PORTLAND, Maine — The Halverson’s Humble, which is a chocolate pie, started with a bet. Thirty-year-old Briana Warner, owner of Maine Pie Line in the East Bayside neighborhood here, had lost a wager to her then-colleague Adam Halverson while the two were serving as diplomats for the US Department of State in Guinea. As retribution, he challenged her to make him a “humble pie.”
“I asked myself: What would fake humility taste like?” Warner says.
What she came up with was evidence of her sly sense of humor and her talent for pie baking: a cookie crust topped with a thick layer of dark chocolate ganache laced with cinnamon and peppery cayenne, with a coating of rum-spiked pastry cream (the heat and the booze her “spite,” hidden beneath a cloud of fresh whipped cream and chocolate shavings).
“I guess I don’t have a whole lot of humility,” she says.
The baker has stories for all of her pies, many of which are based on desserts she ate or came up with during six years in the Foreign Service. Warner ate sweets in her travels, picked up ideas, and headed to the kitchen during her free time. “I would order a local dessert and ask myself how I could make a pie out of it,” she says. Those pies, both sweet and savory, have become her business, Maine Pie Line. Sweet pies cost $25; savory hand pies, which are like large empanadas, are $25 for five.
She was a unique asset to the State Department: a young economics officer with a knack for pastry work. Her combined talents turned out to be especially valuable in Guinea. When the country’s political atmosphere became turbulent and most of her colleagues at the embassy (not to mention her husband, Matt) were evacuated, she “made pie all the time,” she says, for local youth groups and for her few remaining colleagues in West Africa. She even brought pie to diplomacy meetings, which turned out to be good PR.
“Everyone loves dessert,” says Warner. “People would walk out the door with smiles on their faces — and that’s something you don’t always get in diplomacy.”
Baking in Guinea wasn’t easy. The country doesn’t have much in the way of dessert-making ingredients, so Warner got creative, filling pies with local produce like avocados from the tree outside her house. It wasn’t until the holidays came around one year and her father-in-law snail-mailed her a treat — maple syrup that he’d tapped from his own trees in Holden, Maine — that she was able to make the kind of dessert she missed from the States. She tracked down cream and eggs, and whipped up a celebratory maple custard pie. “It was a great homesick pie for us,” she says. “The deep maple flavor brought us right back to Maine.”
After Guinea came Brussels. Europe had better desserts, and more inspiration for the baker. That’s where she dreamed up Drunken Cherry pie, a cardamom- and black pepper-spiced riff on a bowl of anise-soaked cherries she ate in Germany. Her signature Dave’s Decadence has European roots, too. She converted a chocolate mousse with caramel and olive oil into a Belgian chocolate ganache set in an olive oil cookie crust with salted caramel poured on top. When her father-in-law, Dave, tasted the result, he liked it so much that he ate a whole pie himself, hence the name.
The more she baked, the more she would feed her colleagues and solicit their feedback. Her dream of someday owning a pie business was always in the back of her mind. By the time she finished her foreign service and moved back to the States last summer to do just that, she had a repertoire ready to go. Currently, she offers about 40 different flavors, including 10 savory hand pies, perfect for meals on the go. None of the options, sweet or savory, are traditional. “People aren’t always adventurous with pie fillings,” Warner says. “That’s the market I’m trying to chase.”
Evidently, her idea is taking off. Within a few weeks of setting up shop, she had wholesale accounts for four local shops and restaurants. Warner offers four flavors a week, including one savory hand pie. She also collaborates with her neighbors in the building, Bomb Diggity Bakery and Pure Pops, to offer a weekly CSA of prepared meals; has plans for a Pie of the Month Club; and offers delivery in Portland and South Portland.
Warner’s State Department years prepped her for the long hours, but it was a lot for her to manage on her own. When she made plans to hire her first employee, she looked specifically to Portland’s refugee population, a group she considers to be “a huge untapped resource.” Sai Shai, a Burmese refugee who baked professionally in Malaysia, recently joined her, making her solo operation a team.
Another pair of hands will allow Warner to focus more on the local food sourcing she loves (she picks her own fruit in season and gets produce and meat deliveries from her in-laws’ farm) and still be there to watch her customers’ faces light up as she hands them pies warm from the oven.
Maine Pie Line, 200 Anderson St., Portland, Maine, 207-249-5121, www.mainepieline.com