This mouth-watering interview gives a slice of Midwestern life, down-home cooking, and the power of sister collaboration. We sat down with Emily Elsen, who along with her sister Melissa, founded one of our favorite spots in Brooklyn, Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie shop. With a window into their creative world, and a peak at their new space, opening just up the road; we can see this bakery has become a favorite meeting spot for fellow Brooklynites. It also draws people from all over New York to get a taste of their fresh and inventive pies… Order up!
Nativen: You grew up in South Dakota right?
Emily: Yep, that’s right.
Nativen: How do you think growing up there influenced your choice to start doing pie making?
Emily: South Dakota is a Midwestern state, and pie making is very popular in the Midwest.
Growing up in a small town with our grandmother was probably the biggest influence on my pie making. Our mother ran a small town restaurant with her sister that they opened in 1985. We worked in the restaurant and Grandma made all the pies for the restaurant.
Nativen: That’s great!… When did you realize that you wanted to be a pie maker? Was there a specific event in your life, or something that influenced you?
Emily: Kind of…I studied sculpture and photography and went to school for the arts. It was there that Iworked in the arts administratively and helped found a nonprofit studio space [The Gowanas Studio Space]. There were a bunch of different things in the art world I did.
Melissa studied finance and business management, and did a bunch of traveling, and we had talked for a long time about starting a business together.
When she was moving back from Australia, she didn’t really have a plan. I had an extra room in my house so she came to New York to live with me. That’s when things really started to gel that we would do pie, in particular.. I found myself making pies again, and getting back to baking. When I moved into a house with a big kitchen I got back to pie baking and cake making, and found myself making a lot of stuff, but mostly a lot of baking. Melissa was also making cakes and things and found herself gravitating back towards food making, too, even though, we had grown up in it, and gone away from it, and wanted to explore different things.
We both felt like we were drawn back to it. I think the moment we realized that pie was it we both got really excited. It’s funny…I would never have envisioned that when I moved to New York at 18 to go to art school that I would end up owning a pie company. That isn’t exactly…
Nativen: …Part of your original plan?
Emily: Exactly, not at all. Working in food or running a food business was not [a part of the plan] either because we both knew how much work it would be and we knew it was dirty work. I wouldn’t have everthought that running a pie company is what I would end up doing.
So, we were both attracted to pie making and we also felt that there weren’t many bakeries out there, and that made us think, “It’s a good pie.” We just weren’t finding that in New York. So it just all came together and we just felt like, hey this is something we really enjoy doing. Pie making to both of us is really fun and exciting, and gratifying, and something that we could see ourselves continuing to do.
Nativen: It’s so important when you’re starting a small business to have it be something that you’re passionate about.
Emily: That you enjoy, exactly.
Nativen: With pie making, I feel like it’s such a meditative process that when you’re doing it for yourself…
Emily: It follows through because even when we hire people, we’re not working a line here. We’re doing repetitive tasks over and over. We’re rolling out pie dough. We’re rolling out that. It’s our assembly. Make crusts, complete pie, repeat.”
Absolutely, and that’s one of the things I like the most.
Nativen: What do you love most about Brooklyn, and do you think that’s integral to the work that you’re doing?
Emily: When I moved here in ‘99, I was applying to art schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and I will never forget coming over here for the first time.
Coming over the bridge from the city and seeing Brooklyn — I was immediately struck by the eclectic mix of neighborhoods and the eclectic mix of people. I came from a place that was pretty small, a town of 400 people.
Nativen: A homogenized town?
Emily: Very homogenized. Not to dismiss it, because it was a great place to grow up, but I was so starving for diversity and excitement.
To me, Brooklyn felt not as intense and crazy as Manhattan. It felt more approachable, and like a city of neighborhoods that were really interesting. That’s one thing that I love about Brooklyn and doing business here. It’s such a mix of customers and clientele.
[Four & Twenty Blackbirds] has gotten to grow more as we’ve established our business. We are now at the Brooklyn Public Library and we’re serving our communities here, not just the little community that is Gowanus. We get people from all over New York City coming in.
I feel like there are not a ton of bakeries in Brooklyn like there used to be. There are your commercial bakeries and stuff, but what we’re doing — there’s not a lot of it. I feel like we’re hopefully holding down the market here on pie. We’d like to.
