Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 61: Mission Pie
JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host Jared Blumenfeld. There's something about pie that just makes me smile. It just tastes so damn good, and pie reminds me of all the good times from birthdays, Christmas, Hannukah, and all the celebrations in between. Our family would go down to 25th and Mission Street in San Francisco to get our favorite pies, which started with banana cream pie when the kids were young and now is firmly in the blackberry peach pear family of crumbles. It makes it even more special that one of the cofounders of mission pie, Karen Heisler used to work for EPA and so over the years we became friends. When Karen phoned me a few weeks ago to let me know the Mission Pie was closing forever on September 1st, I was completely taken back. This week, we talk to Karen about how Mission Pie was created, the factors that led to its closure, and the love and hope that come from even the most difficult of life changes. I start with Karen at her store, which is still open for another month, looking at the pies on offer today. Okay. We've got the Vegan Pie, the Walnut Pie, Peach Blackberry, now that is my perennial favorite.
KAREN HEISLER: Wow, that was good that I figured that out last week. You'd like the pies with the crumb top, I know. I like our double crust pies because I really love the pie dough that we make, which is a kind of classic American pie dough. It's all butter.
JARED BLUMENFELD: That Peach Pie just looks so good. It's crazy. And then Mixed Berry, if you don't have Beach Blackberry or Pear Blackberry, that’s the one.
KAREN HEISLER: That's one of the things that's great about lots of people together around pie is that you got to go places you wouldn't have gone otherwise.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And rhubarb is our collective. You and I both like rhubarb. Oh my god.
KAREN HEISLER: Out of season and for some reason, you know why there isn't rhubarb in California or there isn't much is because the cost of land is so high here. It takes about three years for rhubarb to be established as a commercial crop where you can really go at it. If you're going to spend three years not drawing revenue off a piece of land, you're going to put in fruit trees or nuts or something that you can recover that investment with, and rhubarb is just not a high enough value crop. So, you know, for the first few years I was like, oh, it's so embarrassing. We can't source local rhubarb. But when I came to realize like no, it's just, it doesn't fit in the agricultural economics of the state. And so, we get rhubarb from Oregon, and it's just the way it is. You know, I mean like there are certain things you can't change, and you can't fault somebody for not wanting to grow something that doesn't allow them to make a decent living.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Okay, let's eat some. So good. Really tart. I love that. It does tastes like rhubarb.
KAREN HEISLER: A little bit. Plum might be my second favorite. I have really good memories of it.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Is this Victoria Plum? They are probably not called Victoria Plum in America.
KAREN HEISLER: No, is that what you grew up with?
JARED BLUMENFELD: Yeah.
KAREN HEISLER: No, these are Santa Rosas, which just happened to be my favorite plum I think because that's what I encountered when I was a kid.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, there’s a lot of nostalgia in pie.
KAREN HEISLER: I think there is for a lot of people. You know, the highest compliment is when people say, and usually they whisper it because they don't want the spirit of their grandmother to hear, that we've made a pie that rivals their grandmothers or something that's always like, what do you say? That's lovely.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And now I have a lot of nostalgia for Mission Pie already.
KAREN HEISLER: Yeah. What is nostalgia doing for us in this time though, do you think?
JARED BLUMENFELD: I think it's generally dangerous, but it's a comfortable place. I mean it's a place of remembering how something was to help you maybe think about where you are now. But generally, for me it's, it's unhealthy because rather than looking forward, it's, it's looking backwards. And if we spend too much time looking backwards, we don't really move forward.
KAREN HEISLER: Right. I guess at its best it can motivate us to reach forward with the things that we value with us, and to try to create in that ideal, providing that those are values that really line up with what our responsibilities are.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Next, we walked somewhere quiet to talk. Where are we?
KAREN HEISLER: We're in the basement of Mission Pie.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, tell us about life before Mission Pie. You actually started with an organic farm.
