In the pie-making business, Thanksgiving might be the most important day of the year.
In typical years, Petsi Pies in Somerville sees business jump by 70 percent each November as customers prepare for their feasts. But this Thanksgiving is anything but typical, as bakers navigate new complexities in a season they need more than ever.
“We have a pretty predictable business, but not anymore,” said Jill Remby, general manager of Petsi Pies.
Many pie companies around Massachusetts said they are seeing strong sales this year, but meeting the demand is no easy task. With families opting for minimal gatherings amid an accelerating COVID-19 crisis, more people are placing orders but buying fewer items each. That means more work controlling crowds, coordinating pickups, and arranging payment for small staffs that are already working in tight shifts to maintain social distance on the job.
Remby said the business wrestled with how to prepare for the holiday: Should they change up everything to make a smaller pie? Should they scale back their revenue expectations for the season?
While the total number of pies remains in the same ballpark, the bakery is now mulling how to deal with crowd control as more than a thousand people are expected to pick up pies on Wednesday, compared to about half that last year, Remby said.
Remby also believes business has been strong because more people are choosing to support Black-owned businesses like Petsi. The shop will make more than 3,300 10-inch pies over the next few days with just one double convection oven.
The changes in the pie trade are another window into how Thanksgiving is changing during the pandemic. Customers are looking to buy smaller turkeys to feed what in many cases will be just members of their own households, for instance. And some restaurants that formerly hosted diners for the holidays are shifting to delivering meals this year.
Similar trends are shaping the pie trade.
“Because of the pandemic, there are smaller Thanksgivings and a lot more orders of one pie instead of Uncle Charlie bringing six pies to the table,” said Fran Kolenik, owner of Drive-By Pies in Brookline.
With each customer ordering fewer pies, sales are slightly down at Centerville Pie Company, a Cape Cod business known for chicken pies that have been a favorite of Oprah Winfrey.
“The orders are small because the gatherings are,” cofounder and president Kristin Broadley said in an e-mail. Plus, more people staying home has likely swelled the ranks of home bakers, Broadley said. Still, “Thanks to our wonderful community support we are doing well this year,” she said.
Another chicken pie maker thinks his sales may actually increase in the next few days, as families eschew the typical Thanksgiving feast for take-out foods.
“A lot of it is very much unknown,” said Wally Arsenault, co-owner of Harrows Chicken Pies in Reading, whose family has been in the pie business since 1942 (and owned it since the ’50s). “Things are changing day by day. A lot of families are in flux.”
Still, chicken pie for Thanksgiving dinner would likely be a one-year thing for most families, he said in a phone interview. “As soon as things are back to normal people will go back to turkey pretty quick. It’s a tradition in New England and people will be glad to get back to it.”
For many people, part of that tradition involves a sweet pie, and while many will still cap their celebration with a slice, the work behind the scenes will look different, Kolenik said, in a phone call from her Brookline bakery.
“Everything has low level of anxiety with it” because of the pandemic said Kolenik, a cancer survivor who worries she could be at risk for complications if she contracted COVID-19.
Her shop is small, which limits the number of people that can safely work there at the same time, she said. Yet more people than ever are needed to deal with curbside pickup.
“We’ll [work] round the clock the next four days,” said Kolenik, who uses a single oven to churn out about 450 pies for the holiday each year. “I don’t sleep much.”
Lucas Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.