Phoebe Lawless opened Scratch in Downtown Durham in 2010. The bakery specializes in pies made with fresh, local ingredients, but also serves breakfast, brunch, lunch, and coffee. In the time since, she's racked up tons of fans, like The New York Times and the James Beard Foundation. We talked to Phoebe about that acclaim, her inspiration, and the role food plays in people's lives.
Tell us a little about yourself - where are you from, what brought you to Durham, and how did you end up running a pie shop?
My family's from the Northeast. My parents retired to the North Carolina mountains. I went to high school there, then came to school at NC State. I had been working at Magnolia Grill [the influential Durham restaurant that closed in 2012]. Then my husband and I bought a house, found out I was pregnant and I realized that I didn't want to be working - which is hilarious now when I think about it. I would kill for that schedule now.
When my daughter was about three, I was starting to get an itch. I started making pie [to sell at the farmers' market in Raleigh]. I'd always really enjoyed making pie but that started me on a serious pie path. Then, a spot opened up at the Durham [Farmers'] Market. I was still baking out of my house.
Then Amy Tornquist from Watts Grocery very generously offered me the use of her catering space from midnight to 6 a.m. Once I made that leap where I had commercial space and I had multiple ovens and a walk-in, I could really ramp up my volume, and I did. I did that for a year and then the brick-and-mortar Scratch opened in the summer of 2010.
You make a lot of very Southern dishes here. Given that you didn't grow up in the South, where does that focus come from?
I can say with total honesty that when we moved to North Carolina, any of your iconic Southern foods just repulsed me. Barbecue looked like cat food.
My affinity for [Southern food] isn't so much because it's Southern, but it's because it's where we are and I like the idea of cooking from a place and for it to have perspective. We have such variety and incredible indigenous ingredients here.
Pie isn't Southern, really. We've adapted pies that might have traditions in other areas of the country or world, and adapted them to the ingredients that we source here.
Did you train as a pastry chef?
I did. I was a pastry chef at Magnolia Grill for almost eight years. Ben and Karen Barker [owners of Magnolia Grill] were stewards of Southern food and its ingredients, using classic techniques. [They,] along with Bill Neal and Bill Smith now, [have] really elevated Southern food to something that could be compared to French or Italian, something very technique-driven.
The time that I spent there obviously was a huge influence. Baking from a Southern-style restaurant really clued me in that Southern-style baking was really just a reflection of what home baking was. There's not a tradition of bakeries in the South.
Why do you think so many restaurants in Durham are starting as food trucks and farmers' market stalls now?
The nature of dining has changed just in the past eight or 10 years. It's not as easy to prepare meals at home every single day. The shift from fine dining to more mid-level fine casual dining accommodates that in price point and in style.
It's easy to do in Durham as opposed to other places. There aren't the restrictions. You're not investing $200,000 in a brick-and-mortar space. It's more like $5,000, which is pretty easy to raise, especially with Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the like.
This area has become an incubator for talent. When you have really great products and ingredients, that's going to attract talented folks, people with skills. It's a lot easier of an investment in your time and resources to start at a market or get a food truck.
How did your menu change once you opened the brick-and-mortar store?
Scratch as it is now is not the business that I intended to open. I thought we would be just a cute little retail bake shop. At the time, and this was only four years ago, there wasn't much in Downtown Durham. Even for lunch. It became obvious that we needed to offer more than just desserts, or just pie. Our menu grew substantially to incorporate lunch and brunch, do full coffee service.
The city was incredibly helpful when I decided to make the jump to opening a brick-and-mortar. A lot of towns and infrastructure don't do that for small businesses. They had spaces that needed to be filled and I think there was just a perfect recipe of timing, of the city wanting to fill empty spaces, and this young entrepreneurial wave of people who had a lot of energy and ideas but weren't capitalizing as much as they could.
Do you hope to create a certain kind of experience for your customers?
I want the focus to be the food. I always wanted the focus to be the food and to have everything work to support that, and to really celebrate and showcase what this area produces and what you can do with it.
You were honored this year as a semifinalist for outstanding pastry chef by the James Beard Foundation. How do you feel about that?
It was a complete surprise, mostly because what I do: I'm a baker. I run a pie shop, or a bakery/breakfast joint. I say that with incredible joy that craft bakers are finally being acknowledged, whether it's bread or home-style desserts. I never thought that I'd be on that list.
I tend to put a lot of stock in when a regular customer comes in and tells me that those shirred eggs that I had this morning are still the best that they've ever had, and that's the 50th time that they've had them. I have a lot of pride in that.
Scratch is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; and hosts a pizza night every Wednesday from 5 to 8 p.m. Their menu rotates according to what ingredients are available, but the Shaker lemon pie and the buttermilk sugar pie are available year-round.