THE WOODRUFF’S CAFÉ AND PIE SHOP TEAM SHARES THEIR SECRETS TO SUCCESS
By Shelley Basinger
Photos by Ashlee Glen
Darnette Hill sits at a corner table folding boxes for what’s expected to be another bustling day at Woodruff’s Café and Pie Shop in Amherst County.
It’s Wednesday morning—since they’ve been closed since Saturday, they know customers will start rolling in right when the doors open at 10 a.m. The display case is full, and the shop’s ovens are working overtime, filling the tiny cinderblock building with mouthwatering scents of cranberry, sweet potato, and chocolate.
As she folds, Darnette and her twin sister, Darnelle Winston, laugh—with happy tears in their eyes—as they tell stories about “Mama,” who passed away in May of this year at 104 years old. Mary Woodruff, the matriarch of the family pie shop, used to fold boxes at the very same table and loved chatting with customers as they waited for their orders.
“She was here every day, no matter what,” said Winston, who works in the front part of the store and occasionally bakes.
“And Mama was negative about nothing. She was always positive,” added Hill. “We never thought about it until after she was gone just how positive she was.”
It was Mary’s positivity, along with the constant support of the whole family, that has kept Woodruff’s Café and Pie Shop going through the years, explained Angie Scott, owner of the shop and younger sister to Darnelle and Darnette: “‘Just have faith, Angie,’ Mama would always say.”
But it wasn’t always easy.
IN THE BEGINNING
Woodruff’s opened in January 1952 as a general store on land owned by Scott’s grandfather, selling gas and oil, chicken and hog feed, and grocery items. Her father built it with friends out of cinderblock.
“They did very well, the whole community stopped in,” Scott said. “A lot of people didn’t have cars so they would walk to the store.”
Woodruff’s was also home—Scott and her sisters lived with their parents upstairs, above the store. She recalled their unusual alarm clock.
“Mama would be so busy down here that she would take a broom and bang it into the ceiling that was right below our room,” Scott chuckled as she reenacted her mother’s morning ritual.
Thirty years later, the general store closed, unable to compete with big grocery chains. The building sat empty for a while before becoming an apartment and then a fish market for a couple of years.
In the ’90s, Scott’s wheels started turning as she attended a family reunion on her father’s side and learned more about the history of her family in the area near the shuttered store.
“I just really wanted to carry that history on,” she said.
A SLOW REVIVAL
With a 10-year background in the restaurant industry and a community college degree, Scott followed her heart and reopened Woodruff’s in 1998.
“It was small, I wanted it to be a little café,” she explained, adding that the dessert case didn’t come until later when she wanted to offer something sweet for lunchtime customers.
“I started going through cookbooks and finding recipes from family. Of course I used my mom’s sweet potato pie recipe,” Scott said.
By the early 2000s, she was branching out and baking other types of pies—but business was still slow. Scott even got a second job waiting tables to make ends meet. She was starting to feel like her faith in the business was running out.
“But the Lord kind of did some work in those 10 years and sent people that would help me,” said Scott.
One of those people arrived in 2012, a Southern Living writer who happened to be in the area for an assignment about apple orchards. Someone told the writer to stop by Woodruff’s for a slice of pie.
“I was making apple pie that day when she came in. She took a bite and said, ‘This is the best apple pie I’ve ever had’,” Scott said. “We were in their fall issue in 2013. Things started to turn around then.”
Things turned around so much that they had a hard time keeping up with demand, especially with just one oven at the time.
“I was turning people away because at 11 o’clock the pies were gone. So I had to bring in another oven,” she said.
More publicity came in 2015 when PBS produced a show called “A Few Good Pie Places.” Then in early 2020, the pinnacle of media coverage—the Today show came to Amherst County for a feel-good story about Mary and her role at the shop. It’s not uncommon now to have visitors from all over the country.
“We had a gentleman and his mother come from Ohio just this last weekend. They said [our shop]was on their bucket list. So we were able to give them a history and talk to them,” Scott said. “They bought five pies. People do that type of thing all the time.”
They now have five standard ovens, and recently added a dough press machine to save time making crusts. Scott’s next goal is to upgrade the space to a commercial kitchen.
