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Traverse City — On any given day, the selection of fruit, cream and other pies is extensive at the Grand Traverse Pie Co. Variations of apple, cherry and blueberry fill the counter display — some mixed with other Michigan fruits, others topped with crumb mixes or lattice or sometimes blended with unlikely ingredients like Vernors or CEO Stout from Right Brain Brewery.

Spend any time at the Grand Traverse Pie Co., celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer, and you’ll realize that it’s not just about pie and baked goods at its 15 stores in Michigan and one in Indiana. It’s about community. So much so that a nickel from every slice of pie sold at each company-owned shop is donated to local charities.

“We are a pie company, but there is power in pie,” says Mike Busley, who founded the company with his wife, Denise, in the summer of 1996. “Yes, we want people to taste our pies and see that they’re amazing and we’re very proud of them, but we also want people to know that there’s a purpose to our pie.”

This sense of purpose, to change communities “one slice at a time,” has evolved as the company has grown and prospered during the past two decades.

Neither Mike nor Denise are bakers by trade. In fact, neither has a culinary background. They stumbled upon a recipe for their business while living on the West Coast and taking occasional day trips to Julian, a mountain getaway east of San Diego. They were impressed with not only the tastiness of the pies at the Julian Pie Co., but also the open kitchen space and their observations about how well the family-owned shop was run.

Their discovery came at an opportune moment in their lives. After a dozen years of living on the West Coast and weary of changes in their respective industries — Mike was a civil engineer and Denise was in medical sales — they wanted a change in lifestyle and a more secure economic future. Mike developed a business plan for a pie shop and they settled upon Traverse City, a place they had visited while dating as students at Michigan State University.

“It was the timing of what was going on in our lives,” Denise said. “We were turning 40. It was a time of reflection. There was this tug of family back in the Midwest.”

The Grand Traverse Pie Co. opened in rented space with a handful of employees and 10 different pies, muffins and coffee. By noon that first day, the company had sold out of its 60 pies and the Busleys had to close shop to make more.

“We didn’t know anybody in Traverse City at the time,” Denise recalls. “It’s a good thing because we didn’t hear the chatter either. They were saying, ‘What are these people doing? How are they going to make that work?’ ”

“That first year, in the summer time, we were walking on water,” Mike adds. “The holidays were busy. Then came that first day after New Year’s. We opened the doors, and sold two pies. That was our first time through the down cycle.”

“I thought, ‘Oh, no, what have we done?’ ” Denise recalls. “How are we going to pay the bills? It was the scariest, longest day of my life.”

Their timing, though, couldn’t have been better. When they opened, Traverse City — believe it or not — didn’t have a cherry pie company. Their homemade pies, with locally sourced fruit and other products, appealed to the growing eat local movement. And the name Grand Traverse — decided by the couple after much discussion — resonated with locals and tourists alike.

And unlike fads in the baking industry — think cake pops and cupcakes — pie has remained a staple.

“I think it’s important not only to keep the traditions of pie making, but also to innovate,” says Linda Hoskins, executive director of the American Pie Council. “We all have fond memories of our grandmother or mother making pies, but it’s important to keep current and up to date, creating new flavors that appeal to younger generations who may not have those memories.”

In 2003, Grand Traverse added a cafe component to their shops, selling a simple breakfast and lunch fare, such as quiches, salads, pot pie, sandwiches and soups.

Today, the company sells about 500,000 pies a year, offering about 40 different types, some only seasonally. The Grand Traverse Pie Co. briefly franchised earlier this century, but any future growth will be company-owned stores like the one that opened this year in Rochester Hills. The shop’s general manager, John Garber, rose from the ranks, after beginning as an hourly baker in Okemos.

“So many people spend time in Traverse City and Grand Traverse Pie Co. has become such a staple up there, when they’re back home, they want to remember that,” Garber said. “People love Michigan-made products and pie. And we make everything from scratch and support Michigan as much as possible.”

After years of baking pies and helping the company grow, Denise has stepped out to mentor youth and work with children advocacy groups. The company has become involved with the Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center, an organization dedicated to the identification, treatment, awareness and prevention of sexual and physical abuse. And they also established a Michigan Partners Supporting Michigan Youth endowment fund to provide funding gap needs for Michigan kids aspiring to higher education.

For customers walking into any of their shops, the most visible charitable effort is “Your Peace Counts,” where a nickel from every slice of pie sold is donated to local charities. Mike says the slice of pie promotion was an opportunity to “shine light on (children’s) needs.”

“There’s something about pie,” Denise says. “In our culture, pie is a gathering point. You sit down and have a piece of pie and a cup of coffee and catch up with your family and friends. You bring everyone together. It’s a community. It’s not something we ever really intended, but look what’s happened. What a glorious thing.”

