Even after national fame, Monica Schenk keeps it simple
Written by Leah Stacy, photos by Lyndsi Stoltzfus
It’s a muggy late Sunday afternoon in August and Monica Schenk is dipping ripe peaches, one by one, into a vat of boiling water atop a commercial-grade stove. The hot skins of the peaches fall away as she pares them with a knife, then quarters the sweet flesh and drops it into a large metal bowl, where it will be mixed with glace to create an open-faced pie. As she works, splatters of peach juice fly onto her purple shirt—her favorite color—printed with the words “Be Someone’s Sunshine.”
“I love to make people happy and buying a pie does that,” says Schenk. “It’s very rewarding.”
At Monica’s Pies, the weekend is not a time for rest. The shop is located in Naples, a few miles south of Canandaigua Lake, in a renovated barn on Route 21. There’s a small retail area where customers can buy more than 25 types of pie, more than 30 types of jam and jelly, cookies, bread, grape pie filling, Monica’s merch, and more—they just have to ring a doorbell to get into the locked shop, since sometimes all employees are working in the kitchens.
On this particular Sunday, the doorbell continues to reverberate throughout the house as sun-kissed families returning home from lake adventures stop by for weekend indulgences. In addition to Monica’s goods, the retail shop sells honey and maple syrup from local vendors. And of course, there’s grape pie filling by the jar, as the shop is most famous for grape pie, a regional delicacy of the Finger Lakes that first skyrocketed Monica’s to fame when it was featured on the Food Network in 2001.
“There’s lots of girls that [make grape pies]; I don’t know that I’m the best, but I’m one of ’em,” she said. “And I’m open year-round. But you gotta have a good product for people to keep coming back.”
Both Schenk’s grape pie legacy and her love for baking came from her mother, Katherine Clark, who was a home economics teacher at Naples Central School and operated a small restaurant inside the boat livery she and her husband, John, owned. Clark’s pies were known throughout the Canandaigua Lake region, and her recipes and methods became the foundation for Monica’s Pies.
“She always let me in the kitchen to make a mess and be with her,” says Schenk. “That’s where I learned it all.”
Since the 1960s, bakers in the Finger Lakes region have made it “the grape pie capital” of the world, and Naples is home to the Grape Festival, largely known for grape pies and the beginning of the harvest season. In 1983, Schenk began making grape pies at her mother’s home in nearby Woodville, with Clark serving as the “crust expert.” White wine was trending throughout the Finger Lakes at that point, and the Concord crops on Schenk’s vineyard were going to waste. Word about the duo’s pies began to spread, and soon they had a roadside stand, using the honor system for sales. In 1997 Schenk expanded to the “pie barn”—her current location on Route 21 along Canandaigua Lake—converting it into a commercial kitchen space, an apartment for her mother (who lived there until her death in 2014), a retail shop and, eventually, five outdoor walk-in freezers that hold sweet and savory pies, pie fillings, ingredients, crust and grapes.
Monica’s Pies catapulted to particular notoriety in the early 2000s with an appearance on the Food Network’s “Food Finds,” articles in The New York Times and Better Homes and Gardens, and a pie plate collaboration with Pfaltzgraff. Schenk also shipped to other locations for a few years as part of her Food Network agreement.
These days, Schenk, who is in her 60s, employs 12 “girls,” as she refers to them, mostly high schoolers who help her with retail and basic tasks. Her husband, Greg, folds hundreds of boxes every week on the “box porch,” a small room off the kitchen where boxes of all sizes are stacked from floor to ceiling. A few long-standing employees work on the pies, but Schenk still does a majority of the work herself, while four of her six grandchildren (the other two live in Kentucky) run underfoot and play outside in the yard and swimming pool.
“I’m here at least 12 hours a day; whatever needs doing, I do it,” she says. “I love it, though. We get away in the winter, go to Florida, see friends in Texas. I have good help so I can go. If I don’t have that someday, I’ll just close up for the winters again.”
And in an age when healthy eating and dietary restrictions have become more common, Schenk says she hasn’t been affected, though requests for gluten-free and vegan baked goods are plentiful. While her kitchen isn’t equipped to make those products, she does use more than 10 local suppliers for her baked goods, and she composts her food waste.
“I like good food,” she says. “I want my product to be the best—I don’t like mediocre food. I try to do the best job I can. It’s hard work, and I like to work.”
She pauses, and laughs a little.
“But I’d love to retire someday.”
7599 NY-21, Naples, (585) 374-2139, monicaspies.com
Leah Stacy is a multipotentialite based in Rochester. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram: @leahstacy.
Lyndsi Stoltzfus is a Penn Yan based photographer, inspired by light and capturing genuine emotion.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 Women’s Issue edition of the magazine.