Today, Wanda's Pie in the Sky dessert business grosses nearly $1 million a year. It has just added a third Toronto retail outlet to its wholesale bakery operation, where some 1,200 handmade products are prepared each week.
The pies, cakes, tarts, squares and other treats are earmarked for some of the city's finest restaurants and upscale food markets, with wholesale prices upward of $20 per pie and retail prices of about $5 to $6 a slice.
But ask owner/proprietor Wanda Beaver how her stellar career began and she starts by describing the heavily laden trees surrounding her childhood home in Ontario's Niagara-region fruitbelt, and the precocious preparation of a single pie.
Sour cherries were always her favourite. So, at the tender age of nine, with no help from anyone, plucky Wanda picked a pail of berries, skipped to the family kitchen and baked the first of what eventually would be thousands upon thousands of cherry pies.
|Ken Kerr, Business Edge|
|Some have greatness thrust upon them, as pie-maker Wanda Beaver can attest.|
"Nobody told me it was too hard to do," she recalls, taking a break from a hot oven and doffing the baseball cap she wears as a chef's tuque. "So I just did it."
And through that, a pastry shell turned into a business plan that the self-taught Beaver has pursued successfully for the past 20 years. But first, she took the sort of detour John Lennon likely had in mind when he quipped that life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.
"I thought I'd have a career in art, so I was studying communication design, illustration and photography at (Toronto's) Ontario College of Art & Design," Beaver says. But then, in her second-last year as a student, she baked a peach pie for a friend whose roommate was a restaurant manager.
The roommate went wild over the crumbly confection and brokered the first of what now numbers more than 200 commercial accounts. While completing her studies, "and never dreaming that baking would turn out to be my real career," Beaver rode the subway to deliver a few pies a week to that first restaurant.
To make the schlepping easier, she used a hand-held carrier lovingly devised by David Beaver, the industrial design student who later became her husband and marketing partner. He still likes to joke that the carrier was one of the edges that helped him beat out his romantic competition, three of whom, he says, proposed marriage to his "gorgeous, genius-IQ" wife-to-be in a single month.
Not long after graduating, Beaver recognized her true calling and got serious about wholesaling various flavours of pies and, later, other desserts. Working at first out of her home, she later migrated to a series of ever-larger locations until about seven years ago, when she and David found and outfitted a 2,700-sq.-ft. bakery in Etobicoke.
Although Beaver's headquarters is located in an out-of-the-way, semi-industrial area from which she intended to service only wholesale accounts - plus the few customers who could squeeze into a tiny front area - she was abruptly catapulted to mass fame by what she calls "a two-inch mention" in a Toronto Star guide to outlet shopping.
Beaver was told the listing would appear a week later than it actually did. So she was shocked and unprepared when she arrived at work one Saturday morning to find an entire parking lot full of people clutching the newspaper clipping and demanding to buy her now-famous pies.
"When the pies were all gone, we pulled out everything else we had in the freezer and sold that, too," Beaver recalls with a merry laugh. By then, she was no stranger to retail, having opened a small combination bakeshop and vegetarian café on ritzy Yorkville Avenue in 1995.
The celestially themed spot, also called Wanda's Pie in the Sky, quickly became a favourite haunt of celebrities during the annual Toronto International Film Festival. So many famous faces have wolfed down her desserts that Beaver can remember only a few: Actors Neve Campbell, Brent Carver, Jackie Burroughs and Joe Pantaleone, and musicians Eric Clapton and Lenny Kravitz.
Beaver says she greatly prefers retail to wholesale, noting: "I just love feeding people."
By comparison, she views wholesaling as "thankless because the margins are pathetic and you never get to see anybody eat your food. It just goes out the door, into the truck and that's it."
Almost as rewarding as watching ecstatic eaters consume her desserts, she says, is teaching people to make them at her twice-monthly, $100-a-head classes. Among her graduates is former baseball player Joe Carter, for whom she renamed her coconut cream pie "The Pie That Won the World Series."
Tongue in cheek, she swears that the reason Carter was able to hit the home run that made the Toronto Blue Jays the repeat world champs in 1993 was that he had ordered special delivery of his favourite pie to the SkyDome and eaten a hefty slice just before suiting up for the historic game.
Beaver included that yarn and other dessert-related anecdotes in her Wanda's Pie in the Sky recipe book, which was published last year and is already in a second printing.
The personality-plus tome features not only basic lessons such as "Pie Crust 101," but advanced how-to advice on concocting ambitious pies such as her fabled lemon meringue. That's the one she describes as "the Marilyn Monroe of pies because it's blonde, tart, voluptuous and truly unforgettable."
"Anyway," Beaver concludes, "if I had it to do over, I think I'd concentrate a lot more on retail because it's so much more satisfying.”
And that's exactly what she is now doing at her second café, Wanda's in the Kitchen With Dinah.
Invitingly festooned with red- and white-striped awnings, the wittily named combination bakery and deli on Mount Pleasant Road north of Eglinton Avenue opened in June. It is a joint operation with Beaver's friend and fellow Toronto food celebrity Dinah Koo, who formerly owned Dinah's Kitchen and Tiger Lily restaurants.
"We got our bookkeepers in a big powwow to figure out how it's going to work," Beaver says. "There's Dinah's stuff, my stuff and stuff that we're going to mutually sell, such as coffee and other beverages, sandwiches, soups and a few other things like rice- and bread-puddings."
As for the future, Beaver is adamant that she doesn't "want to be a kazillionaire" or to stretch herself too thin with multiple outlets, or even to make more of a profit by taking shortcuts or skimping on the abundance of natural ingredients that make her desserts so scrumptious. "I just want to be able to make a living doing what I really enjoy."
Twisting her long, dark hair back under her cap and heading back to the kitchen to prepare a thousand cherry bombes for the annual Taste of Toronto event, Beaver tosses off an afterthought that probably accounts for a good chunk of her phenomenal success.
"People tell me all the time that - except for mine - they just can't find real, homemade-quality pie anywhere anymore; that it seems to be a dying art."
(Terry Poulton can be reached at email@example.com)