Aug 5, 2022 - Economy

When inflation takes out your favorite pie shop

Illustration of a pie with a dollar bill on the crust

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

When I headed to Maine with my family for an annual trip to Acadia, we were crushed to discover that our favorite pie shop, IslandBound Treats, had closed due to soaring prices for ingredients.

Why it matters: The impacts of surging food and commodity prices — and inflation in general — are being felt everywhere. For some businesses, especially the small ones, simply charging more isn't an answer.

What's happening: Mary Musson — also known simply as "The Pie Lady" — baked and sold homemade pies from a sunny, wood-fronted shack in Southwest Harbor, Maine.

  • In taste and texture, from crust to filling, Musson's triple-berry pie was irresistible — a multi-slice-per-night affair. To borrow from a college kid working the cash register in one of the stores in town, "Her pies were a level up."
  • During our last pre-pandemic trip in 2019, we carted home 12 pies requested by friends and family in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and D.C.

Driving the news: In May, Musson indicated that high prices were presenting new challenges.

  • "Because I have friends in the food service industry, I anticipated that food costs would have gone up this year. I had no idea the price of blueberries, Maine blueberries, would go up nearly 40%," Musson wrote in a Facebook post.
  • Later, an outgoing voicemail confirmed that she wasn't opening for the summer season: "I am heartbroken to report that due to the rising costs of my pie-making ingredients, I am unable to open the pie shop for the 2022 season," Musson told callers.

Zoom out: Blueberries are a big commodity in Maine. But even as production rebounded from a recent low in 2020, high prices on fertilizer, fuel, and crop protection stoked an increase in prices.

  • "Some of these costs are more than double what they were last year," Julie Ann Smith, executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau Association, tells Axios.
  • "For our farmers that are able to sell directly to consumers, they have had to increase their prices to accommodate for their cost of production increases."

By the numbers: Prices nationally for processed blueberries — such as frozen ones — jumped more than 25% in 2021 from the year before, per the latest USDA data available.

  • Meanwhile the average of prices of butter and flour are also each up more than 25% from December, per BLS data.

Back to the pies: Cookie Baldwin, another baker near Southwest Harbor, hiked her pie prices to $25 from $22 last year. She now buys her pie boxes and pie plates from Amazon, instead of a more expensive distributor, and every couple weeks drives her Toyota truck (3 hours round trip) to replenish her berry supply.

  • "I load it up with 300 pounds of frozen fruit," Baldwin says. "When you buy it from the source it's not as much money."

Yes, but: Not everyone is willing to simply raise prices. "I’ve had many loyal, longtime customers reach out to say they would pay 'any price' for one of my pies," IslandBound's Musson tells Axios in a text message.

  • "All of the rest of the customers would assume I was gouging or some other nonsense. I hear people complain about the cost of eating out all day long, but like any industry, when you don’t understand the challenges and the million other nuances of food service, we can’t expect people to understand."

Bottom line: "I’m sad about having to close but I’m more sad that scratch made food is becoming a luxury when it used to be the other way around," she added.

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