On first encounter en route up country, The Blue Stove sat quietly in and amongst the bustle of everyday Brooklyn. It seemed as if a crucial part of the journey was breakfast thanks to locals Eric and Andrea who had only met once but had what seemed like a tonne of friends in common thanks to – Brooklyn. Need I explain much more? Andrea’s Monte Carlo chugged and sighed into park as we then tried to dodge the non chalant passers by, buses, and mr-fix-it vans to get through the front glass doors that seal in every heavenly scent you can imagine.
The Blue Stove; incredibly busy on a weekday morning thanks to mum’s feeding their untameable children, business folk grabbing a slice of paradise before clocking in, and a lot of local Brooklynites in their tattooed, plaid shirt, and ripped jean-ed camouflage. What strikes you as you enter is definitely the smell of baked vanilla, butter, and flour, all mellowed out with an inkling of brewed coffee that Americans drink by the gallon.
So what does one order when presented with an ever changing selection of seasonal pies, cakes, scones, and everything else that your imaginary personal trainer would seriously punish you (in your mind) later? Leave the overwhelming decision in the caring hands of your local friends who know it’s your shout so order every possible option of sweet and savoury, all-American happiness. We had the most generously portioned cheese and chive scones, an even more generous helping of just-baked apple pie (the chunky kind for all the more homely-ness), chicken pie, a towering slice of carrot cake, and the rest became a blur as we rose into sugar high rapture.
The thing about The Blue Stove is that it’s an absolute hub for locals, yet wonderfully unpretentious, radiating an atmosphere that is ever so forgiving. It’s that place where you hop over to in your pyjama pants to get a hit of happiness that reminds you of grandma’s cooking (thanks to an incredible pride and honesty in produce). Don’t get me wrong, owner Rachel McBride gets whacky in the flavour department, experimenting with some really sophisticated blends of sweet, salty, herby, tart, and even cheese-y to show off her world that embraces the past to move forward. Her kitchen impresses me the way it can handle a menu change on a daily basis thanks to a tightly run ship with a crew who share the same passion and dedication as its captain. The Blue Stove is love spread thick and we’re about to find out how Rachel has managed to capture the goodness that keeps it running.
What makes The Blue Stove tick with owner Rachel McBride.
1. Blue Stove celebrates pie through and through. You have vintage pie dishes on your walls, and one of the best rustic apple pies around – not to mention an eclectic repertoire of seasonal pies. Tell us about how this all came about.
Thank you! The apple pie is actually a perfect example of how all this came about. Our apple pie is my great-grandmother’s recipe. She and her husband were farmers in Upstate New York. Growing up my mother spent a lot of time on their farm. She learned pie making from her grandmother, this apple pie being one of the many. And so it continued with my mother teaching my sister and me the same recipes as we grew up. When my mother died in 2006, I decided to start The Blue Stove as a way to honor her, and to share the delicious treats and memories of home. The Apple pie, Peach Pie and Strawberry Rhubarb are from my great-grandmother. The key-lime is my mother’s and other pies I’ve developed along the way from tweaking family favorites (like our Pumpkin pie) or just creating new recipes from ingredients and flavors that I’m interested in. Aside from the pies, many of our menu options like the cookies and brownies come from childhood treats, or are spin-offs of those.
2. Tell us about your earliest memories linked to baking and how this shaped your career path.
My earliest memories of baking are helping Mom peel apples and peaches for pies. I remember creaming butter and brown sugar for cookies. We would make tiny jam tartlets with any scrap dough that was leftover from the pies. Sometimes, when I’m baking, the smells and textures conjure memories from those times.
3. How did The Blue Stove begin?
What were some of the biggest challenges of running a business in the early days? I began “The Blue Stove” by baking out of my apartment here in Brooklyn, initially for friends and their co-workers around the holidays, and eventually for a few businesses as well. Then I spent a summer in Vermont, really trying out the pie business idea at a couple of farmers’ markets. The pies seemed to be well-received so I returned to Brooklyn and began my search for a space to rent. Eventually, in 2008 I leased this storefront, renovated, and opened up February 13, 2009.
4. People come to visit you far and wide for your baking, there’s even a wall of foreign currency behind the counter! Can you tell us about some of the most exotic customers who came to try your baking?
Elliot Spitzer. That’s a joke, but he did pay us a visit! We’ve had visitors from far and wide but most of our currency is really from our regulars who have traveled and brought currency back home and have shared it with us. I think a lot of our customers really feel at home here in the shop. One fun story I do remember, a customer who was purchasing several pies exclaimed happily that these pies were traveling with him all the way to Korea because he wanted everyone in his family there to try them! The foreign currency collection began with a good friend (with a financial background) who helped me tremendously in the beginning to understand and navigate the “business side of things”. He gave me a bill from Moldova for good luck, because it was there that he went to one of the best bakeries he’s ever been. Seven years later, I’d say it worked!
5. Running a food & beverage business takes a tonne of organisation and preparation, especially when you don’t have a set daily menu. Do you have any tips or advice for keeping your business ship shape?