MORE OR LESS
So what makes a Woodruff’s pie so irresistible that it’s worth a six-hour drive? Like many seasoned family cooks who have spent years creating the same recipes—it’s often kind of hard to explain.
“We don’t have many rules, I guess you would say,” Scott said. “Just trial and error.”
One of those trial-and-error experiences was finding the right flour.
“I had bought this expensive flour and it just didn’t work. We ended up using Walmart flour,” she said, adding that a customer offered to test it for them. Turns out, their favorite flour was low in gluten: “If the gluten [in your flour]is too high, you won’t get a good crust.”
The crust is the foundation of a good pie—and you might be surprised who is behind the Woodruff’s batter.
“Larry is the backbone of the kitchen,” explained Scott of her husband, an often unsung hero in all of the shop’s publicity through the years. “He is the best cook out of all of us. He makes all of the pie batter. He makes crumble, which is a big deal. He also makes our chicken salad and pimento cheese. We really couldn’t do this without him.”
Larry and Angie agree—it all comes down to timing. First, don’t overmix your dough when making pie crust. Next, according to Larry, how long you let the dough sit after mixing can affect how easy it is to work with if you are making a lattice top (his specialty).
“If she rolls this out and it sits for a few minutes, it seems to fall apart. If we use it right away, it doesn’t have to be quite as thick,” he explained.
They use a milk wash instead of an egg wash for the tops of their pies. Why? “Because we got tired of cracking so many eggs!” Scott laughed. “Milk does the same thing.”
When it comes to your fillings, follow your favorite recipe (and use fresh, local ingredients if possible) but don’t be afraid to experiment. For example, your family might like the taste of cinnamon a little more or less than a recipe calls for. You’ll actually see “more or less” several times in the pie recipes Scott shared with us on the following pages.
Finally, a little trial-and-error tip about fruit pies: “Put them on the lowest grate in your oven. I finally figured that out,” Scott said. “That will keep them from getting soggy.”
BEING MERRY WITHOUT MARY
Heading into the first holiday season without “Mama” will be an adjustment for this close-knit family. Partly because Mary Woodruff adored Christmas—from the caroling to the decorations—and equally loved a good snow.
But it may be her grateful spirit they remember—and try to emulate—this time of year.
“If someone gave her the smallest gift she would just love it and praise them for it. She was always so grateful for every single thing she received in her life,” said Hill.
Every single thing including that cozy corner table where Mary had the opportunity, every single day, to do what she loved the most—help the family business thrive.
“Even on her death bed and she only had weeks left, she was like, ‘I need to go over to Angie’s and fold some boxes’,” Scott recalled. “It’s been different without her and it always will be, but we are doing okay.”
TRY A PIE
Angie Scott shares a few of their top-selling recipes, but they are keeping their crust concoction under wraps. Use your own recipe or pour these fillings into a store-bought crust for an easy dessert option.
4 cups tart cherries
1 1/4 cups sugar
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup clear gel (a modified food starch found in baking aisle)
Dash of cinnamon or nutmeg
Mix or toss ingredients lightly. Spoon into unbaked pie crust. Dot with butter. Top with lattice or regular crust. Brush crust with milk or egg wash. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 375 for 40 min.
Apple Cranberry Pie
6 cups apples (your favorite)
1/2 cup fresh cranberries
1 cup sugar (more or less)
2 tablespoons flour
Pinch of salt
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon orange extract (more or less, optional)
Mix dry ingredients. Dot apples with orange extract or a little fresh zest. Toss all together with cranberries. Spoon into unbaked pie crust. Top with crust or use cookie cutters to decorate. Dot with butter.
Bake at 375 for 55 minutes. When cool drizzle with icing. (You can make your own with confectioner’s sugar and water.)
Mama’s Sweet Potato Pie
2 hand-sized sweet potatoes (about 2 pounds), well cooked
1 1/2 stick butter
2 cups sugar
1 cup whole milk
4 well beaten eggs
1 pinch salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon lemon extract
2 teaspoons nutmeg
Mix well. Pour into two large unbaked, 9-inch, deep dish pie crusts. Bake at 375 degrees for 1 hour.
1 cup pecan halves
1/2 cup pecan pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
Layer pecans in pie crust. Mix all other ingredients together and pour over pecans. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.