Four & Twenty identifies with Brooklyn and the Brooklyn food scene and what Brooklyn has become in the last 15 years…To me, Brooklyn’s very different than it was 15 years ago, and it will be very different15 years from now, as well.
We very much identified with this neighborhood when we opened, because we really wanted to further the early things to open and start a community here. There are lots of artists, musicians and designers working in these buildings.
Those things help define what Four & Twenty is. Do I think that we could open somewhere else? Absolutely. We’d love to open in the West Coast, and work with the ingredients that are there. It would be the same concept. We wouldn’t ship the pie somewhere to sell it. We would make pie in the area…which is what pie making is to me. You make it with ingredients that are around you.
Nativen: That’s how we like it….
Just a couple of rapid-fire questions:
In Brooklyn, what’s your favorite restaurant?
Emily: My favorite restaurant in Brooklyn? That’s a tough question. Probably, the one I go to the most is Prime Meats.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite home goods store in Brooklyn?
Emily: Yes. I do go to kitchen supply stores a lot, if you count that.
Nativen: Absolutely. Those are home goods.
Nativen: Favorite clothing store?
Emily: I’m inclined to be like Bird, because I know the owner, and it’s a beautiful store.
Nativen: It is a beautiful store.
Emily: I feel like that’s a good one to shout out. I’m not a huge, huge shopper. I like the idea of your lineup. I’d probably end up wearing everything from there. [laughs]
Nativen: No, that’s exciting. That’s what I like to hear.We’re always looking for feedback. It’s one of the things I talk to people a lot about.
We’re focusing a lot on the comfort and the engineering because I want it to function in a way that’s useful to women. One of the pieces we’re developing right now is an apron that’s specifically built to fit a woman’s body.
Emily: I like that a lot. The thing is we use standard issue kitchen stuff, but you always have to modify it to make it your own style that fits with what you’re wearing.
Nativen: [Aprons] are mostly designed for men’s bodies and are long in the torso. It doesn’t really account for bust or anything.
Do you have a favorite park or outdoor space in Brooklyn?
Emily: Yes, many. I really love the park right behind the Children’s Museum. It’s called Brower Park.
It’s right by my house. It’s just a small little park, but it has basketball courts and a little skate park that was built by a woman I know who lived in the neighborhood. There’s also a nearby park with a little farmer’s market there every other weekend. It’s a good little community park. I love that. Otherwise, I also love the Brooklyn Promenade. The Promenade is awesome.
Nativen: Those are good spaces. Do you have a hidden gem in Brooklyn?
Emily: A truly hidden gem that I had the opportunity to visit is the basement stacks of the Brooklyn Public Library. During our renovation of the cafe, a gracious librarian gave me a brief glimpse of the thousands of books that are housed beneath the building. An incredible wealth of information on bound paper.
Nativen: That’s amazing!… What is the greatest resource to your work in Brooklyn or in New York?
Emily: It’s a couple of things I think — our people, our staff. We couldn’t run our business without our team and people who are devoted to pie making.
Additionally, clientele; New York City has an endless supply of people that want to eat. That’s a pretty good resource when it comes to doing business.
When it comes to food, certain areas are a little more simple, as far as willingness to try things or be adventurous. I feel like we have a lot of freedom [in Brooklyn] to be adventurous. That’s one thing that we wanted to do with the pie shop. If you can’t be creative it’s not fun.
Nativen: Absolutely. That’s the thing that drives your business forward, for me, creatively.
Emily: Yeah, exactly. I feel that’s a good thing too.
Nativen: Do you have a pie that you make that’s your favorite?
Emily: I have to say that my favorite pie is pie that’s made with in‑season fruits. I actually gain weight in the summer because I eat pie about three times a week. I’m a big fruit fanatic.
…Not as much into our chocolate and custard pies. I like them a lot too, but when there are peaches, cherries, figs, the first season apples, or nectarines and plums, I love that. Any pie that’s made with fresh in‑season fruit, not canned fruit or things like that. You want it to be ripe and good.
Nativen: Yeah absolutely. I get snobby about the fruit that I use to bake, as well.
What part of the process brings you the most joy?
Emily: Let’s see… There are a lot of processes that make me happy.
Probably, the biggest part and maybe the most obvious is, coming into the pie shop or the library cafe, and seeing everybody eating our product and just chilling and hanging out, enjoying it, and sharing it.