It does take a lot of organization, preparation, and hard work. I think being flexible and adaptable is crucial. There are weekly, if not daily, surprises. And being frugal! Business really ebbs and flows throughout the year, so I’ve learned that even during good times I must be prepared for the bad, or slower times. I’m constantly trying to improve the business too. I think it will never be all set, it seems there’s always some aspect that needs reworking and improving. As far as the menu, I think having a seasonal menu does help in that we prepare our items based on what we can get. I try to use locally sourced products as much as possible. There are some folks who mourn the end of apple pie season for example, but there is an upside to it as well, such as the excitement and anticipation of your favorite pie coming back into season. This week we are just starting to get good peaches, and so we have officially begun our peach pie season and that makes many a happy customer!
6. Tea or Coffee?
For me, there’s a time and a place for both! I am typically a coffee-first-thing-in-the-morning gal, but lately I’ve been going over to the tea side more and more. We serve George Howell Coffee for our drip coffee and espresso. It is consistently delicious and a fantastic company.
7. Ultimate pie?
Hmmm…. I love apricots and want to experiment a little more with them this summer. We have a Blackberry Apricot (one of my all-time faves) and an Apricot Nectarine…but I just feel like there’s something else….to be determined!
8. Summer or winter?
9. Are you a routine person? What’s a typical work day like for you?
I think I’m really not a routine person. I’ve had to set certain routines for the business, like an “office” day where I dedicate at least one day a week to the business side of things, bookkeeping, payroll, bills, etc. A typical work day, while I’ll start the day with a general plan, often develops into something else. When my husband asks me, “So, what’s your day look like tomorrow?” I rarely know how to answer. Orders will come in and we adjust the baking plan for the day, or I’ll get phone calls or emails that require immediate attention. Or covering for staff that’s out. Or the health department randomly shows up! Hence, the flexibility I mentioned. Otherwise, my routine is waking up, getting dressed, washing my face, walking one (!) block to work and then seeing how the day unfolds.
10. What is your favourite thing to do in your spare time?
My husband and I fairly recently bought an old farmhouse upstate, in the Catskills. We are working on putting in a large garden to grow fruits, vegetables and herbs for use at the pie shop! Gardening has really become one of my favorite things to do. I also love being able to escape the city for a little bit and get some fresh air. There are also some great resources for thrifting up there, which has been another one of my obsessions since I was a teenager.
11. Tell us about that blue stove that overlooks the hustle and bustle of your space. Is it a family heirloom?
It is a family heirloom. Originally, it was my great-grandmother’s and was on their farm. They purchased it in 1926. She gave it to my parents when they were married in the 70s. I’ve grown up with it in our home and we always referred to it as, “The Blue Stove”. When thinking of names for the business, it seemed a perfect reference to my family’s lineage of pie.
12. How do you come up with new ideas in the bakery?
It’s always sort of an evolution. I’ll have a memory of something I’ve eaten and that will inspire some tinkering in the kitchen. Or, I will brainstorm other ways to use ingredients that we already have on hand. I like to eat and I have a bit of a sweet tooth, so some ideas actually come from cravings too! Or sometimes I’ll have a visual idea of a cake or a pie, or tart, and I work (backwards almost) to figure out what goes into it to make it taste great too.
13. Do you think community has an important meaning to your business?
Absolutely! We are a local spot. Our regulars are friends and I’ve been fortunate to have a good percentage of my staff consistent for many years. We have many lovely customers who have been coming to the shop since day one, seven years ago! Having a community like that is comforting and reassuring for me. As much as The Blue Stove is about the pies, and the family recipes, it is about the space too. I wanted it to feel like home, not just for me, but for my customers as well. I wanted it to be real, a little rough around the edges, not too commercial, and not an Epcot Center version of a “pie shop” either. And over the years the space has evolved. Our customers have even decorated the place with little toys and tchotchkes and vintage jars they’ve brought us, so it really has become their space, a community space.
14. Are there people you look up to who had a big impact on The Blue Stove’s success?
Oh yes. Well, my mother, of course. While not here, she is till a huge influence on my life and on the success of the shop. She also had her own business ( of a different sort) but her gumption and drive in life really inspired me to just go for it. And I’m glad I did. My family; my dad, my sister, my step-father, have all been hugely supportive, helpful, and so understanding of my work-work-work kind of life. And my dear dear husband, who has a daily impact on the success of the business. He was a customer! That is how we met. And he has really been by my side through thick and thin with this business. Being the sole owner can be a lonely position at times and can be very discouraging. He has been a sounding board for me while understanding that bottom-line it’s my business and my job. Having his support, patience and personal investment has been like winning the lottery for me.
15. Last but not least, in all seriousness, what’s your zombie apocalypse escape plan?
Yes. We have a “go-bag” stuffed with a wind-up radio, a water purification kit, first-aid kit, and extra contact lenses to name a few of the items. However, the bag is so heavy I’m not sure that I’ll be able to run fast enough….need to work on that.
The Blue Stove
415 Graham Ave,
Words, Lauren / Story shot by Eric Kvatek at The Blue Stove / Thanks to Rachel McBride and her team for sharing The Blue Stove’s story.