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At Cyrus O’Leary’s factory, pie equals goodness squared

This isn’t the kind of pie-making Mom or Grandma did: by hand, with butter, in the kitchen.

This is a major production, the manufacturing of millions upon millions of pies per year in a 40,000-square-foot facility.

It runs like clockwork, pouring out pies that are sold in some 50 to 70 grocery chains nationwide.

“It’s definitely coast to coast,” said Lisa Jones, business administration director at Cyrus O’Leary’s Pie Co. “I don’t know about Alaska. But we’re in Hawaii, and there’s a little in Canada.”

Despite all of the automation, hands are still needed – to start and stop dough-making mixers, to spread Dutch topping over apple pie or sprinkle it as garnish atop layers of banana and cream, and to give lemon pies a quick swirl and tap after a machine pipes a perfectly formed cloud of meringue atop a tin – then repeating the motion, over and over and over again.

Cyrus O’Leary’s is famous for both its fruit and cream pies. And it’s particularly known for its melt-in-your-mouth meringue.

“We do a good job at meringue,” Jones said, adding it “gets a lot of good press. One, because it’s beautiful. Two, because it tastes good.”

Cyrus O’Leary’s lemon meringue is a real winner – an actual national pie champion in 2003, 2010, 2013 and 2014, according to the pie company’s new website that launched about two weeks ago.

Cyrus O’Leary’s is in the middle of rebranding. The office at the Airway Heights headquarters was renovated last fall. Labels are getting a new modern-vintage look. And production has been increasing.

“We’ve grown a lot in the last couple of years,” Jones said. “I don’t think people in Spokane realize that.”

Cyrus O’Leary’s makes “double-digit millions” of pies each year, she said. “It’s a lot of pie.”

In honor of Pi Day today, let’s take a tour of the pie production plant.

Prepare yourself first. This pie is proprietary. Visitors are asked to sign a confidentiality agreement and adhere to a certain set of rules. Retractable pens with spring-loaded ink cartridges aren’t allowed. Neither are fake eyelashes and bobby pins.

Nobody wants those parts in their pie.

So, don a hair net and, if applicable, a beard net. Remove all jewelry: necklaces, wristwatches, wedding rings, ear rings, nose rings.

And get ready to be tempted.

As soon as the door to the production floor opens, it hits you – the sweetness, that scent of sugar and pastry crust. “If you’re going to work in a factory,” Jones said, well, wouldn’t you want it to smell like pie?

“It smells great.”

Pie has been made here since 2002. Cyrus O’Leary’s moved its headquarters and production plant to Airway Heights 15 years after making pies in two locations in downtown Spokane. Production moved in 1987 from the longtime, iconic – now closed and demolished – Cyrus O’Leary’s restaurant, where the pie company got its start.

“Cyrus O’Leary’s was a fixture for sure,” Jones said. And, it remains “a big name locally.”

Cyrus O’Leary’s opened in 1980 and featured fresh pie. “Eventually the business grew, and people were wanting to eat the pie so much so they put in the factory.”

The pie-making business was founded in 1981. Back then, it specialized in fresh pie and distribution “was very regional,” Jones said. “I forget the distance they could go, but it wasn’t very far.”

These days, the specialty is frozen pie. “Frozen lasts longer, and you can ship it farther.”

In the warehouse last Wednesday, boxes of frozen pies stacked on pallets were being loaded into trucks. By Friday, some were to arrive in Missouri and, by Monday, the rest were to be delivered to Atlanta.

And they aren’t found only in the frozen foods section. “Most of the time, you’re finding us in the bakery,” Jones said. “They bake it and put it out.”

Marionberry might be her favorite. “It’s so good,” she said. “It really is a Pacific Northwest thing.”

Mocha is popular, too. So are coconut cream and banana cream. “Chocolate is probably our No. 1 cream pie,” Jones said. And, “People are obsessed with sour cream-lemon.”

Sour cream-lemon was coming off the single-serving line during this tour at the rate of 96 pies per minute. Workers were moving quickly, filling and racking trays, and loading them top to bottom. They’ll be unloaded bottom to top. “That’s one of the first things we teach people,” Jones said.

Workers punch a time clock and wear slip-resistant shoes, wrap-around smocks and pajama-style pants like the ones doctors might wear to surgery. Smock colors denote different jobs. Navy means warehouse. Light blue means supervisor. Tan is maintenance. White is production and packaging.

Production schedules are meticulously planned. In the pie-baking business, Jones said, “You plan for the whole year up front.”

The holiday season – from Thanksgiving to Christmas – is busiest in terms of sales. To prepare, production ramps up around July and August. Employment varies seasonally, and this time of year – post holidays and pre-summer – is actually among the quietest.

Full-time pie-makers put in four 10-hour shifts per week. Pay starts at minimum wage. And work happens around the clock – 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for day shift and 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. for graveyard.

Cyrus O’Leary’s uses flour from Shepherd’s Grain and apples from Yakima’s Jewel Apples. “We try to use local supplies,” Jones said. “Most of our fruit comes from the Pacific Northwest. We have a lot of local relationships.”

Things got dicey last year with a shortage of Granny Smiths and their subsequent rise in price. Another shortage and up-ticked price points are expected again this year.

And apple is Cyrus O’Leary’s best-selling pie.“It’s definitely apple,” Jones said. In fact, “apple pie is the best-selling pie everywhere.”

Fruit is prepped and cooked in-house. So are cream fillings. Kettle operators make some 30 to 35 batches per shift. “It’s a physically demanding job,” Jones said.

Fruit pies include cherry, peach, blueberry and strawberry-rhubarb. Specialty and seasonal pies include key lime, turtle cheesecake, cherry cheesecake, pumpkin, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin cream, pecan, mince, custard, apple-cranberry and grasshopper.

Crusts are made with shortening. Three kinds of fillings – apple, cherry, marionberry – are available in no-added-sugar versions. They’re sweetened with Maltitol.

Most have won blue ribbons from the American Pie Council.

“We do taste-testing,” Jones said, “which is the best part of the job.”

Last Wednesday, 9-inch pie shells were being punching out at a rate of 144 every nine minutes or 16 per minute. Mom and Grandma never worked so fast.

But, Jones said, that’s where people’s love of pie often comes from. It offers a sense of nostalgia along with sweetness. There’s usually a story that comes along with a slice.

“It’s very personal to people,” Jones said. “They love a certain kind of pie because that’s what Grandma made. They have a reason for wanting strawberry-rhubarb. Pie is part of their memory.”

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