KAREN HEISLER: It's an amazing farm in northern California that was the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in California. It's called Live Power Community Farm. I can say I sort of cut my teeth on ecological agriculture in that context. One of the unique things about this CSA is that it's a very actively involved membership. In other words, the food comes from the farm to the city, not sorted into individual shares. And the community takes responsibility for the division of the boxes of produce and delivery to one another. So, there was a lot of involvement in the organism of the farm, and I was deeply engaged in the urban part of that. I'm like very honestly and comfortably an urban person with a profound interest in how good food happens.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And then you somehow made your away into the belly of the federal government with a job regulating pesticides. How did that come about?
KAREN HEISLER: I just had the good fortune of somebody from EPA coming to one of my classes, an environmental law class, and she spoke with such passion, I realized yet another embarrassment that I had always held a pretty negative opinion of government work. And I thought, oh, this woman sounds very creative and very engaged and very committed, and I relate to that. And I contacted that person and asked if I could work as an intern at the ripe age of 30. And that was how I ended up going to the EPA.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So how long were you at EPA?
KAREN HEISLER: I think all told, I was at EPA 15 years. It was a supportive environment and more importantly, it gave me an enormous opportunity to learn.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, how were you spending most of your day at EPA? Where you on farms or what? What were you doing?
KAREN HEISLER: Most of the time was very much spent in a cubicle on the 18th floor of the office. I was in the role of being a liaison, working with the state of California, one of the most powerful agricultural economies in the world, and one of the most dynamic and challenging agricultural systems that I can think of. It was a real privilege to be able to do that. I think we got some important things done. The two areas of activity of policy that I ended up specializing in were pesticide drift; so, the movement of pesticides when they're applied and after they're applied onto parts of the landscape where they weren't intended to land, or sometimes people directly. That continues to this day to be something that I care a lot about. I think in this country we grow up believing, maybe not anymore, but at my time, we grew up believing that our government was working in our best interest and had our health and welfare in mind. We have regulatory systems that are in the context of cultural systems that empower some and disempower others. And I think some of what I am proudest of from my time at EPA, which progressed from a regulatory program to a much more incentive-based program for the second half of the time that I was there. My practices began to focus more and more on ensuring that a more representative group of impacted and participating individuals was in every discussion. I found that more and more, I was trying to just ensure that a balance of voices were at the table and were really taken seriously. And it was that same thing that motivated me to leave and to start a pie shop in a sense. My awareness and discomfort with how far I was from the ground, being very far from the community that I was regulating, and very far from where the impact of this industry were being felt the most.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Emotionally, were you at the end of your rope at EPA, when you decided to stop Mission Pie, what were you feeling?
KAREN HEISLER: I felt impatient and one of the hard things for me about working in the world of policy was that I would lose a sense of whether I was actually accomplishing anything. I think it's possible that we all have felt that way in those jobs. It's hard to sometimes go home feeling like, oh, I did this today, because everything that gets done takes a really, really long time and involves many, many people and I do obviously drift into my head a lot. So, I think part of my wanting to step out had to do with seeking balance where I would have a little bit more of a sense of the tangibility and the results of my effort.
JARED BLUMENFELD: I was always super jealous of you. I was like, how did Karen leave EPA and do what I've always wanted. I mean I love pies. I love cooking and it just seemed like you are my hero. I just couldn't believe that you'd done it. And it kinda felt like escape from Alcatraz, you managed to do something remarkable.
KAREN HEISLER: I would encounter that response a lot, from not just colleagues at EPA, but in other places. It was kind of calculated and it was a huge risk. I made a decision within a week. I would not recommend that for everybody. I mean it was, it was a really big risk. I did that when my daughter was in high school. It wasn't the kindest thing. I really upset our personal environment to follow a dream.
JARED BLUMENFELD: But before there was a Mission Pie, you had cofounded a farm in Pescadero called Pie Ranch. So, what was that experience like?
