Who is Marie Callender? We’ve seen the pies in the grocery store, but many are surprised to know Marie Callender was a real person. Her story and history are a rags to riches tale that would make any American proud. Today we are going to dive into the history behind the legendary Marie Callender’s pie.
Birth and Early Life
Marie Callender was born in 1907 in South Dakota. Her family was poor, but was never afraid of hard work. Early in her life they picked up all of their possessions and made the move to California searching for a better life and more economic opportunity. In 1924, Marie met Cal Callender. The two really hit it off and were eventually married. At the time of their marriage they were both 17!
For much of their early married life, Marie and Cal struggled financially. There always seemed to be more month than paycheck. They had one son, Donald. The family worked a series of odd jobs trying to keep food on the table.
Marie answered an ad at a local delicatessen that was looking for part time help. She got the job and settled right in preparing salads and simple hot meals. The additional pay was a welcome sight for the family. However, they still struggled mightily to make ends meet. The owner of the deli started a snack bar and asked Marie if she’d bake pie for customers. Here is where things start to get interesting.
Pie, Pie and More Pie
Marie was excited about her new role. She loved to bake pie and was really skilled at it. The customers also loved her pie. Business was good. However, Marie quickly realized there is a big difference baking a pie here or there for your family and keeping a snack bar fully stocked. The hours were long and the labor was grueling. She finally came to the conclusion that she was sick of hauling giant bags of flour around, and quit.
The owner of the deli was disappointed. He urged Marie to go into business for herself. If she made pie, he’d become a steady customer. Marie gave it some thought and decided to take the plunge. The family had virtually no capital to start a business. Marie and Cal sold the one possession they had, the family car.
They paid some bills and were left with $700 to fund their dream. The Callenders purchased an old oven and three rolling pins. In 1962, they rented a small shop and got busy. The race was on. Marie and Cal needed to sell enough pies each month to keep from going bankrupt. It was hard work and in its early years the business grew at a snails pace. Don dropped out of college and decided to help his parents out with the pie shop full time. This proved to be a major turning point for the business.
Free Pie and Coffee to All First Time Customers
Don had a brilliant idea. To increase traffic into the pie shop, he suggested they offer a free slice of pie and coffee to all first time customers. The promotion caught on quick and spread like wildfire. They had a line of eager customers that was three blocks long. Turns out all Marie needed for a successful business was for people to taste her pie just once. This promotion led to many of these people becoming frequent customers.
Marie had another great idea. She moved the pie oven to the window overlooking the street. As people would pass by, they could see the pie baking in the window. This gave them a sense of inclusion. They felt that they were part of the process.
By 1964 business was booming. Marie added soup and sandwiches to the menu. The Callenders made a great team. Marie and Cal would man the kitchen and Don would handle the marketing. By 1985 they had 119 restaurants across 11 states. Marie said, “everybody predicted we’d go broke, but we outlived ‘em all. So we knew we had something better.”
Retirement and Death
Marie eventually left the business and enjoyed a quiet retirement in California. Don continued to run the company successfully. He led them to a sale of the business to Ramada Inns for $90 million in stocks and cash. As part of the deal, Don stayed on as CEO.
Marie Callender died in a nursing home in Laguna Hills on November 11, 1995. She left a business and a legacy that is still a household name to this day. It is incredible what a fearless attitude and hard work accomplished for the Callender family.
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