Take Home a Piece of Niagara-on-the-Lake
Nothing quite feels, or tastes, like home like a fresh baked pie. Whether it is a summer strawberry or peach, tart rhubarb or heavy coconut cream, straight from the oven baked goods can transport you on a trip down memory lane – even if you’re not sitting in your grandmother’s kitchen. At the Pie Plate Bakery Cafe, fresh ingredients and family values are at the heart of this quaint café, as people scramble in to grab that last slice of made from scratch pie in this home away from home.
Located in Virgil, Ontario, just outside of the historical town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Pie Plate Bakery and Cafe has become well known amongst both the locals and tourist crowd for offering real seasonal Niagara fruit pies, sweet meets savoury pizzas and home grown soups, breads and more. With handmade, from scratch pastry, deep dish pie plates and little to no sugar, The Pie Plate ensures that the star of every dish is the seasonal fruit harvested straight from local Niagara farms.
“It’s all about using real ingredients and our pies are purely local produce,” says Ruth Anne Schriefer, owner, entrepreneur and lead baker behind the Pie Plate. “I think that is why our peach pies taste so great. They are Niagara peaches and Niagara peaches taste amazing. We just put them in a pie.”
But Schriefer has not stopped at pies. Though their baked goods may be at the heart of the menu, popular items like fish tacos, brie and ham sandwiches and fruit inspired pizzas draw just as hungry crowds and reflect the local harvest seasons in the area.
“We are adamant about getting local food and making what we can from scratch and we try to teach people that when it is strawberry season, there is going to be strawberry pie and strawberry muffins, strawberry lemonade, strawberry scones, strawberry pizza,” said Schriefer. “So people understand that when something is in season, you have to buy as much of it as you can and use it so that the farmers are supported.”
Growing up on a small fruit farm in Virgil, Schriefer said her passion for baking was nurtured from a young age, counting herself lucky that she was given access to fresh fruit and free range of her family’s kitchen to hone her culinary skills by baking for her four brothers.
“My mom always let me in the kitchen and I loved to bake,” said Schriefer. “My dad was a school teacher and we lived on a small fruit farm and it was just natural for me to go out and pick whatever fruit was in season and bake with it.”
Following years of working in local restaurants and witnessing the store bought pies that were being passed off as freshly made to the customers, Schriefer decided to pursue her passion and began baking – selling her pies door-to-door and her fresh fruit tarts at the roadside fruit stands. Soon, Schriefer had orders coming in from not only local residents, but local restaurants as well.
“I baked pies out of my parents’ basement and sold them door-to-door and to a few restaurants just as a way to make money to pay for my wedding dress,” said Schriefer. “I never thought it would become anything bigger at the time.”
But following a move to California with her husband Kirk, a filmmaker and writer of the Canadian based film The Angel Inn, Schriefer discovered her pies were having more of an impact on the community than she had previously thought.
“When we moved to California, my mother called and told me she was getting so many calls asking where the pies were by Ruth Anne,” said Schriefer. “In the back of my mind I thought, ‘maybe this could have been a business.’”
But Schriefer said it would still take a few more years for the idea to officially take root. It wasn’t until three years later when her husband was relocated back to Canada that she began to really consider reopening the pie business. Once they were settled back in the area, Schriefer picked up where she left off and opened her first small startup selling seasonal fruit pies – but the business was then put on hold as her family continued to grow. It wasn’t until Tony de Luca, head chef at Hillebrand Vineyard, moved in next door and after eating one of her famous welcome pies, pushed her to open her own café and bakery.
“[de Luca] kept saying, ‘Why don’t you have a place,’ and kept pushing and pushing until it happened,” said Schriefer. “So we found a place that was for sale and rented it from the new owners. It started as a way for my husband to be able to keep making films and now it is a full time business for all of us.”
Today, 11 years after they first opened their doors, The Pie Plate is a fully licensed bakery and cafe, producing over eight thousand pies a year and a proud supporter of the local farmers, wineries and brewers in Niagara.
“They always say you should make your job what you’re passionate about and then you won’t feel like it is a job,” said Schriefer. “I am really passionate about baking. I would send my kids to school with homemade whole wheat buns and alfalfa seeds and I was like the hippie mom. But I just love to bake and we always had pies at home.”
And though the bakery and restaurant came together at the same time in hopes of appealing to a wider audience, Schriefer always assumed the café would be secondary to the bakery, but it has surpassed her wildest dreams, competing with the bakery for the favourite position amongst foodies.
“I thought the cafe would be a side note to the bakery and it ends up being half and half,” said Schriefer. “I think because we did the same thing we do with the baking – we make everything from scratch. We make our own stock; we make recipes that I made for the kids at home. We use old family recipes and new recipes that I have adapted.”
Sticking with the values she learned growing up on the farm, Schriefer said the fruit is not only local, but handpicked, hand peeled and sun ripened in order to maintain the authentic, fresh taste and ensure no unnecessary sugar sneaks into a batch of pies. And though this increases the cost of her pies, ranging from $16.75 – 18 dollars, the taste is worth every penny.
“We just sit in our backyard, and we get all of our neighbours, and we just peel and slice them ourselves,” said Schriefer. “That way we can control that there are no sugars added, no ascorbic acid added, just peaches. We are not big on sugar because we feel like sugar is used as a way to mask something that does not taste fresh or good. You’re supposed to taste the fruit and tartness. You’re supposed to taste fruit not sugar.”
Though she is loyal to the farms she frequents for her fruit, on Saturday mornings Schriefer and her family can be found at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Farmers markets reaping the seasonal harvests – which always decides on which soups will be featured that weekend.
Expanding their support local mantra past produce, Schriefer said they only like to serve Ontario wines and beers at their pie filled bar and cocktails that utilize the fresh fruit juices.
“If you’re here in Niagara, again you should support the wineries and breweries,” said Schriefer. “We try to go with the wineries that are family owned and not the big corporate ones. We like ones that have the same stories we do.”
With family values and home style cooking baked into the centre of each dish, the Pie Plate truly is a family based business. Schriefer said she is more than happy to pass the reigns onto any of her five adventurous and food loving children, each with their own cooking passions, when the time comes and get back into her own kitchen.
“I’m looking forward to the day that I can pass the reins on to my children and go back to cooking for my family,” said Schriefer. “All of our kids have been around food and have a love for food. The kids are all adamant about the quality of food. Just the essence of who we are.”
Next time you are feeling nostalgic for home, head over to the Pie Plate – you will not regret picking up a pie and absorbing the atmosphere of this family oriented and welcoming café.
The Pie Plate is located at 1516 Niagara Stone Road in Virgil Ontario.
Monday – Wednesday: Closed
Thursday – Sunday: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.