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Celebrating Betty — and, of course, her many pies

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 Sandretsky1 / 3
Betty Lessard holds one of her famous lemon angel pies at her cafe north of Two Harbors in August 1978. (News Tribune file photo)2 / 3
Betty's Pies near Two Harbors, circa 1978. This building was replaced by the current structure in 2000, and was torn down in 2002. (News Tribune file photo)3 / 3

Betty Lessard is most famous for her pies.

She started Betty’s Pies near Two Harbors in 1956 and spent decades perfecting her pie recipes, which now are incredibly popular. Lessard turns 90 on Tuesday and can look back on a lifetime elbow-deep in lard and flour.

But before she started a successful restaurant, she had a different dream.

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

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

After she graduated, she started working as a wedding photographer in Duluth. But in 1956, her life took a fateful turn when she started helping her father, a fisherman. They opened a little stand along Minnesota Highway 61 just north of Two Harbors to sell smoked fish.

Lessard was never 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 taste-testers in the miners who were trickling into Silver Bay to work in the newly opened Reserve Mining Co. 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.

During an interview last week, 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 now is owned by Carl Ehlenz and Martha Sieber.

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

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

In 1997, Ehlenz and Sieber bought the business. 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 2000 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. Last week, 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 during the past 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 recalled. After that lecture, she said, he accepted a simple over-easy egg.

Her restaurant also was 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, by 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 at the time. “But I have my standards.”

Lessard has had a number of hobbies in retirement, such as training and showing dogs (her schnauzer Tammy won first place in a national competition), traveling (her favorite city is Santa Fe, N.M.) and maintaining the expansive lawn and gardens on her property. She’s slowing down a bit, but she still visits the gym and has lunch each day with a group of seniors at Lake View Hospital in Two Harbors.

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

If you go What: Betty’s Lessard’s birthday celebration

When: 2-5 p.m. today

Where: Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Castle Danger, 10 miles north of Two Harbors on Minnesota Highway 61

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
(218) 834-2141