THE FIRST TIME I ate one of Logan Niles’ potpies, it was a snowy Seattle day in January. The oven, turned to 400 degrees for long enough to make a frozen potpie into a piping hot one, made the kitchen even cozier: warmer and, eventually, scented with buttery rosemary promise. It was the most basic kind Niles makes for her online operation Pot Pie Factory: the classic chicken version, conveniently delivered to my door the nonsnowy day before.
Out of the oven, its pastry dome had attained the most beautiful golden-brown, with visible bits of rosemary both scattered across and incorporated into the crust for extra prettiness. A small pastry silhouette of a chicken also adorned the top. (Yes, I’m using the word “adorned,” which normally seems so overprecious, but this adorable little cookie-cutter chicken completely qualifies as an adornment. Niles’ reason for arriving at this system of symbology — other kinds of her potpies get cutouts of piggies or fish or carrots — is more prosaic. “Once I put the lid on them, I couldn’t remember what was inside,” she says and laughs.)
Niles’ crust attains an unusual crispiness, giving an audible crunch as you fork or spoon through it. It’s so buttery and light, and the extra-browned edges also get extra crispy, making them fun to break off and eat with your fingers. Down below, the pastry dish holding the filling gets softer and sauce-soaked; a hidden treat is that it’s burnished, almost caramelized, on the bottom, and still crisp there, too.
The sauce for Pot Pie Factory’s chicken filling, a creamy velouté, possesses an old-school richness, though it’s not overly thick. A generous amount of chicken, all-natural white meat, in nice half-inch cubes, is found throughout, along with kernels of corn, still-bright carrots, peas maintaining their pea-integrity. The thought of more salt and pepper crossed my mind, but I kept eating and the subtleties became apparent, with the rosemary in the crust lending a happy extra layer of flavor. This potpie was basic in the most perfect way. I got overeager halfway through, and it was still so hot, I burned the tip of my tongue. I ate it at the kitchen counter, looking out the window at the snow swirling down, and I’m not sure I could’ve been much happier.
“When I tell people what I do,” Niles says, “the first thing they say is that they love potpies.” The nostalgia factor, she notes, is strong for almost everyone. The personal size of a potpie makes it a special childhood experience, she thinks. “That’s what everyone remembers … It was yours. There’s something precious about that.” She herself was a latchkey kid, and it was mostly just her and her mom; a frozen grocery-store potpie was something she could make for herself easily. And there’s something about a hot potpie, even eaten alone, that makes you feel instantly taken care of, even loved.
The love seems especially present in Pot Pie Factory’s versions. The factory of the name is pretty much just Niles herself, and she’s very picky about her potpies. Everything’s made from scratch. Crusts are butter, except for the vegan ones — she didn’t want to use shortening for those, so she created her own coconut oil and olive oil substitution. Proteins are hormone- and antibiotic-free, and marinated for more flavor; seafood is never farmed. Some of the vegetables are organic, as fits with costs and consistency. “It’s very intentional,” she notes. “And every crust has an adjunct” — which sounds very academic, but just means an incorporated element, like the rosemary for the chicken potpie, nigella seeds for the Thai seafood one, paprika and more for others. “So that way it’s like flavor. Flavor. Flavor. Straight through,” she says, with feeling.
What’s her take now on the frozen grocery-store kind? “They’re not all terrible, but they’re also not all pies … there’s a piece of dough on top, basically above some soup in a bowl.” She laughs. “It’s not a pie! The standard suspects — they just don’t contain a lot, and they don’t contain very much that’s healthy … ”
She thought, “What would I feel good feeding my son?”
Niles’ potpies might be considered pricey, at $8.99 to $12.99. But, she points out, “It’s a lot different than just getting some mass-produced, so-so tasting potpie … where you get a crust you don’t really want to eat; you’ve got barely any filling that you can barely identify; and yeah, you’ve got a pea, a carrot, literally a chunk of chicken loaf and some sauce that you can’t identify.” If you want that, she’s fine with that. “I’m not saying don’t get it. But if you want something better, now you can find it.”
You also can find it if you’re gluten-free, paleo, vegan or halal — as Niles’ potpies gained traction, she started getting requests for all these, which she undertook making with joy. “Especially halal,” she notes. “Think about it: If you’re halal, where can you eat? Very few places. It’s about inclusivity, and addressing where we are as a country, and what our needs are now versus 1945.”
Niles’ skills were up to the challenge. She’s a Culinary Institute of America Hyde Park graduate and has been cooking for 30 years, including a decade running her own New York City company, catering for the likes of Chase Manhattan Bank, Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church and Louis Vuitton. As a single mom here in Seattle — her son’s 14, and she’s teaching him how to cook — getting Pot Pie Factory up and running has been a different kind of challenge. She’s a huge fan of the group known as F Bomb Breakfast Club. “Oh my God!” she exclaims. “The most amazing group of female business owners. If it wasn’t for F Bomb, I don’t think I’d be here … When it’s really hard, when you’re crying yourself to sleep because you have no idea if this is gonna work, then you can reach out to this group of amazing women.” They’re on Facebook, and they meet once a month in Seattle, helping each other solve problems, arrange introductions and more. “I won their first pitch event, Pitches to Bitches,” which she says really energized her. “People get this — they want it — so what’s next? It’s been fantastic.”
Niles also can’t say enough about Seattle nonprofit Ventures, from which she took an eight-week course and got a microloan last year. “They’re in the C.D. They’re awesome,” she effuses. “They’re all about helping — I hate the word ‘disadvantaged’ … less-advantaged business owners, micro-entrepreneurs.” She observes, “It’s really hard to start a food business when you don’t have a 401(k) to liquidate or a house to refinance, because you rent. So then how do you do it?”
Pot Pie Factory actually started out as part of the now-defunct company Josephine, aka “the Uber for home cooks.” It gave people with limited resources, like Niles, access to customers online, but ultimately, the health department was not a fan of this plan. Niles is now working with Ventures to change local laws for cottage-industry cooks, opening up opportunities while not throwing the food-safety baby out with the bathwater. To that end, she’d like to direct your attention and, she hopes, your support to the Microenterprise Home Kitchens law recently introduced in the Washington State House (Bill 2777) and Senate (Bill 6434). Inspections and permits for home cooks selling their wares to the public would absolutely apply, she points out.
“Let’s make sure they can do it the right way, because they’re doing it anyway,” she opines. “Nobody wants to be illegal! We all want to be above board, so let’s make room for that.
“The city is not getting any cheaper,” Niles says, again with feeling. “We can’t all work for Amazon.”
Right now, Niles is working on a potential brick-and-mortar location for her first Pot Pie Factory cafe — stay tuned. But, she says, “My overriding goal is to create something that I can duplicate as a franchise, and then help other women of color get into franchising.” For two years running, she attended the Fast Casual Executive Summit. “And I’m the only female CEO of color that I’ve seen so far. And that’s really depressing.” She hopes to take her great potpies and “turn it into something so turnkey that women with lower economic advantages can step into it and run it …
“Then it means they can have a business that will grow, and provide more jobs, and more tax revenue, and the whole nine yards.”
She also talks about the potential of putting Pot Pie Factory’s golden-crusted, personal-size food into schools, on to airplanes … “I have dreams of a mobile app and a Pie-brary,” she says, “being able to save your custom creation and, with one button, reorder it … ” She laughs.
Does she ever get sick of potpies? “My rule of thumb is, I get to test new pies, and I get to eat broken pies,” she says and laughs more. “And that’s kind of it. I try to limit myself. Because I really probably would just eat them all day long!”