This is bit of a tear‑jerker, but we were sitting downstairs doing an interview for a new job applicant and there was this little girl standing on a chair, eating pie. It was just so cute.
She was with her parents and they were taking pictures. Things like that. When there are kids with a slice of pie, or anything where the customers are enjoying it and they’re happy.
I’m famous for having long conversations with customers about pie.
Nativen: What part of the process is the greatest struggle for you, do you think?
Emily: I’d say balancing life and business, which is not uncommon for most people.
But for small business owners, in particular, it’s 24/7. There isn’t really any kind of full on routine that we’ve been fully able to establish. It’s all over the place, especially when you’re growing. I think that’s probably the biggest challenge for me.
Nativen: The life/work balance?
Emily: Yeah, just taking time off for yourself, or finding the balance and cutting work off at some point. I’m getting better with that.
Nativen: That’s good. It’s an educational process in developing your business.
Emily: Right, exactly.
Nativen: What’s one thing you’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t done yet?
Emily: Ride in a hot air balloon!
Nativen: If you weren’t a pie maker, what do you think you would be?
Emily: I studied art and photography so I’d probably still be working in that area because it’s something creative. I’d have to be doing something hands on. It could be like wood‑working even. I could see myself doing that. Actually, I also love landscaping.
Nativen: That’s great. It sounds like you’ll have that at your new space. You’ll have some inspiration with that.
What destination would you want to travel to, and how do you think that might inspire or alter your work?
Emily: There are a lot of places. Asia, actually, I haven’t been to Japan or Southeast Asia.
Nativen: I haven’t been either and I’ve always wanted to go. There’s so much to learn from a cultural standpoint that’s very different from Western countries.
Nativen: What’s a song you’ve been listening to at work lately?
Emily: I listen to a lot of old and new hip/hop and rap when I’m working. I recently learned of Fatima and I like her voice a lot, have had her albums on in the kitchen.
Nativen: What are 3 words that sum up your work.
Emily: Ambition, creativity, camaraderie.
Nativen: Is there anything that you do with your business to specifically connect with your community?
Emily: Yeah. We definitely try to create a place where people can do work during the week and have meetings and have it be like a community-gathering place. You see most of the spaces in here dedicated to serving as a big community table
Now, running the cafe at the Brooklyn public library. That is very community‑oriented as well but not easy. It’s totally different running an institutional cafe in a library, which is a place of public service. I love being there engaging with what is, to me, the real Brooklyn community.
Nativen: Right, like a more accurate representation of average Brooklynites.
Emily: Yeah, I think so. The pie shop might be a little more particular to the neighborhood. But then again, we do get people from all over coming in.
We also donate a lot to public schools. Anything education‑based, typically, we give a lot of pie gift certificates too.
Nativen: What’s the most helpful advice that you’ve received, or what advice would you give to creatives looking to develop their own work?
Emily: I feel like the advice I would give is what people have said to me: know that if you’re doing something independently, it’s a lot of work and it’s on you. You don’t just check out at the end of the day when you leave.
You have to stick to your guns, don’t compromise…people will always be distracters of ideas with things they want you to do. But if you really want to do something and you care about it, then, stick to it.
Nativen: That’s good advice.
Who’s your hero or who’s someone who has helped influence your work?
Emily: We have an incredibly supportive mother.
Nativen: That’s awesome.
Emily: She quit her job to come help us with the business. After running a restaurant, raising us, and then also, working in health care for 10 years, then, she’s like, “You know what, I want to come help you guys with the business.”
I don’t think in my 20s, I would have been like, “Yeah mom, come live with me here,” but now I feel like I’d be lost without her support and friendship over the years.
Nativen: That’s huge.
Emily: Yeah. She’s tough and she is also very patient with two daughters who are crazy business owners, and who often fight and get into personal drama outside of work.
Nativen: That’s really amazing though.
What are five things you can’t live without?
Emily: Let’s see. Five things I can’t live without…. music, good food, coffee, sunshine, and access to saltwater.
Actually, I could live without the salt water but I really don’t want to…I like being close to it. I grew up in South Dakota, which is land locked so now I’m really drawn to the ocean.
For more tasty treats, you can visit them here.
Interview and Photos By: Lily Hetzler
Assistant Editor: Emily Murphy (This interview has been condensed & edited)
all images copywright of Nativen