From Local Craft Shows to National Acclaim - The Blue Owl Cooks up Big Business

July 4, 2013 

What “favorite” do Oprah and many Metro East residents share? The Blue Owl Restaurant in Kimmswick, Mo., and its famous Levee-High Caramel Apple Pecan Pie, of course.

The restaurant’s special made-from-scratch menu, homespun charm and its much-touted pie have been regional favorites for years. More recently, they have gained national acclaim by being featured on The Food Network, The Travel Channel and NBC’s Today Show -- and reached superstar status by making the list of Oprah’s Favorite Things in O Magazine.

What most people don’t realize, though, is that Mary Hostetter, owner of The Blue Owl and creator of the famed foot-tall pie, got her start in business selling baked goods at craft shows like those at the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds. And Belleville area customers, among her strongest supporters from the beginning, have continued to be a vital part of her business.

Growing up cooking

Cooking and baking were an important part of Hostetter’s growing-up years in south Texas.

“My mom and my grandma, who lived right around the corner, were both great bakers,” she said. “Mom wasn’t one of these who said, ‘Get out of the way,’ when we came into the kitchen.”

Instead, she and her siblings hung around watching - and helping. “I learned how to make homemade yeast rolls, German strudel coffee cake, kuchen plum cake and a lot more. There were five of us kids, and we can all cook.”

A change in plans

Despite her love for cooking and baking, she didn’t originally aspire to use those skills anyway other than as a stay-at-home mom preparing food for her family.

That all changed, however, when she found herself suddenly divorced, with two young daughters to support.

“I was 1,000 miles away from family, and I had to find a way to make a living to keep a roof over our heads.”

So, in August 1983, she started her home-based “From the Kitchen of Mary”, precursor to The Blue Owl. To get ready for weekend craft shows, she would work Monday through Friday preparing doughs, then bake in the evening with help from neighbors. There would be Hungarian butter horns, Russian tea cakes, pecan tartlets, Greek baklava, cinnamon nut crescents, cheesecake, carrot cake, pies, butter cookies and others.

Metro East from the start

One Belleville craft show was especially successful in those early, lean times. “There was a huge craft show at the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds on Thanksgiving weekend. That was such a big show for me. I sold baked goods, by the piece or by the dozen, and pastry trays - everything people’s moms used to make, but now no one has time to bake themselves.

“And I would take orders, go home and bake, then bring them back to Belleville where people would meet me close to the fairgrounds to pick them up.”

For the 1984 Christmas season, she had orders for 30,000 cookies to fill in just three weeks.

Working out of her small kitchen, with just one full-size oven, supplemented by a tiny compact model, “I had to work 21 hours a day, seven days a week to get them all ready.”

Crafts shows to restaurateur

After that back-breaking holiday, Hostetter knew she had to find a better way to serve her customers.

She had met the owner of a Kimmswick business who offered to sell Hostetter’s baked goods. That eventually led her to meeting Lucianna Ross, “the matriarch of historic Kimmswick’s restoration.” Ross offered Hostetter a no-strings lease on The Blue Owl, which Ross had named after an old pub in Kensington, England.

She opened the restaurant in August 1985 with five staff and a goal of serving 30 people a day. From that humble start, the restaurant has now grown to a staff of 75, with 300 customers on weekdays and more on the weekend.

“I had never run a restaurant before, but my philosophy was to provide delicious food and friendly service in a warm and charming setting. And I’ve always been blessed with a beautiful staff. We want people to feel like they are company coming into our home to make memories.”

Signature dishes at The Blue Owl have come to include many comfort foods: soups such as creamy spinach and bacon, white chili and creamy Vidalia onion; entrees like the southern fried chicken with country gravy and homemade chicken and dumplings; and a long list of Hostetter’s made-from-scratch desserts.

“The greatest compliment is when people compare dishes to those they grew up with - like Grandma’s. Then you know it’s really, really special.”

The Flood of 1993

Though things were going well for Hostetter and The Blue Owl through the early 1990s, the Great Flood of 1993 put the restaurant’s future - and the very existence of the river town of Kimmswick -- in peril.

With the Mississippi River waters steadily rising, the town was evacuated, and The Blue Owl was shuttered for at least two months while Kimmswick’s levee, located just a stone’s throw from the restaurant, was sandbagged. At one point, with the flood level just inches from topping the 50-foot levee, Hostetter expected The Blue Owl would be underwater within hours. Fortunately, the water level started to drop instead, and she was soon able to reopen.

From disaster to delicious

Back in business, Hostetter was determined to find a positive way to remember the flooding while moving forward. She came up with the now famous levee high apple pie, so named because the pie’s high dome resembled the levee’s shape.

Little did she know that the pie would wind up catapulting the quaint eatery into the national spotlight, beginning in 2006 when it was featured on Jamie and Bobby Deen’s Road Tasted show, aired by The Food Network.

As a condition of its selection for the show, The Blue Owl had to be willing to accept orders and ship the pie, a feat that would require an oversized box, dry ice and second-day air shipping speed -- and cost $125 per pie.

Hostetter was sure they would never actually ship a pie with a rate that high and was astonished when so many orders rolled in as soon as the show aired, that the restaurant’s website crashed.

Since that time, she has been able to negotiate shipping contracts to substantially lower shipping rates, and the business has shipped more than 10,000 pies.

Continuing growth

The shipping part of the business has continued to grow. Now many of The Blue Owl’s desserts can be ordered online and shipped to customers through the Blue Owl’s House Springs, Mo., production facility, which opened in 2011 - just in time to handle the flood of orders that followed exposure on the Today Show and Oprah’s List of Favorites.

The Blue Owl has also expanded in other directions: making wedding cakes, doing dessert buffets for large gatherings and offering restaurant cookbooks. In addition, Hostetter has opened three Blue Owl Sweet Shoppes, dessert/ice cream/candy stores reminiscent of the soda fountains she fondly recalls from her own childhood.

She handles the expanding business with much help from daughter Kim Warner, who manages all The Blue Owl’s sidelines “so I can stay at the restaurant and concentrate on being with our customers” and the support of husband Jerry Claywell. (They married in 2000, after a 15-year courtship).

“I was perfectly happy being a stay-at-home mom, making that family dinner. Now I just feel like I’ve extended that dinner table, that atmosphere of love, warmth and tender-loving care to the families who come here.”

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