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Betty Lessard, the founder of Betty's Pies, enjoyed a cup of coffee with the current owner, Carl Ehlenz, less than a week before her 90th birthday. She still visits the restaurant every Saturday for breakfast. Photo by LaReesa Sandretsky.

Founder of Betty’s Pies turns 90

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Betty Lessard is most famous for her pies.

She started Betty’s Pies in Two Harbors in 1956 and spent decades perfecting her pie recipes, which are now incredibly popular. But before she started a successful restaurant, she had a different dream.

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In 1943, at just 19 years old, she left Duluth for Salt Lake City, Utah, where she studied photography.

“I was the only girl in the school,” Lessard said Wednesday. “I think now, ‘How did I do that?’”

After she graduated, she started doing wedding photography in Duluth with her Canon camera. But in 1956, her life took a fateful turn when she started helping her father, a fisherman. They opened a little stand just north of Two Harbors to sell smoked fish. Lessard isn’t one for sitting still, though, so when the smoked fish business was slow she started tinkering with pie recipes.

Her first attempt? A recipe she got from the newspaper for a strawberry pie. She found some willing test tasters in the miners who were trickling into Silver Bay to work in the newly opened Reserve Mining Company processing plant.

“I knew I’d get the truth from them,” she said.

They loved the strawberry pie, and it’s still served at Betty’s Pies today.

On Wednesday, Lessard sipped from a big mug of decaffeinated coffee and nibbled on a piece of lemon angel pie (her favorite) at the restaurant that still bears her name but is now owned by Carl Ehlenz and Martha Sieber. She turns 90 years old on Aug. 5, and she was reflecting on a lifetime elbow-deep in lard and flour.

“It feels like I belong here,” she said.

She sold the restaurant in 1984, and Betty’s Pies changed, Lessard said. Even the pie recipes were different. She no longer felt connected to the restaurant.

Then, in 1997, Ehlenz and Sieber took over. Their first move was not to reinvent the restaurant, but to get back in touch with its roots. That meant going to Lessard, but the two new owners were intimidated.

“We were afraid to call her,” Ehlenz said. “We hadn’t even met her.”

Eventually, they rang up the founder. They had been getting complaints on the pies and asked Lessard to look over the recipes.

“She just threw them all out,” Ehlenz said.

They were nothing like her originals, she said. So she wrote out recipe cards with the original instructions -- from memory.

“She had them all in her head,” Ehlenz recalled.

Ehlenz and Sieber built a new restaurant in 2002 on the same property. Lessard still comes in every Saturday morning for breakfast and orders the same thing.

“One slice of French toast, two strips of bacon … and about six cups of coffee,” she said with a laugh.

She still gets recognized by customers. On Wednesday, a woman stopped by her table to tell Lessard how much she loves the restaurant and that she makes an annual stop during a trip up the North Shore for a piece of lemon angel pie.

Lessard was a hostess for a time at the restaurant after she sold it. She said she loved talking to the customers, and that’s what she has missed most the last 30 years of retirement.

“From the moment I sold it, I missed the people,” she said.

Still, Lessard had a no-nonsense attitude with difficult customers over the years. In the early days of the restaurant, she had a customer ask for an egg, fried in a laughably specific way.

“I said, ‘I’ll give you the egg and a pan and you can make it any way you want,’” Lessard recalls. After that lecture, she said, he accepted a simple over-easy egg.

Her restaurant was also one of the first in the state to enforce a strict no-smoking policy, to the chagrin of some customers. Though Lessard was a smoker many decades ago, in 1978, she had no patience for those wishing to light up in her restaurant.

“Most people who own eating places are afraid if they don’t allow smoking they’ll lose customers,” she told the Duluth News Tribune. “But I have my standards.”

Lessard has had a number of hobbies in retirement, like training and showing dogs (her schnauzer Tammy won first place in a national competition), travelling (her favorite city is Santa Fe) and maintaining the expansive lawn and gardens on her property. She’s slowing down a bit now that she’s in her ninth decade, but she still visits the gym and has lunch with a group of seniors at Lakeview Hospital daily.

“Some days I do (feel like I’m 90), but sometimes I feel like I just graduated high school,” she said.

Celebrate Betty’s birthday

Aug. 2, 2- 5 p.m.

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Castle Danger (10 miles north of Two Harbors on Highway 61)

 
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