KAREN HEISLER: During the early years of that, it was, it was gratifying, but I also realized I had kind of taken my feet away from where I really live in an urban environment and what I really wanted to be doing was reaching more people and bringing more people to the table to understand again, what makes good food good. And I started imagining what would something like that in an urban context look like and how do we invite people to the table? And I think my tip from the public sector into the private sector of running a food business, really, it was an epiphany of sorts that I had as I was watching the very money that I was responsible for doling out through government grants, through these incentive programs to sort of motivate agricultural producers into new habits that would be more environmentally and socially sustainable. And I suddenly realized that I had been completely indoctrinated growing up in the Bay Area into the belief that the private sector is the source of all evil and the public sector, whether you know the charitable organizations or government is, is where all repair is going to happen. I had a crisis around that, realizing that one, that's a really inefficient to allow a bunch of bad stuff to happen and then come in and correct it. So, it just looked to me like a toilet bowl that we were going to go down if we kept believing that. And I that motivated me to try to be part of demonstrating that businesses can be both be profitable and good and sources of good in their communities. A lot of people already doing that, but it was an enlightenment for me and it became the, the really compelling driving force and I have to credit my wife and business partner, Kristen Ruben, for helping me to open my eyes to that in a very gentle demonstrated way. She had more experience running a business and I learned a lot of Mission Pie’s business ethics really were the result of her quiet demonstration and insistence around the commitments that we made from the get go, around how we would source food ingredients and how we would take care of the people that worked with us and how we would be ambitious in our goals and where we would compromise. I have really come to appreciate and believe in enterprise that is oriented toward justice and fairness and sort of right relationship with a community. And I think what really drives me, if we don't call on ourselves to be fair and just in the way that we conduct our transactions as businesses, as humans, we are going to go down. We can't have a split society where some of the people are just getting away with stuff and the others are the enforcers. And in fact, that's the direction we've drifted and that we're going fast and hard and it freaks me out every day. I came into Mission Pie with a very, very strong motivation for sharing values about ecological agriculture and how we source food and what it means to be an individual in this society spending money this way. What are we reinforcing? What are we not calling forth? If we just all knew a little more about the implications of those exchanges, we could make more of the right thing happen. And I've lately been really aware of the economic and social climate crisis that we are having, just in terms of how we are asking people to spend their personal energies, and in what way we are willing to compensate them and provide an economically safe future. And these things are obviously not separable, but there is a way in which we're really, really quickly unraveling the protections that we have established around work, safety, exploitation or not, human dignity in the workplace, and we're undoing those protections that were built during the last century as quickly as we are damaging our physical environment.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, when you think about all these environmental sustainability and labor, equity and justice goals that you've established and then you create a pie shop, how do you balance all that with what customers want, which is an amazing tasting pie? I mean were those values really explicit throughout the Mission Pie story or how did you integrate those things?
KAREN HEISLER: The criticisms that the environmental movement and the food movement that have been levied, that those movements, especially in their early years about being exclusive and inaccessible are really important. You know, we have conversations with customers all the time that enable us to talk about those. Those are the moments I live for when somebody asks for something and we don't do it or we don't have it cause we were really bad in our society at coping with absolute limits.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Do you think the closing of Mission Pie reflects a bigger change in San Francisco? One where instant gratification takes precedence over, well, I guess everything?
KAREN HEISLER: We’ve really lulled ourselves into thinking we can have anything we want, anytime we want. It's not good for us or we lose awareness and consideration when we have that sort of limitless expectation. I think it, it contributes very much to some of the crises that we're facing now. So, when somebody asks us for cherry pie, which often will happen around Washington's birthday, then we can have a talk both about seasonality and food, but more significantly about the fact that we actually never make a cherry pie at mission pie because it's both a high cost and very perishable fruit. So, a lot of money to buy cherries, a certain amount of money lost in the waste that will happen and then an enormous amount of labor to take all the pits out and that would result in a pie that is priced in the 40 to $50 range, which is not where we want to be located because then we're limiting access to this conversation.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Sure. As I said, my favorite pie at this time of year is Blackberry and plum which we ate some of already. It was incredible. Where do you get that fruit from?
