rhubarb pie and sold 17 in one day. Since then, mother and daughter developed the business into a full-fledged bakery that sells between 100 and 150 pies per day in the summer, and about 400 over Thanksgiving. While her mother is now retired downstate, Cindy still keeps things running smoothly—though she assures me everything has to be up to her mom’s standards, “or you’re gonna find out fast!”
Featured in the November 2019 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.
Step Inside House of Pies …
“When people walk in the door they can’t believe how big it is,” says Cindy. It’s true. The door opens into a wide industrial kitchen with a wood-paneled sitting room where guests can enjoy a slice of pie with ice cream and a cup of coffee. In the corner of the kitchen, a tall wire rack is laden with pies fresh from the oven. Big plastic buckets full of fresh fruit sit on the countertops. Everywhere you look there’s a relic from a different decade.
“I try to do all antiques,” says Cindy. “A bunch of this stuff I kind of commandeered from my mom with a lot of begging and stomping and kicking!” Every corner is stuffed with Cindy’s memories. Her “Elvis tree,” is a silver metallic Christmas tree complete with a colorful spotlight. It reminds her of the Christmas tree at Graceland in Tennessee. There’s a pair of blue-handled scissors that belonged to her grandmother and were in the family long before they ever sold their first pie. A country music station plays from an 18-inch-tall antique wooden radio, and a ceramic Christmas village is neatly laid out on shelves over the industrial sink. Cindy and her employees always have music playing, but they try to keep it tame. “I had Kid Rock playing as loud as I could one day and the health inspector walked in!” So, now they mostly play country.
Making the Pies …
Cindy first began baking with her mother, who was an incredible pie-maker. “We just took it for granted,” says Cindy. The recipes came from her grandmother and were never written down. The recipes for her cream pies and the dough for the crust are locked in her memory, and she’s not sharing. The cherry-crumb pie gets a lovely dose of almond extract, and the perfectly browned meringue for the lemon pie is her trademark. Anywhere from four to ten people are working at House of Pies depending on the season, but “you have to be selected to do the pies,” says Cindy. Even then, her employees only roll out the dough. Cindy fills the pies all herself. Consistency and perfection are key—and lots of butter.
It’s a warm and bustling business, but it also serves as an outlet for grief. Everything changed five years ago when Cindy’s daughter, Megan, passed away from cancer. “I kind of went crazy. Instead of sitting at home I just came here. And baked and baked and baked.”
That’s how they added the bakery to the pie shop. The mountains of pies she had to make weren’t enough to steal her focus, so she created a new challenge for herself and began learning how to decorate cakes and cookies. She created recipes for specialty breads like apple-cinnamon and cherry-almond. It’s what kept her getting up in the morning.
Like the Christmas village, the Elvis tree and the jukebox in the corner, Cindy’s daughter has become a part of the little white house. Once a soldier in the Army, she was stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. House of Pies now serves Kona coffee as a reminder of that time.
Visit House of Pies: 4577 Oden Rd., Alanson, 231.347.6525
Cindy doesn’t stray far from her family recipes. As a sign on the door attests, they do not have gluten-free or dairy-free options. “We are an old-school bakery,” Cindy laughs. But she is exploring new territory. They’ve started doing wedding pies and birthday cakes, and are trying rolled cakes—one a German chocolate, the other a chocolate cake rolled with chocolate buttercream and drizzled with chocolate ganache. Cookies and pies will always be in the shop, but like many foods in Northern Michigan, the flavors ebb and flow with the seasons.
In the summertime, it’s a 24-hour operation. The bakers sleep in shifts on a couch and pies go into the oven in batches of 40. Time loses all meaning. “If I were sane I could never do this. I couldn’t. Who would work 18 hours a day if they weren’t crazy?” she asks. In the summertime, she works from three or four in the morning until five at night. Seven days a week. The winter hours are a tad less intense, but not by much. Cindy arrives by five in the morning and leaves around six in the evening for six days a week.
Cindy’s Baking Tips …
If you can’t make it to Alanson to try one of her pies or other baked goods, Cindy has a few tips for making your own: First, “You can’t do anything without adding butter.” Second, always go with tried-and-true ingredients—even for the staples. House of Pies uses Crisco shortening, Pollyanna flour, Pioneer sugar and Prairie Farms milk. She sticks with local farms as much as possible. Bill’s Farm Market in Petoskey supplies them with fresh Michigan strawberries and almost everything else is sourced from Smeltzer’s Orchard on Bear Lake.
While work has been her anchor, Cindy did take a few days off to celebrate her late daughter’s birthday in New Orleans. It’s the first time she’s taken any time off from the bakery in four years. “You have to devote everything to make it,” says Cindy, “You just have to.” She continues to devote everything every single day to making perfect pies for us from her House of Pies. With her employees, family and her husband’s work colleagues, there are rarely leftovers. That said, she laughs and tells me, “My neighbor said that I have to move because the first year he gained 25 pounds!” So, help a neighbor out. Go visit and bring home a fresh pie.
Molly Korroch is a journalist currently based in Suttons Bay. Visit her website at mollyhunterkorroch.com or follow her @mollykorroch / Jon-Paul Allgaier photographs lifestyle, food, product and weddings from his base in Traverse City.