Growing up around her grandparents’ farm in Northern California led to Kira O’Donnell Babich’s enduring passion and obsession with pies. The owner of Sacramento-based Real Pie Company, which she runs with her husband, Fred Babich, took time out of her busy baking schedule to talk to us about her lifelong dream of opening her own pie shop, the heartbreaking decision to shut it down for 10 years and how sharing the magic of making pies with her family inspired its reopening.
Tell us how your love for food started.
My grandparents had a farm in Humboldt County in Northern California. I spent a lot of time there growing up, and that whole farm life was just a completely magical time, and it resonated with me. I got to pull eggs out from under chickens, milk cows and pick ripe strawberries – all these wonderful things that I wish every kid now still had a chance to do. It provided me with a real magical connection with food, with pies, especially. My grandfather used to take me wild blackberry picking around their farm. We’d take them back to my grandmother, and she’d make pies out of them. I’ve always been fascinated by the pie making process.
Tell us how you started Real Pie Company.
I thought about going to culinary school, but everybody told me at the time that it was kind of limiting. I ended up getting a winemaking degree from University of California Davis. Every summer, I would work in the Napa Valley during crush season and got to try all the restaurants in the area. I took a quarter off school and ended up working in the pastry department at Auberge du Soleil. That’s where I got firmly bit by the bug and there was no going back.
After graduating from UC Davis, I started working in pastries. Then, after I got married to my first husband, I mostly worked in the winemaking industry, but I was always baking pies and bringing them to my colleagues. In a leap of faith, I opened my first pie shop in 2007 in a tiny, 1,000 square foot space in a section called “Poverty Ridge.” I literally had no idea if anybody would come or not.
It was also interesting because at the time I only had pastry experience in a professional restaurant setting. I didn’t have any training in baking in volume. You have to look at things differently and learn how to run a bakery. It was a growth period for me.
What was the experience like of having to close the business after a year?
My kids were still small at the time, and I felt like I was missing out on a lot of those experiences with them, like parent teacher conferences and sports. I got a call one day from my daughter’s kindergarten teacher, and I guess my daughter told her, “My mommy doesn’t live at home anymore, she lives in a pie shop.” That was super heartbreaking and also when I decided it was time to put the business on hold. It was on hold for 10 years until I reopened.
I had a small staff at the time, and we were very busy. Closing the doors after all that work was really hard, but a lot of those customers stayed with me even after all those years. But I had to put family first. I’m glad I did that. I made a lot of mistakes, and that experience taught me a lot.
What inspired you to relaunch Real Pie Company?
I always hoped and dreamed of reopening. My kids grew up, and that freed me up and freed up my guilt. I ended up getting remarried to someone who is super supportive. He’s a complete sweet freak. He secretly wanted to open a bakery his whole life, and when he met me, he found out about my background and my dream. So it all converged in a way that made things possible.
What’s it like working together?
Fred runs the business part of things (payroll, costs, etc.), those things that I don’t really like to do. I run the kitchen and the baking and dough teams. He runs the front staff. It’s an amazing partnership and friendship. This new shop would’ve never happened if it weren’t for him. I couldn’t have done it on my own. We also have an amazing crew. We are so lucky.
How did you come up with the name Real Pie Company?
My son Quaid (who’s now almost 26). When he was five, we went to a chain restaurant that specializes in pies. He wanted pie, so we ordered a slice. He took a couple of bites, looked at me and said, “Mommy, is this real pie?” And I thought, if I ever open a pie shop, I’m going to name it Real Pie Company.
What makes a Real Pie Company pie special?
We let the fruit take center stage. If you’re working with really beautiful fruit, it does a lot of the work for you. We use natural ingredients instead of preservatives and stabilizers. We try not to use too much sugar. A lot of our customers thank us because our pies are not overly sweet. Our all-butter crust, we have to teach people sometimes how to cut it. Butter crusts are flaky, crackly, crunchy, crispy on the edges.
Talk to us about how the season and local ingredients drive your menu items.
It always feels like Christmas to me whenever I go to the farmers’ market. I’m surrounded by all this gorgeous fruit and thinking about how to transform it into something equally delicious. I look at what’s available seasonally. During the summer we’ve got peaches, apricots and nectarines, so I like to build from that. But we also have a lot of iconic pies, like chocolate cream, key lime, butterscotch, banana cream. We also have galettes, hand pies and these palm-sized crispy fruit containers called “Crusty Lusty.”
What are your most popular items?
The Rhubarb & Raspberry pie – people at first get weirded out by that non-traditional combination, but it’s become hugely popular at our shop, and it has this vibrant pink color. We have an Apricot & Blackberry pie with a gorgeous lattice top. People love lattice tops on anything. It’s so visually appealing. Our Key Lime is so awesome and refreshing, and customers tell us it’s the best they’ve ever had.
How did the pandemic affect Real Pie Company?
It was stunningly shocking for everybody. One day we were open, and the next day we were closed. We had a walk-in full of food. We closed for five months. We froze what we could and gave away milk and eggs. Eventually, we started doing bake sales. People pre-ordered online and picked up at our shop. [They] really wanted that comfort food, especially our savory Real Chicken Pot Pies and Shepherd’s Pies. Our bake sales really kept us going until we reopened. We’ve made some pivots since then, including turning our dining room into a production space.
What does it mean to be a part of the Sacramento food scene?
We’re so lucky in that we’re surrounded by small family farms. I’ve had several opportunities to build relationships for many years. I worked for the UC system small farm center, which taught people about farming, establishing farmers markets, agrotourism, things like that. I founded the Sacramento chapter of the nonprofit Slow Food years ago. I was also the food writer for a Sacramento magazine for 20 years. I got to meet so many people in the food and agriculture industry, getting to know these families and farms even before I opened my pie shop.
The one thing that I hear from everybody about the Sacramento food industry is that it’s very collaborative. We’ve all got each other’s backs. There’s a lot of kindness here and I really appreciate that.
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