Nearly 60 years ago, Betty Lessard decided to try selling pie as she helped out at her family’s fish shack near Two Harbors.
Lessard made a strawberry pie using a recipe she found in a newspaper. Customers loved it, and Lessard used her baking skills and business savvy to build Betty’s Pies into a famous landmark along Minnesota Highway 61.
Lessard died Thursday in Duluth at age 90. Until recently she lived in a home within sight of the restaurant she founded.
“She built it from the ground up when it was just a fish shack. The name just rings with everybody in Minnesota and the five-state area,” said current Betty’s Pies co-owner Carl Ehlenz.
“She was beloved for her restaurant and her cooking,” said Cindy Hayden, president of Lake Superior Magazine, who worked with Lessard on the 2000 cookbook “The Original Betty’s Pies Favorite Recipes.” An updated second edition of the cookbook is in the works.
Lessard was excellent to work with, Hayden said. She was decisive and knew what she wanted.
“She built an amazing reputation,” Hayden said.
“She did have a great life,’’ said her nephew Scott Storms.
A memorial service is planned for April 6 at Sunrise Cemetery and Funeral Home in Hermantown.
Current Betty’s Pies co-owner Marti Sieber remembered Lessard as generous and kind with a good heart, leaving behind a legacy of hard work and being meticulous about what she served her customers. Sieber also credited her with being smart, strong, independent and opinionated.
“She was a businesswoman in an era when a woman wasn’t in business,” Sieber said.
A native of the North Shore, in 1943 - at just 19 years old - she left Duluth for Salt Lake City, where she studied photography. “I was the only girl in the school,” Lessard told the Lake County News-Chronicle in an interview last August. “I think now, ‘How did I do that?’”
After graduation she returned to Minnesota and became a wedding photographer in Duluth. But in 1956 she began helping her father at a fish shack along the North Shore highway where the family sold Lake Superior trout and herring. That’s when she started tinkering with selling pies at the stand.
Lessard operated the restaurant for decades, taking only Tuesdays off each week to rest, Ehlenz said. For a time, Lessard’s dog would accompany her to work and people would have to step over the dog to get into Betty’s Pies.
She was proud of her lemon angel pie - her favorite kind to bake. Her favorite kind of pie to eat at the restaurant lately was the Butterfinger pie, a new kind of pie created as a spinoff from one of her recipes.
“She loved to make pie and eat pie,” Ehlenz said.
Hayden said she was amazed that people from around the country knew who Lessard was. Betty’s Pies served as a reminder of vacations on the North Shore, Hayden said.
In the 1970s her restaurant also was one of the first in the state to enforce a strict no-smoking policy, to the annoyance 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 News Tribune at the time. "But I have my standards."
Lessard sold the restaurant and retired in 1984. But she said the pie recipes changed with the new owners - and not for the better.
Sieber and Ehlenz heard that when they purchased Betty’s Pies in 1997, but initially hesitated to call Lessard because they were told she wasn’t involved in the restaurant anymore.
But “Marti called her and, boom, she was there in two minutes,” Ehlenz said.
Lessard determined that the previous owner wasn’t using her recipes, and she took the new bakers to her house to give them lessons, Sieber said. She made pies from memory while Sieber and Ehlenz wrote down the recipes.
The restaurant moved into a new building in 2000, but Lessard still stopped in every weekend for breakfast and people loved to get her autograph while she was there, Ehlenz said.
Although she’d been retired from Betty’s Pies for years, she still would make pies at home and serve them to friends when they would stop by her house. It was important to Lessard that she live to age 90 so she could celebrate with her friends, Ehlenz said.
Ehlenz and Sieber said they’ll continue baking pies in honor of Lessard.
“We’re definitely going to miss her. We’re very sad to hear about her passing,” Sieber said.
News Tribune reporter John Myers contributed to this report.