KAREN HEISLER: We sort of believe in sustained relationships. So, the plums in this pie are from Blossom Bluff and the blackberries are grown by Eurena farms and both are folks that we have been sourcing from for years, really sort of key to sustaining those relationships. We look for businesses that share a lot of the same values about stewardship, both of the environment and of their communities. Our foods are not heavily processed and as a consequence, they're kind of short shelf life things, which is why wholesale has never been a good fit. So, you know, summer is an amazing time. Often, the fruit that's going in a pie today was picked yesterday or the day before.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, that must make closing that much harder. How are you feeling about this end to this incredible project?
KAREN HEISLER: It feels very, very much like watching, a living being grow up and travel through a healthy life and then being at a point of potential decline and we don't want to do that. So, when we reached that decision, the first people we talked with were our internal community, the people who work here. The second layer was the people that we buy from and particularly anybody who might be doing crop planning.
JARED BLUMENFELD: The last time we met, you were talking about your daughter coming back and potentially taking over the business. And so, she was just kind of mentally gearing up for that. So, that must have also been shocking for her.
KAREN HEISLER: Two years ago, I had a lot of optimism that we would be able to together with her sort of recast the business in a way that would be able to sort of have a second generation. I think Kristen and I were both feeling receptive to the idea of some change, and I think Jesse was feeling the same optimism.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, what changed?
KAREN HEISLER: The story of what's happened here is that the cost of living is going up with such a pace in the Bay Area that we are less and less an area that draws people who want to work in low, low paying service jobs, even if it's in a realm that they love, like food. It’s just less and less feasible to come here to do that. And because we have a commitment to do well by the people work at Mission Pie, we have been, we have tried always to be ambitious both in terms of compensation and benefits. And even at our most ambitious, the business can only generate as much revenue as it can generate. Of course, you know, we keep trying to be leaner and meaner and whatever and we don't want to just jack up the prices because then we lose the very intrinsic value of being an excessively priced place. I thought, you know, we'll get on the delivery bandwagon or we'll start a wholesale thing or we'll co-pack a product and sell Mission Pie potpie in the supermarkets. But each thing we looked at and evaluated, we realized like, oh, you know, if we do wholesale, we have to like reinvent the product line so that it has a longer shelf life and that's an entirely different kind of product. Same with a frozen pot pie in the market. Same with that delivery thing.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Did you look at collaborating with all those cars that jam up the streets in San Francisco? You know, but also deliver food.
KAREN HEISLER: We're not willing to be collaborators with a business model that is built on exploiting workers by classifying them as contractors when they should be classified as employees. Just can't do it. Sorry. You know, and besides you take these commissions that are out of scale with what businesses like this can generate unless we artificially inflate our prices. So, anybody who comes in sits down for a slice here is paying for that somebody else's delivery.
JARED BLUMENFELD: The fact that you're not able to continue to make pie. I mean, what, what does that say about our larger world? If this is a changing business climate, a changing economic climate that isn't aligning with pie.
KAREN HEISLER: If it's not evident already in this conversation, I do have a tendency to go a little dark. We are using so many resources to have so many choices. We have to commit to being more mindful of the impacts of what we do and being willing to achieve our joys through other means. It's sort of a fever pitch of people being able to all the time get all their food made by other people. I think it is sort of at this weird extreme, it just seems to be going more and more in that direction. All of this delivery, what's happening with all that packaging. We've got to go lighter instead of heavier. And I feel like we're in this, you know, people are going to come up with new ways to access joy. It might require certain new kinds of self-sufficiency, but I think we see that happening. There's a return of the spirit of self-determination and creation. Things have cycles. They have emergences and declines and periods of invisibility or death. And there is then a return of life. I mean, that's the source of my, I don't know if I can call optimism, but that's the source. That's the source of my faith.
JARED BLUMENFELD: The fact that you're closing in a month just feels more dire to me because you've done everything the way that it should be done. And so, a business like yours that can't sustain itself while very, very unsustainable businesses are going forward, feels really depressing.
