Have you ever imagined the telephone call that changes your life?
Sara Zacek got hers last fall when after auditioning in Chicago with a cherry pie, she learned she had made the Top 100 for the sixth season of the Fox reality cooking show Master Chef. The season kicks off with a two-hour special (7-9 pm) on May 20, which is close to a month after Zacek opened her new business, Harbor Pie Co. in Sister Bay.
The Master Chef website lists the Top 40, along with their hometowns and occupations. Zacek, of Baileys Harbor, is one of three Wisconsinites on the list, the other two coming from Milwaukee. For occupation, she is listed as a mobile home park manager, which she was at the time.
“When I left to go to L.A., I was managing Thunderhill Estates in Sturgeon Bay. I loved my job,” Zacek said. “When I found out I had made top 100 and I had to tell my job, I’m leaving, I can’t tell you where and I don’t know when I’m going to be back. I won’t be able to contact you at all. I really struggled with that. I went back and forth, talking to my husband and my boss, because I loved my job. But I decided, I’m just going to go there. Maybe I won’t make it and I’ll be back in a couple of days, but that didn’t happen.”
While she obviously can’t give away any details of how the cooking competition went, she will tell you it helped change her life.
“I went out there and really used that time to kind of find myself and figure out what I really wanted to do with my life,” she said.
Before managing Thunderhill Estates, Zacek had been the baker at Cornerstone Pub in Baileys Harbor.
“They were doing breakfast seven days a week,” she said. “I did the breakfast pastries and doughnuts and started selling pies at the farmers market to promote Cornerstone. People really liked the pies. It’s been escalating since then.”
Growing up, she wanted to be a police officer, to the point of earning a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminology and law at Marquette University.
“But I always wanted to have a bakery. My retirement career would be a baker. That was always kind of in the back of my mind,” she said.
But life happens, and she went from professional baking to managing the mobile home park.
During the intense immersion of Master Chef, Zacek thought of how she had bounced from working in food to other things.
“So many times it had come and gone,” she said of the opportunity to work with food. “It had happened so many times in the past that when I got back I said, nope, done. I needed to be in food. Figure it out. When I came back I decided, I don’t want to go back to that job. I want to be in food. I actually lined up a job at Grasse’s Grill as one of their line cooks, and then this all happened.”
What happened was that she was given the sign to pursue her dream in another circumstance that was beyond her control.
“About 10 days after I got back from Master Chef, my dad passed away,” she said. “Through him passing, I inherited a little bit of money that he had set aside for me and my brother and sister. I found out about the inheritance about a week before this place became available. It was tough to jump into this while grieving and just getting back from L.A. and being gone for so long. And trying to figure out, is this right? Should we do this among all these other emotions? That was probably the hardest thing, making that leap of faith during that time with everything else that was going on. It was intense.”
But once she set her mind to do it, she got the keys to the place on April 1 and opened the door to the public on April 25.
“That was tough, just being here and getting everything together,” she said. “I know my dad would be really proud and I know he would just be really happy that he was able to give me this because it’s been something I wanted to do for so long. I know he would be so happy how everything timed itself and worked out. So it’s really awesome.”
The name of the shop may give away that Sister Bay was not the first location Zacek had in mind.
“It is a great location,” she said, “once the construction is done. I really tried to stay in Baileys Harbor. That’s where we have lived since moving up here four, five years ago. We had looked at this location when Drink relocated a few years ago. But when I saw this location available, I said let’s just do it. It has been awesome so far. It’s exceeded all expectations that we really had.”
While her cherry pie remains a best-seller – Grasse’s Grill has sold it since their inception – she has more adventurous pies in sweet and savory form.
“Savory pies I added for this location,” Zacek said. “Over the past three years I had developed several business plans. We’d looked at several locations and I had been talking with the bank. For each location, the business plan was a little bit different depending on the location. So for this location, with the history of it being a coffee shop and café, and it being larger so you can actually add seating in here, we wanted to add something for lunch and I didn’t want to deviate from pies. I don’t have a flattop or a grill in here. We decided to do savory pies as our lunch option.”
Well, it had to be asked, with so many piemakers in Door County, how does one set herself apart?
“I don’t like pie filling where it’s got thick jelly and stuff like that. It’s a textural thing for me personally,” Zacek said. “When I make my pies, I don’t use gelatin or thickening agents. It’s all fruit with a little bit of sugar, which is different from a lot of places up here. I don’t use lard in my crust, I use butter. And everything is made from scratch, so no two pies look alike. I think flavor and consistency changes when everything is done by hand in small batches, rather than a 50-gallon drum of pie filling that you stir with a paddle. We taste as we go and adjust ingredients and seasonings depending on that bucket of cherries and this batch of blueberries. Same thing with the savory pies, it’s all by scratch. So the turkey dinner pie, we roast a whole turkey and break it down. The gravy is made out of the neck and giblets that we boil and simmer with other herbs and seasonings. We use bone-in pork shoulder that we roast off for all of our pork pies. We’re not really cutting any corners. It’s all made by hand in this little space. I think that definitely separates us.”
Harbor Pie Co. is located at 10647 N. Bay Shore Drive, Sister Bay, 920.854.3427.