Greg Tasker is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Fluffy Sweet Potato Bourbon Pie

Elizabeth Karmel, Associated Press

2 to 3 large sweet potatoes (1 1/2 to 2 pounds)

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

3 large eggs

3/4 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons bourbon

1 generous teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground dry ginger

Pinch ground cloves

10-inch graham cracker pie crust, homemade or store-bought

For the topping

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground dry ginger

Toasted pecans, to garnish

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Wash and dry the sweet potatoes, then pierce them on top with a fork. Set the sweet potatoes on a baking sheet and roast until soft, about 1 hour, or until you can see juices bubbling where you pricked the potatoes. Set aside until cool enough to handle.

Once the sweet potatoes have cooled, peel and roughly chop the potatoes. Measure out a generous 2 cups of the flesh, then transfer to a food processor. Process for 2 minutes, or until very smooth.

With the processor running, add the melted butter, eggs, cream, bourbon and vanilla. The mixture should begin to look light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add both sugars, the cinnamon, salt, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. Process again to combine and fully incorporate the final ingredients.

Place the prepared pie crust on a baking sheet, then transfer the sweet potato mixture into it. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the filling jiggles just slightly at the center. Let cool to room temperature.

When ready to serve, prepare the gingered whipped cream. In a large bowl, combine the cream, sugar and ginger. Use a whisk or electric mixer to whip until stiff peaks form. Mound the whipped cream over the cooled pie, then sprinkle with toasted pecans. Makes 10 servings.

Per serving: 530 calories; 32 g fat (16 g saturated fat; 55 percent calories from fat); 56 g carbohydrates; 35 g sugar; 135 mg cholesterol; 290 mg sodium; 6 g protein; 4 g fiber.

Cheddar-Whiskey Apple Pie with Butter Cracker Crumble

Alison Ladman, Associated Press

8 large baking apples (such as Fuji or Cortland), peeled, cored and sliced

2 tablespoons whiskey

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon cornstarch

6 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, cut into 1/2-inch dice

Deep-dish 9-inch pie dough

3 tablespoons butter, melted

1 cup salted butter crackers (such as Ritz Crackers), lightly crushed

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Place an empty rimmed baking sheet in the oven.

In a large bowl, combine the apples, whiskey, brown sugar, cinnamon, cornstarch and cheddar cheese. Mix well.

Fit the pie dough into a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan, folding and crimping the edge as desired. Transfer the apple mixture to the pie shell. Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the melted butter, crackers and granulated sugar. Toss well to mix, then spoon evenly over the top of the pie. Place the pie on the heated baking sheet in the oven (this helps to cook the bottom crust) and bake for 1 hour, or until the crust is golden brown and then apples are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife. Allow to cool for at least 20 minutes before slicing. Serves 8.

Per serving: 420 calories; 19 g fat (10 g saturated fat; 40 percent calories from fat); 57 g carbohydrates; 33 g sugar; 40 mg cholesterol; 270 mg sodium; 7 g protein; 6 g fiber.

Gluten Free Cherry Pie

Grand Traverse Pie Company

Shortbread crust

1 cup all purpose Gluten Free flour blend (like Bob’s Red Mill)

1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum

1/3 cup powdered sugar

3 1/2 tablespoons butter

3 1/2 tablespoons shortening, chilled

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Place flour, xanthan gum and powdered sugar into bowl of food processor. Pulse a couple of times until mixed. Add the butter, shortening and almond extract into bowl. Mix until it becomes dough and can be pressed into a ball. Divide in half and form dough into a ball. Place in 6-inch pie tin that has been sprayed with oil. Bake at 300 degrees for 35 minutes. The dough will not be completely cooked, but will finish later. Remove from oven and immediately press down. Use the back of a measuring cup to push the crust up the sides of the tin. Set aside. (You can also hand mix this using a pastry cutter.)

Cherry filling

1/4 cup water

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

4 1/2 tablespoons sugar

10 ounces cherries

Mix water and cornstarch together in small sauce pan. Add almond, sugar and cherries. Mix together. Cook over med/low heat until thickened, stirring often. Once thickened, divide between the two shortbread crusts. Set aside.

Almond crumb topping

1/3 cup all purpose Gluten Free flour blend (like Bob’s Red Mill)

1/8 teaspoon xanthan gum

1/8 cup brown sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons butter

1/8 cup sliced almonds

Place flour, xanthan gum. Brown sugar and sugar into food processor. Pulse a couple of times until mixed. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture becomes coarse crumbs. Pour into mixing bowl and toss in almonds. Divided the crumb topping between the two pies, covering all the fruit. (you can also hand mix this using a pastry cutter). Place the pies back in the oven and bake for an additional 35 minutes. Makes 2 6-inch pies or 12 servings.

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Per serving: 232 calories; 10 g fat (5 g saturated fat; 39 percent calories from fat); 34 g carbohydrates; 15 g sugar; 16 mg cholesterol; 53 mg sodium; 1 g protein; 1 g fiber.

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