How a pie on the Rock became a brand and legend

Whidbey Pies is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.

For more than half a century, loganberries were the Rock’s most famous crop. More than 100 acres were grown at the Greenbank Farm; it was the largest loganberry producer in the world. Most of the berries were turned into wine or “Whidbey’s Liqueur” by Chateau Ste. Michelle, which owned the farm until 1997. Tourists came by droves to the annual Loganberry Festival, which featured entertainment, games and lots of food.

And, as a young boy born on Whidbey in the 1980s, Joe Gunn followed his mom Jan Gunn on you-pick days at the farm to gather loganberries for delicious pies she baked to serve as dessert at the Gunn family’s tiny Whidbey Fish restaurant next to the Greenbank Store.

Today, the loganberry vines, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Whidbey Fish are long gone. But thankfully Mrs. Gunn’s pies have grown into a big local business that continues to spread the Rock’s fame and sweet goodness far and wide.

I spent a recent morning chatting with Joe Gunn, who purchased his mom’s Whidbey Pies business in 2016. Many of us have eaten a slice or bought a whole Whidbey Pie, but most of us don’t know how it all happened. The business is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, and it now produces an amazing 2,500 pies a week for sale throughout the Puget Sound region — most of them not on Whidbey.

“We started the fish restaurant in 1986 because mom wanted an income to help support our family,” he said. “It became very popular with long lines out the door at that tiny place, and the loganberry pies were a big part of the attraction. People always wanted to buy one to take home.”

After his dad Thom Gunn got seriously ill in the mid-1990s, the family closed the fish restaurant but continued to sell individual pies to local residents and wholesale quantities to store chains such as Larry’s Markets in Seattle. “I was washing dishes and helping mom make pies all through my school years here,” Joe said. (He graduated from South Whidbey High School in 2003.)

Then, in 2000, Whidbey Pies took a dramatic new turn. By then, the Port of Coupeville had taken ownership of the Greenbank Farm, after a community outcry halted a huge residential development that would have destroyed the iconic barn and picturesque farmland. Port officials asked Jan Gunn to open a café in a space that had been the Chateau Ste. Michelle gift shop. It was only slightly larger than her old fish restaurant and it had no kitchen. Food—including the pies—was prepared at the Gunn family home nearby and brought by car to the new café. “It was bare-bones, to put it mildly,” Joe said.

Jan Gunn and Laura Blankenship, then the executive director of the farm, went to Olympia and lobbied for financial help to install a kitchen in the café. “They brought our pies and talked to various legislators, and it worked. They got a grant and put in the kitchen.”

Over the years, Whidbey Pies Café built an extremely loyal clientele among local residents and visitors alike, who returned time after time for its famed soup, sandwiches and pie. After Joe and his older sister Lily went away to college, Jan Gunn continued to build the business around a group of loyal employees – a few of whom are still there today.

His mother used to tell him that “someday this could all be yours; I could go face down in a pie!” But Joe, at the time, wasn’t buying it. “I wanted to get out as fast as I could, just play soccer and become a photographer.” He spent a summer in Europe and then attended the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he met his wife Jessie, who was studying at UC Santa Barbara.

After college in 2006, he moved to New York City and made a living as a freelance photographer. Jessie joined him and they enjoyed the energy and creativity of New York for the next eight years.

Then, in 2014, they moved back to Whidbey just about the time Jan Gunn was getting ready to sell Whidbey Pies. Because Joe and his sister had told her they didn’t want it, Jan was about to accept an offer from someone else. “I said, do we really want to pass this up?” He didn’t; Joe bought the business in 2016.

“It was a vehicle to give us the quality of life we were looking for,” he said. “New York was fun but we wanted to have a family and a yard and a dog.” (Jessie and Joe now have two young children.)

As a millennial with big-city experience, he quickly set to work modernizing and expanding things at Whidbey Pies. He took a commercial space in Freeland and installed large commercial ovens and a space to package pies for delivery. Today, about 90 percent of the 2,500 pies it makes every week are sent to two grocery chains in the Seattle area: Metropolitan Markets and PCC Community Markets. It also sells frozen ready-to-bake and some baked pies to Rock markets including the Goose in Bayview, Payless in Freeland and Three Sisters Market in San de Fuca.

Last year, in order to concentrate on the growing wholesale pie business, Joe sold the Whidbey Pies Café to new owners who have rechristened it as Old Spots Bistro. It still proudly offers Whidbey pies to its diners.

For now, the pies are still assembled at the original production space at Greenbank Farm and taken to Freeland for baking and shipping. But Joe is in the process of building a new, much larger production site near the Freeland facility. It’s intended to give the company the ability to produce more pies to meet a growing demand.

After 35 years, Whidbey Pies has become an established brand well beyond the island, and Joe Gunn, its second generation owner, intends to keep nourishing and growing it.

He says the business that started in his mom’s kitchen 35 years ago is teaching him both how to manage and to live.

“It’s taught me to create a workplace that is beneficial to everybody in more ways that just making money.”

Today, the company produces three flavors year round: apple, marionberry and cherry. It adds seasonal flavors as other fruit becomes available: triple berry, rhubarb, peach and others.

And, yes, it still produces loganberry pies. Just not in great quantities.

“We have one grower who still produces them in Oregon and we buy all we can once a year,” Joe said. “They’re hard to produce – just as Greenbank Farm unfortunately found out decades ago.”

Harry Anderson is a former journalist for the Los Angeles Times currently living on Central Whidbey.