If you were to hold a pie recipe contest for nonagenarians, Betty Lessard would probably be your odds-on favorite to win it all.
Yes, the namesake behind the still-bustling Betty's Pies in Two Harbors knows her crusts and fillings, and has known them for a long time. And Tuesday marks her first day as a 90-year-old.
The shop – which Betty herself hasn't owned since 1984 – held a birthday celebration for the pie world's elder stateswoman Saturday.
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The comments underneath the Facebook invitation are filled with well-wishes and support.
"It feels like I belong here," she told the Lake County News Chronicle while sitting in the restaurant over the weekend.
Which is fitting. Because Betty's Pies without Betty didn't appear to offer much success, as the News Chronicle notes.
Lessard retired and sold the shop in 1984, at the spry young age of 60. But the new owners changed the time-tested recipes, the News Chronicle explains, leading to some complaints. So when the current owners – Carl Ehlenz and Martha Sieber – bought the place in 1997, they asked Lessard to evaluate the menu.
She threw the recipes away and reinstated her own, completely from memory the New Chronicle reports.
Since then, the shop has relocated, though not far – a new building opened in 2000 just a couple hundred feet or so behind the old cafe, to help make way for the Highway 61 reconstruction project (see the photo at right, from the Betty's Pies website).
Betty's Pies now makes about 300 fresh pies every day during the summer (you can see a few slices of the Great Lakes and Raspberry Rhubarb flavors at left, courtesy of Rebecca Yates), the restaurant's site says.
Betty is still there every week, the News Chronicle reports – and gets the same breakfast order every time.
From humble shack to North Shore hotspot
Betty's Pies began less as a restaurant and more as a storage unit with some treats.
It started as a fish shack erected by her father, near the Stewart River on Highway 61, the restaurant's site explains. Betty Lessard, in her early 30s then, began selling coffee and doughnuts to the fishermen who came by.
Within two years, the place had expanded to become Betty's Cafe – now selling hot dogs, hamburgers and yes, her pie. A photo of the old cafe (seen at right) is posted on the Betty's Pies Facebook page.
The shop continued to grow, and in 1974, it became known as Betty's Pies.
The Duluth News Tribune has a collection of Betty's Pies photos from over the years, plus a story, on its News Tribune Attic website.
Included in that is a 1978 piece about Betty banning smoking in the restaurant at a time when many establishments didn't enforce the state law. She didn't want her renowned pies to be invaded by second-hand smoke, she said.
And the young Lessard wasn't shy about it.
"Most people who own eating places are afraid if they don’t allow smoking they’ll lose customers," she told the paper at the time. "If they don’t want to obey the rules they can go somewhere else ... There’ll be 12 more in line behind them when they leave."
Thirty-six years later, they're still lining up for a taste.