Worker shortage, supply chain issues won't slow down area baker

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KENOSHA, Wis. (CBS 58) -- We've all heard the saying 'Easy as pie,' but for Kelly Deem, owner and baker at Elsie Mae's Canning and Pies, the holiday season is anything but easy.

"Yesterday morning I made the 700 pies. I came back as cleaned as best I could, and then I made these two pie fillings into what was this morning's so that we'd be ready to make these 700 pies for the fundraisers," Deem explained while forming pie crusts Sunday morning in the basement of Peter Sciortino's Bakery on Milwaukee's east side. "I'll come back this afternoon so we can get ready for the other pies for the week."

Thousands of pies a week, all being made by one woman, one at a time.

"I can only do that four days a week, Deem said, referring to baking the pies. "The other three, I have to spend one full day cleaning, and then the other two is making pie fillings."

When some small businesses had to close up shop in 2020 due to challenges brought forth by the pandemic, Deem kept her foot on the gas with Elsie Mae's Canning and Pies producing what's estimated to be 500,000 pies, increasing her business by 70 percent.

"That year, I had 30 employees," Deem recalls. "We did 42 farmer's markets a week."

That number of employees dropped by 26 in 2021, with Deem now the only person baking the pies.

"I'm just proud to be here and have the opportunity to get to work," Deem said as she continued to work filling pie crusts with fresh apple slices. No time for a break. "I think that a lot of things are so up in the air right now and that we're really trying to figure it out, but right now, I know this is exactly where I need to be. Each day, I just keep working through it and we're going to get there."

Deem says that a full kitchen staff would be 6 bakers helping her put together pies for farmer's markets and grocery stores all over the Midwest. For now, the responsibility rests on her shoulders, and the shoulders of three women, Kim Hartmann, Nancy Barthuly, and Lindsy King, who all help her part-time, selling the pies and products out of the Elsie Mae's Little Red Pie Wagon in Deem's hometown of Kenosha.

"I really, really, really need them and they just take so much off of my plate," said Deem. "I love working, and I love that we each have these really passionate, different strengths. Kim loves being with the people and seeing them every day and telling the story of the food and where it's coming from. Nancy is so meticulous and structured and making sure we're organized and Lindsey, definitely, I don't know what we would do without her, keeping it all, all of us three communicating together so we all know what each other is doing."

On top of the worker shortages, the small business is being impacted by another challenge: not getting supplies.

"We couldn't make some of our products this spring because there was a glass shortage," explained Hartmann. "People don't think about some of those things hitting small businesses. It hits us too."

Hartmann says that with every opportunity to expand comes the responsibility of staying true to the values of Elsie Mae's Canning and Pies.

"Part of it is finding that equilibrium of 'Yes, we could produce a lot more and they can be machine-made or do we still want to do it by hand,'" Hartmann said. "So, it's making a business decision about right-sizing, not just getting bigger, because that just overextends our logistics. Flexibility is key, yes we work hard, but there's so much happiness that we bring when we bring pie."

For Deem, that's exactly what she plans to continue to do: bring the pie.

"With everything that happened this past year, this is a community of people that really comes together," Deem said, speaking about her goal to return all of her operations to Kenosha in the future. "I want to make sure that they're proud of me and that I can get home and build a great, great bakery."

Staffing shortages did not allow Elsie Mae's to provide pre-order opportunities this year.

For those looking to purchase a pie for Thanksgiving, the Little Red Pie Wagon will be open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 23, and Wednesday, Nov. 24, located in the parking lot across the street from La Fogata Mexican Grill in Kenosha.

You can find more information at https://www.elsiemaescanningandpies.com/

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