In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating the most iconic female figures on our supermarket shelves—both real and fictional—who have shaped the way we cook and eat over the last century.
Today, the name Marie Callender is practically synonymous with pie. Whether you’ve stocked your freezer with her apple pies, or dug into a chocolate cream pie at one of her namesake restaurants, chances are you’ve eaten a slice—or 20—of Marie Callender’s creations over the years. So who was Marie Callender, and how did her pies become such a staple of American life?
Once upon a time Marie Callender—a real woman who launched a food empire out of a tiny shack—was just a girl in search of a job. After answering a help-wanted ad for a local delicatessen, Marie began to bake pies for the shop out of her home, quickly becoming a hit with customers. The deli owner encouraged her to expand her business and begin selling to other restaurants and pie hungry customers.
In order to fund her bakery ambitions, Marie and her husband, Cal, sold their car for $700 and converted a Quonset hut in Long Beach, California, into a wholesale bakery, where Marie churned out pies for her son to sell to area restaurants.
In a 1986 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Marie explained how arduous the early days of their bakery operation were: “There were only three of us, and there were no machines. We had three rolling pins and this old oven, and we used to work all night.”
And while that hard work eventually paid off, it was a slow and steady process. Marie and Cal continued their operation with marginal financial success for 16 years, making over 200 cream and fruit pies every day, before Don, Marie’s only child, convinced his parents to open their own restaurant called Marie Callender’s Pie Shop.
The brick-and-mortar location, which opened in Orange, California in 1964, initially sold just pie and coffee, but eventually expanded their menu to include savory items, like soup and sandwiches, from Marie’s own recipe collection. Meanwhile Don Callender, who oversaw the business, worked on expanding the café into additional locations, eventually overseeing 146 Marie Callender’s locations nationwide. In 1986 Don sold the restaurant company to Ramada Inc. for $80 million.
Though the Marie Callender empire got its start as a restaurant chain, the name became a larger part of the American lexicon after it was licensed to frozen food manufacturers. Though the Marie Callender’s pies that you’ll find in the frozen food aisle weren’t necessarily Marie’s original recipes, her name, image, and reputation as a pie master have allowed the brand to maintain its homey identity. Now the Marie Callender name in the frozen food market is owned by food giant ConAgra, who creates upwards of 200,000 single serve frozen apple pies per day alone… just a few more than Marie created in her own kitchen each day.
FEATURED RECIPE: Marie Callender Apple and Cherry Pie Trifle
Sales of Marie Callender’s frozen desserts, dinners, and pot pies made $800 million annually as of 2011, making the name of this humble and hardworking baker from California one of the most valuable in the food world.
Although Marie passed away in 1995 at age 88 from cancer, her name and face will live on in perpetuity as one of the most influential and comforting characters to ever bring her baked goods into our homes.