The Iron Horse Cafe & Pie Shop in Three Forks
The best kept secret has been let out of the bag and the Iron Horse Cafe & Pie Shop in Three Forks, Montana, has earned the admiration of its neighbors and the voters in the Bozeman’s Choice Reader Poll for the past two years in a row. In 2017, after losing a job she loved and thought she would be at forever, Jamie Taylor was at home testing a pie recipe for Thanksgiving, talking to her husband about applying for jobs, when she said out loud that what she really wanted to do was just bake pies for people. You know, make them happy with food. A little over three years later, Jamie is known at the Three Forks Pie Lady (#threeforkspielady) and is baking 20-40 pies per day! We chatted on a cold morning about all things pie.
Angie Ripple: How was Iron Horse Cafe & Pie Shop conceptualized?
Jamie Taylor: We had heard that the Iron Horse was for sale. My daughter had actually worked for the owner. So, I called her and said, “You know, we might be interested. Would you hire me to come in and see what it is that you do?” I didn’t want to jump into something that I didn’t sort of know what’s going on. I came in and I cooked and found out what was going on at that time, [and when I did take over] I didn’t change the menu for a long time, and I just kind of wanted to see what the locals were going to do and how accepting they were.
By March, which in March is Pi Day 3.14, I had a few more pies and we sold out that day. I think maybe I made five for that day and I thought well, that’s pretty cool. And so we just made more and more pies every day and every week. By that Thanksgiving of 2018, we had a few people wanting to order them for Thanksgiving and I thought, well that’s kind of cool, maybe this will be a thing. It just kind of started evolving and went from two times a week to two pies a day to 25 a week, and then by March of 2019 we got on with the Secretary of State and changed the name of the restaurant to Iron Horse Cafe & Pie Shop because by then pies were what were bringing people in. That helps differentiate ourselves from the previous owners. There was actually two restaurant owners here before I bought it, so that kind of helped us put our stamp on it, and our brand. Once we did that, things changed, a complete 180, and we were getting recognized and more people were talking about us. Thanksgiving 2019, we tripled the orders from the year before, so by then I had to start making it where people were giving me four days’ notice for pie. As a side note: I’ve been making all of these pies in the restaurant in a residential oven, eight at a time.
AR: Oh, wow! What do you want people to experience when they walk through your doors?
JT: It’s comfort food, right? So, I want them to feel immediately that there are going to be comfortable. My waitresses are crazy friendly, always nice. I want it to feel like home. It’s made-from-scratch homemade food. I want you to feel like you can come and relax and it’s not fine dining. So, you know, you don’t need to be dressed up or you can come with mud on your boots or however you are and feel like you could just be comfortable in the space and have a good meal. It’s not a five-star restaurant in New York and it’s not a fancy restaurant you’ll find in Bozeman downtown, but it’s clean, it’s comfortable, it’s warm, and that just kind of sets us apart from some other cafes.
AR: What makes you unique in the Bozeman Food scene, but we’re extending it out to Three Forks this month?
JT: When we found out from you about the Bozeman’s Choice Awards, I remember getting that email and it said CONFIDENTIAL and I thought “Oh my gosh, what is this?” I remember emailing you and asking what is this? You won a Bozeman’s Choice! A what? I didn’t even know we’d been nominated and had no idea we were in the voting process, so it came pretty organically, and that was huge. The fact that there’s people watching and voting that love us that I had no idea about. So, to earn that organically was pretty impressive and obviously something was setting us apart that made people from Bozeman want to drive to Three Forks. What I think sets us apart is again that pie which you know there’s just really nowhere to get pie like that in the valley. Perkins closed and there may be a few restaurants or cafes here and there that have them but not to the extent of having 9 or 12 flavors of pie every day. So, I think that people wanted to come out and find out what was different and when they came, they realized not only was the pie amazing and different, but they were pleased to find out that the food wasn’t just Cafe food, that it was made from scratch, made with quality ingredients. What set us apart enough for people to travel from Bozeman and Butte and Helena and all of these places to find out why we had been voted Best Kept Secret. And then this year winning, in addition to Best Kept Secret the Comfort Food and Bozeman’s Choice Servers and Waitstaff that makes people even more want to come out and find out what the food is about. It’s pretty humbling when you go to talk to a customer in the dining room, you don’t know them, they’re not local and you say well, what brings you in? Oh, somebody in Bozeman told us about you or somebody was talking about the Three Forks Pie Lady and so we got in the car and drove to Three Forks. It’s pretty humbling that we made ourselves stand out without even really realizing it.