KAREN HEISLER: Yeah. But, you know, what doesn't feel depressing though, is like the vitality that is in our staff community. I have been kind of blown away by the beauty of this time. Sometimes it's easier to, to have that spirit of like strong to the end when you can see the end point. We all are in an experience together and it's quite intimate. It says a time of heightened reflection and a real sense of appreciation of the bonds. People are really loving each other here right now and it felt to me a couple of weeks ago like, wow, this is no longer just a job. My heart is partly broken in terms of not being able to manifest this dream of turning this over to Jessie. But that doesn't mean that nothing can exist. It just means that the right confluence of factors has to come together in the right time and place. If I were talking to somebody now about like wanting to create something like this, I probably would encourage them to go simpler and smaller.
JARED BLUMENFELD: You’ve been married to your business partner, and I mean in some ways does this feel freeing? I mean, are you now going to be able to have a different relationship with Kristen than you have had for the last 12 years?
KAREN HEISLER: Yeah, I think we're both looking forward to discovering what that is because we've only known each other in this context. So, you know, we sometimes play a game of asking each other what we did today. Even when we've spent the day at work together. A lot of the time that we spend at work together, we're actually doing very different things and we can go for several hours without interacting and that's probably nice for her. But being able to cultivate a whole new piece of our relationship after a decade that's, or more, that's fun.
JARED BLUMENFELD: How did politicians react? I mean, it seemed like a sign of failure when a community-run justice, labor and environment focus place that everyone loves is closing because the city no longer has the elements that would allow a business like this to survive.
KAREN HEISLER: I would say I don't think that our leadership has often demonstrated much understanding of the principles of business. I think a lot of our leaders come into political leadership through other pathways. A number of us who have been trying to run business as well have felt frustration about our words, our cautions falling on deaf ears. And so, it feels, you know, painful, a little bit, to have then people come rushing in with emails or phone calls and like what can we do? What can we do? And I don't believe in businesses being saved. That's not appealing to me because it doesn't speak of sustainability. I think San Francisco has a lot to learn and is going to see a lot of loss in terms of how it hosts creativity and business during this time. My EPA experience where I was really harsh in my mind and sometimes verbally with the industry that I was regulating, and I have some remorse and guilt about that. It's been really, really interesting to be on the flip side of that to be sort of in what is fundamentally, the regulated community of a city.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, given that realization about what it means to be regulated, do you think that this will be a wake-up call to the government in terms of helping small businesses?
KAREN HEISLER: You know, honestly right now, I don't have a lot of optimism about that, but sometimes it takes a lot of loss for us to wake up. You know, there's been a little bit of like shock in the community, I think from this closure, more than a little bit. I think we represent some ideal, even though I don't mean this with false humility, but at the end of the day, we're kind of just another food business. We just have some high standards about certain things, but we're not a radical form. We're not a cooperative. We're just like a straight up S-CORP. I think it's valuable for people to understand that any business that you walk into, probably there's a lot of effort there. You know, it's worthy of some respect.
JARED BLUMENFELD: As you enter the last month of Mission Pie, what is it that strikes you the most about this experience?
KAREN HEISLER: One thing that I've been struck by is how much love is coming forward. It's really been amazing. It's been a really interesting thing just to watch people's loss processes. If there's anything that is making this period memorable and profound, it's the extent to which the love is winning, which is what we all like to say in moments. But it's actually really true, and I'm amazed at the number of people that have the capacity to convey that from a place of real selflessness while holding their own loss. Just like, I just want to say thank you for what this has been. I mean, you think you could never have too much of that, but you know, it's this very enormous generosity coming at us. And if anybody out there is among those that had been doing that, I thank you in a way that I don't really have the words.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Thank you so much Karen, for sharing your stories with me today. Karen and her partner, Kristen Ruben, manifested a dream of creating a place with so many of us went to enjoy delicious food and in large part that was because environmental labor equity and fairness goals were baked into the recipes. As I leave Mission Pie today for the last time, I take a huge amount of comfort in the community that has come together to show that this journey isn't just about the loss of a place we hold dear, but rather how we transition with love to the next adventure. In the next episode of Podship Earth, we talk about the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, which was used as an opening for oil companies to start building new plastic producing factories. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer Rob Speight, executive producer David Kahn, and from me, Jared Blumenfeld, go eat some Mission Pie while you still can because it is so good.