Any way you slice it
Mar./Apr. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Megan Alpers
Photos by Matt Salvo
Childhood friends cultivate passionate following for handmade pies
Anna Derivi-Castellanos, left, and Lenore Estrada are childhood friends who now own a pie-making business in San Francisco.
If there's one thing San Franciscans can probably agree on, it is that their city has unique and delicious food to offer. This is a place where the strength of a food trend is tracked by the length of the line forming before a restaurant opens, and where a single tweet or Instagram photo can send foodies into a frenzy.
It is there, in the midst of cutting-edge technology and trend-setting cuisine, that two young women have stayed true to their Central Valley roots and found a way to turn a teenage hobby into a thriving business.
Anna Derivi-Castellanos and her best friend/business partner/roommate, Lenore Estrada, grew up in Stockton and met in third grade as members of a community choir.
"Both of us have been baking since we were very small children," Estrada said. "Our parents deserve the credit for encouraging us to participate in the kitchen."
"We used to bake together for fun and give away what we made to friends," Derivi-Castellanos added.
Even though they eventually attended colleges on opposite coasts and began careers that ranged from luxury wedding planning to teaching Spanish, the pair often talked about starting a baking business together.
The owners of Three Babes Bakeshop said it is very important to them to support local farmers and use farm-fresh ingredients in their pies.
When the duo landed back in California, ready to begin their enterprise, they had trouble deciding what to create with their many skills.
"There were lots of things we liked to cook," Derivi-Castellanos said. "To narrow down the list, we thought about our values. Both of us are proud daughters of California's Central Valley, and it has always been very important for us to support local farmers and to support organic and sustainable farming methods via our purchases."
They had no money, she explained, so they raised $10,000 on Kickstarter, a website through which people fund fledgling businesses or projects.
"We found an inexpensive commercial kitchen in South San Francisco and then persuaded a local café to let us rent out the shipping container they used for storage to create a mini-pie shop on the weekends," Derivi-Castellanos explained.
With that came the founding of Three Babes Bakeshop.
Despite the name, there are only two "Babes" because the moniker was created before a third cofounder left for other pursuits. Estrada manages the marketing, finance and business development, and Derivi-Castellanos runs the kitchen operation, selecting ingredients, creating recipes and directing the production staff.
Pie making is extremely labor intensive, particularly because Three Babes Bakeshop produces every pie by hand—from the crust to the preparation of the fruit. For example, cherry pie, made with cherries grown by Hidden Star Orchards in San Joaquin County, is a hot commodity, but at Three Babes it's available only a few weeks each year.
"Cherry pie is always a challenge," Derivi-Castellanos explained. "It takes forever to pit all of the cherries—about half an hour per pie—so when it's cherry season, it's hard to produce enough pies to meet customer demand. We slice open, pit and check every cherry, ensuring that no pits end up in the pies."
It's not just the cherry pies that are being embraced whole-heartedly by customers. A quick scan of online reviews reveals poetic descriptions of creations including the toffee apple pie, apricot rhubarb crumble and Three Babes' signature salty honey walnut pie: "The buttery crust still flaky and crisp beneath an avalanche of toasty walnuts whose soft bitters found balance in local honey flecked with bits of sea salt," a Las Vegas resident wrote after a visit.
"We have amazing customers," Derivi-Castellanos said. "There are customers who have had a pie delivered to their house every other Friday since we opened for business five years ago. We are so thankful for their support."
Food & Wine magazine has highlighted the business multiple times, including Three Babes' apple pie in a list of "America's Best." From local food blogs to National Public Radio and the "Today Show," the buzz continues to build.
"One time, a famous DJ sent a tweet that anybody who brought him a Three Babes pie would get free tickets to his show that night," Derivi-Castellanos recalled. "The phones started ringing off the hook on a Tuesday afternoon. It's still a bit of a surprise to us when people who don't know us have actually heard of us."
Still, the pair remain humble, at every turn harkening back to their roots and the origin of food. The bakeshop's website describes Derivi-Castellanos and Estrada's connections to California farmers, many of whom have known the women's families for years. The site features a "Farmer of the Quarter" and introduces customers to the men and women whose farms produce the pies' ingredients.
Their kitchen currently operates six days a week, producing more than 10,000 pies each year. Many are shipped across the U.S. and a large number are delivered throughout San Francisco. Three Babes offers pie subscriptions and online ordering, and earlier this year Derivi-Castellanos and Estrada opened a retail kiosk in the San Francisco Ferry Building that's open daily. In the future, the two plan to open a large-scale production facility and eventually launch a line of wholesale products that will be available in grocery stores.
"In founding the business, our biggest goal has always been to create jobs here in California and to create new channels for the sale of California-grown organic produce," Estrada said. "We hope to encourage everyone to find out more about where their food comes from and to think about the ways that all of us contribute to the systems around us."
Looking to make the perfect pie? Here are a few slices of advice from Anna Derivi-Castellanos and Lenore Estrada of Three Babes Bakeshop:
- Patience is a virtue. Don't rush the process. If you skip steps, you'll undermine your own hard work.
- Chill out. Be sure to chill your dough after it's made, and again after you roll it out and fit it into your pie shell.
- Get a head start. Take care of steps in advance. Dough can be frozen for up to three months, and unbaked fruit pies can be left in the freezer for up to three months if wrapped tightly in plastic