AR: What do your regulars keep coming back for?
JT: That’s a good question! They keep coming back for the pie! Our number one seller all year is my Bourbon Pecan Pie, made with real bourbon. If I don’t have that on the board every day I get a little crap from the locals because it’s their favorite. Really, they come back for the made-from-scratch comfort food, and they come back because it’s a good environment. It’s clean, its friendly, and they know the quality of food is going to be the same every time they come in. The locals, oh man, we have the most supportive locals ever and it’s evident by what happened during the shutdown. They come back because we treat them well, and we serve them good food. But for sure if we want to answer what is the one food that brings them in? It would be the pie and their love of the pie that we make here.
AR: Since you kind of hinted at it, I’ll ask how has it been running the restaurant through the pandemic?
JT: Well, it’s scary, first of all. On March 16th, 2020, when they sent down the order to shut down for take-out, I was in the preparation of a St. Patrick’s Day special and I thought, oh my word, how in the world am I going to serve all of this corned beef and cabbage in to-gos or have to throw it away. We sold out the next day for just take out, and I thought all right well maybe it won’t be quite so bad. And then of course every two weeks the guidelines change and they changed again and then again and nothing was getting better and I had to furlough employees because I didn’t need servers or dishwashers. I needed a cook and somebody to answer the phone. And because I didn’t know what’s going on and it was my choice, I pretty much worked 13 weeks with no day off so that I can keep our hours the same. It was important to us to not change more things for people. It was already uncertain enough that it was important for me to not say oh we’re not going to be open when we say we’re open. The month before [the shutdown] we actually signed up with an online ordering app without even knowing what was going to happen, so that was beneficial for us for people to order online and utilize curbside pick-up, as well as my husband who had some time off due to the pandemic, started doing a little bit of delivery for us when he was able.
Those kinds of things helped a lot, but really our locals kept us afloat and in business They were amazing; they wanted us to be here on the other side of it and they would order once a week or they would buy a gift certificate or they would come in and buy a whole pie. I was selling more pie during the pandemic than I’ve ever sold before; people wanted to have pie. It was humbling to see that all those pies would be gone on Monday morning, and I would have to start all the way over. We had plenty of weekends where we sold out and I would have no more to sell. The support of the community was humbling and invaluable to us keeping our doors open, and they did it for all the small businesses in town. I had one customer and she said we pick a restaurant a week to go out to eat at to make sure that everybody gets our business and everybody can stay open. So, it wasn’t just us that was getting the support of the locals, everybody had their own plight through the pandemic; some people were affected by income loss and some people weren’t. It really seemed like everybody banded together and made sure everybody was going to be okay. It doesn’t mean your doors were going to stay open, but they did their part to make sure that they showed support when they could. So that’s pretty humbling.
AR: Do you have anything coming up that you’d like the readers to know about?
JT: Yep! We have a new convection oven, so I am no longer cooking eight pies at a time in a residential oven in the back kitchen. I can now cook 20-40 pies at a time, and I am making between 20 and 40 a day to keep up on demand.
There are a few other things coming down; I’m actually going to have pies in Bozeman in a coffee bar. I can’t tell you the name or who yet because it’s not public. Hopefully, they taste them in Bozeman and still want to come to Three Forks and eat at the restaurant.
On March 14, which is Pi Day, we do a buy 3 slices of pie get 1 free, so its kind of a play on the 3.14, and for St. Patrick’s Day this year I will make corned beef and cabbage and a variety of as many green pies as possible: mint, pistachio.
I’m just looking forward to the pandemic sort of coming to a point where we can all get out a bit more and see each other. It really was a kind of a difficult year when you don’t have that normal tourist season and the normal things, which we made the best of and we got through it, but I think I’m really looking forward to the summer when we have people out and about and it’s warm and tourists are out and get to do the things that people say that we do well, which is make those pies, and make them happy with food.
The secret is out. The Iron Horse Cafe & Pie Shop in Three Forks will delight you with pie choices, the staff will make you feel right at home, and the made-from-scratch menu will tickle your tastebuds. You’ve heard the call. It’s time to eat pie!