Luck, timing sweeten whoopie pie enterprise

Luck, timing sweeten whoopie pie enterprise

When it comes to getting the word out about their whoopie pies, Karen Haase and Carol Ford, the owners of Cranberry Island Kitchen in Portland, have had some uncanny luck.

In 2007, Ford ran into Martha Stewart while shopping in Northeast Harbor, near Stewart’s summer home. Three weeks later, they were booked for an appearance on Stewart’s show. A year or two later, after they dropped off some whoopie pies at Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery, someone sent an empty box to the Williams-Sonoma’s catalog company with a note saying the high-end kitchenware and food emporium ought to sell them – and now they do.

Last month, a bill introduced into the Maine Legislature sought to make the whoopie pie Maine’s official treat – and the Pennsylvania Dutch Tourist Board countered with a campaign claiming the whoopie pie as an Amish invention. Haase and Ford were surprised when they started fielding phone calls from media types from Maine and “away” who wanted to talk to some whoopie pie experts.

“We’re having fun with it,” says Ford. “Whoever thought people would be talking about whoopie pies?”

Haase and Ford have been baking and selling their version of the traditional whoopie pie, along with other gourmet pastries, since 2006. They first set up shop in a 400-square-foot space past a cow farm on a dirt road in Cumberland. Back then they didn’t have a retail shop. ‘But people seemed to find us anyway,” says Haase.

They moved the operation to a 4,000-square-foot, former woodworking shop on Danforth Street in Portland in 2009, hired two full-time bakers and a shipping clerk, and opened a retail storefront that’s seen a steady stream of customers ever since.

When the bill to make whoopie pies the state treat was first introduced, some people criticized the choice because the typical whoopie pie has a reputation for being a high-calorie, lard-laden dessert, certainly not as healthy as a slice of Maine blueberry pie. But Cranberry Island Kitchen’s unique spin on the whoopie pie is nothing like those dense, sweet treats for sale on the counter of your local convenience store.

For one thing, Cranberry Island Kitchen’s whoopie pies come in two distinctive shapes: the chocolate cake version is designed in the shape of a mussel shell, and the buttermilk cake version comes in the shape of a clam shell. Both pies are a mere morsel compared to the average whoopie pie. They are made with all-natural ingredients, including organic vanilla, eggs from free-range chickens, and butter from a local Old Orchard Beach producer. Special orders are available with flavored fillings such as espresso, chocolate chip, champagne, chambord and peppermint. According to Ford, each whoopie pie has about 200 calories. Yet it tastes as rich and decadent as dessert in a gourmet restaurant.

“It’s not a diet buster,” says Ford. “We wanted to sell the Maine experience. That was the point (of the shapes). That’s why we call them simple pleasures.”

Cranberry Island Kitchen’s seasonal variations on the whoopie pie also keep customers coming back on a regular basis. In the fall – and on their wedding menu – they feature pumpkin-shaped whoopies with maple cream cheese. They baked this particular pie on an episode of “Throwdown! With Bobby Flay,” a Food Network challenge that aired in December. Chef Flay put his gingerbread whoopie pie with lemon-molasses frosting up against Ford and Haase’s pumpkin whoopie in a taste test. As their website banner now proclaims: “We beat Bobby Flay!”

Last month, their red velvet cake hearts and their chocolate X’s and O’s were a big hit around Valentine’s Day. In fact, one enterprising young man brought his girlfriend into the store in late January and asked her to marry him by planting a diamond ring in the filling of a heart-shaped whoopie pie. (You can see pictures of the proposal on Cranberry Island Kitchen’s Facebook page.)

This month, the shamrock-shaped whoopie pies with a cre?me de menthe filling are a popular item. Haase and Ford are currently working on creating the recipe for a carrot-shaped whoopie pie made of carrot cake with a cream cheese filling for the Williams-Sonoma 2012 Easter catalog.

“They asked us to come up with it,” says Haase.

Haase and Ford have been friends for 15 years. Ford lives in Falmouth but summers on Little Cranberry Island, where she and Haase, who lives in Scarborough, hatched their plan to start a business. They both like to bake, and initially, they envisioned their bakery as a small-scale operation that would feature three items: the two whoopie pies and a lobster-shaped shortbread cookie. They taught themselves how to make 200 pastries at a time, never imagining they’d one day be making 1,000 a day. But while Haase and Ford say they were just looking for a pastime as their children grew up, the business has become an all-consuming undertaking. During the Christmas rush, UPS trucks made two runs a day from the Danforth Street kitchen. Their products are sold in more than 30 Maine locations, including Whole Foods Market.

“One woman told me, ‘You guys are living the dream,’” says Haase, who used to be a hair and makeup artist for TV and film personalities. “I said, ‘Well, wake me up, please!’”

“We were just going to sell some cookies, make a little money and live happily ever after,” says Ford. “Running a manufacturing business is a big responsibility, but I’m glad we’re doing it.”

As for the original home of the whoopie pie, Haase says Maine has a solid claim to the title. She got her recipe from her mother, who remembers hearing about a woman in Bangor back in the Depression era that made the treat from leftover cake batter. But whichever state deserves the credit, Cranberry Island Kitchens has no qualms about showcasing the whoopie pie as treat many Mainers remember fondly for childhood.

“Everyone has a whoopie pie story,” says Haase.

“It’s a comfort food,” agrees Ford. “It brings back memories.”

Carol Ford (left) and Karen Haase of Cranberry Island Kitchen in Portland. The business has grown from a 400-square-foot space in Cumberland in 2006 to a 4,000-square-foot bakery and shop on Danforth Street in Portland in 2009.A daily newspaper reporter for many years, she is now well into her second career, English teacher at Bonny Eagle High School.

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