For decades, car-weary travelers to Minnesota’s North Shore looked to two gastronomical oases to sustain them on their way, both of similar vintage and reputation: Tobie’s in Hinckley, with its oversized caramel rolls, and Betty’s Pies, where ambrosial delights were served up in a worn-around-the-edges shack outside of Two Harbors.
Betty Lessard took over her family’s fish-selling business in an 8-by-8-foot building in 1956. Bored with just selling smoked fish, she quickly expanded to doughnuts and added a grill.
But it was her magic ways with pie that soon made it her signature, and by the time she sold the business in 1984, Betty’s Pies had become as certifiable a North Shore landmark as Gooseberry Falls or Split Rock Lighthouse.
Lessard, an admitted perfectionist who rose at 3 a.m. to bake 100 pies each Sunday and 50 to 60 each weekday, along with her rye bread and cookies, and still made time to greet thousands of customers in the cozy confines of her business over the years, died Thursday night. She was 90.
It was her personal touch that made her pies special, and the taste that made her cafe an institution.
The real-deal ingredients were key, said Lessard’s sister Karen Storms. “It was always butter and whipped cream. There was no faking or artificial anything.”
Many wouldn’t dream of using such fatty, high-calorie ingredients today, Storms said, “but you still get the best pie crusts from lard.” And that’s what Lessard used to achieve a perfect flaky crust.
Lessard learned her craft from a household maid who loved to bake. It wasn’t long until she considered the sweet dish at the end of dinner as the most important.
“Betty wouldn’t even plan a meal for company unless she knew what dessert she was going to have,” Storms said. “That came first always.”
Before taking over the fish shack, a 19-year-old Lessard left the North Shore in 1943 for Salt Lake City, Utah, where she studied at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. After graduation, she returned home to Duluth and spent 10 years as a wedding photographer.
Her father asked if she’d like to try her hand at running the fish shack in 1956 where the family sold Lake Superior trout and herring. Lessard said she would try it for exactly two weeks, Storms recalled. But she stayed for 28 years.
Lessard’s husband, Lloyd, acted as the store’s “front man,” greeting guests as they walked in until he died in 1975.
In its early years, the cafe attracted wide-eyed children, said neighbors Jack and Carol Ray. Their own kids went to Betty’s to buy candy bars because they couldn’t afford the pies.
But business grew and grew — requiring at least five renovations — and became a well-known attraction for tourists.
Erik Brunn, 27, of West St. Paul, used to vacation up in Duluth each summer and stop at Betty’s during the scenic route up Hwy. 61. His family never left without buying an apple and lemon meringue.
“That was the place to go if you wanted pies,” he said.
She even lent that touch to her successors. When Carl Ehlenz and his partner first bought Betty’s Pies in 1998, their treats didn’t taste right. Ehlenz said customers would complain that the pies weren’t as good as when Lessard made them.
“We were kind of afraid to call ‘the Betty,’ we kind of couldn’t accept that she was a real person,” Ehlenz said. But finally, his partner, Marti Sieber, caved and called her. “She pulled up in the parking lot five minutes later — she couldn’t wait to help us,” he said.
Lessard brought back some of her original best-selling recipes, like lemon angel and five-layer chocolate.
“She loved making the lemon angel pie, that was her favorite pie,” Ehlenz said, “It’s hard to make but, of course, she made it look easy.”
Over the years, Lessard — who for a time sported the license plate “PIELADY” on her car — became friends with the co-owners, coming to visit the pie shop’s original Two Harbors location two or three times each week. If the owners concocted a new recipe, they wanted her opinion before it sold to customers, Storms said.
The pie shop opened its first Twin Cities metro branch in 2008 with a rocky start. The owners said customers complained about subpar pies and poor service. When the business was evicted from its Mahtomedi location in 2011, some customers offered to pay the shop’s rent to keep it open.
But the restaurant near the North Shore still thrives, Ehlenz said, which he attributes to the iconic name on the sign outside.
“I’m pretty sure if the name was anything other than Betty it wouldn’t be as busy,” he said.
A memorial service will be held April 6 at 11 a.m. at Sunrise Cemetery and Funeral Home in Hermantown.
Several days before Lessard’s death, Storms pulled out the guest book her sister asked customers to sign when they walked in her store. The pages were speckled with people from all over the world: Kuwait, Pakistan, Israel, Italy — a tribute to the cafe’s popularity. Along with their names, some would offer reviews and messages of goodwill.
One wrote: “The best pie in the world.”
Staff writer Jim Anderson and University of Minnesota student Anne Millerbernd contributed to this report.