Almost exactly a year ago, My Dee Dee's Pie Shoppe on West Gulf Bank burned to the ground. Owner Bella-Katherine Curtis's home was connected to the shop as well. It was not insured. Out of 8,000 square feet, 5,000 burned.
Looters quickly ransacked the place, taking anything they could that was portable and of any value.
It was another in a list of tragedies that began when her son was hit and killed by a car a few years before. Tropical Storm Allison took the roof off of her shop and it wasn't until after Hurricane Ike that it was replaced.
Chefs, bakers and other Houstonians rallied and hosted a fundraiser at the now-closed Haven restaurant. $10,000 was raised. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to get Curtis back in business.
"We knew it wouldn't be enough," said Randy Evans, the chef who was at Haven and is now a restaurant consultant. "It was a stop-gap measure to help her fill Christmas pie orders and keep supplying her side-business places like Barbeque Inn."
"$10,000 might get you a square foot of a vent hood in a commercial space," said Rebecca Masson, who is working on getting her own shop, Fluff Bake Bar, open in Midtown. "$10,000 might get you two convection ovens. A professional Hobart mixer costs $9,000."
Thanks to the fundraiser, Curtis recovered enough to borrow other places' ovens and supply restaurants like Barbeque Inn, Doyle's and Segari's with pies. She's been able to cover her living expenses with the income, but it's nothing like selling 2,000 pies for Thanksgiving as she used to do. And it's definitely not enough to allow her to replace her old pie shop and deli.
She also spent about $7,000 cleaning up the burned areas of her old business so she could reopen in the same spot. "I thought I could use the front of the building to open the shop in again."
Then she hit a roadblock.
"The MUD in the area wanted $6,000 to provide water because it's commercial, not residential," explained Curtis. "I had a hard time getting them to even turn the water on to my house after that."
Curtis says that she's been offered a space that is not suitable as a restaurant, but she could potentially use it as a commissary. She had made arrangements with Java Java to set up a pie pickup kiosk, but then that property has apparently already been sold.
At this point, Curtis needs a commercial pizza oven and a convection oven in order to get out pie orders in volume and to be able to rebuild her business in earnest.
"I get 30 calls a day from people wanting my pies. I just had to turn down an order for 500 pies. I can't fill the orders." Indeed, I had to call Curtis multiple times yesterday because her voice mail is full of messages from customers who are begging for pies for Thanksgiving.
I asked Curtis why she didn't try setting up a Kickstarter or a GoFundMe campaign. "I don't really know how to do that," says Curtis.
Evans concurs. "Yeah, I don't think she's really hip to the technology." After all, she's a baker, not a computer whiz.
Evans and Masson agree that, even after their fundraising efforts last year, Curtis is still deserving of help and makes some of the best pies in town. "I would not put my name behind someone I don't trust," says Masson.
When asked why Curtis couldn't go rent commercial kitchen space, both Masson and Evans said that it's a lot easier said than done. "Commercial kitchen rentals have become extremely expensive," says Masson. "It's a commodity now." Evans agrees. "The hardest thing now is finding space," he says. "With all the food trucks and other independent businesses needing it, there's nothing available."
Why are so many people heartbroken that there won't be a My Dee Dee's pie on the table for Thanksgiving? "All her crusts are hand-rolled," said Evans. "She does everything by hand."
Co-owner Wayne Skrehot of Barbeque Inn says of Curtis's pies, "They're all good. Our customers compliment them all the time and we sell about 50 a week here." His personal favorite is the coconut.
Reader Barbara J. wrote to Houston Press and brought Curtis's situation to our attention, saying, "These are seriously the best pies in the city. I've probably tried all the other places and hers cannot be beat. Please, if you've ever had a great pie, do this. And, if you've never had one, it's all the more reason to do it so you can taste what I'm raving about."
"My pies are as good as Grandma's," says Curtis. "and all I want to do is get back to work."
If you are interested in assisting Curtis, please call her directly at 281-448-5309. At the very least, maybe someone can help her start an online fundraising campaign.