“I like peeling the peaches the best,” says Lisa Wichert, of her favorite task at The Happy Apple in Oak Park’s Harrison street Arts District ( (226 Harrison St, Oak Park).
“That’s because it’s so appealing;” laughs Jenny Pirricone, as she presses pie dough into circles, “we make a lot of pie puns around here.”
The kitchen erupts into groans and laughter as kitchen coach, Debbi Melin, chimes in, “The secret ingredient at The Happy Apple is happy employees.”
Peaches in any form are a late summer treat in my book, but my longing for a tried-and-true peach pie lead me to the kitchens at The Happy Apple pie shop this week. And, trust me, you can feel the love in their kitchen.The bright space buzzes with energy, while hardworking pie-makers tackle seemingly mundane tasks, like peeling apples or pitting cherries, with notable enthusiasm and cheer.
“Each and every Happy Apple employee is meticulous about their work” says Happy Apple owner Michelle Mascaro proudly, “and together we craft meticulous pie.” In fact, each and every pie at The Happy Apple is individually hand crafted.
The Happy Apple has been in business for a year-and-a-half and relies on a unique blended work environment where people with and without developmental and intellectual disabilities work side-by-side crafting pies every day. Mascaro and her kitchen coaches find a role for every one who wants to work at the happy apple; the business shifts job descriptions as needed to include the abilities of each individual employee. The shop is even laid out to ensure the kitchen area is roomy enough to accommodate wheelchairs.
“I feel especially proud of our South Oak Park location,” says Mascaro of her fully-accessible shop, ” I am proud to say we’ve established a genuine sense of community and our customers feel a connection with our product because they’re able to connect with our staff—especially those with special needs.”
As the shop’s name suggests their primary focus is making apple pies. In fact, workers in the bustling shop are known to peel more than 150 pounds of apples each week. While many folks would mindlessly toss this waste aside, the peels generated at the shop are transferred to Glen Art Farm in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. The goats at the farm feed on the peels and in turn The Happy Apple uses the goat milk produced on the farm to make the cheese used in their sweet and savory hand-pies as well as their quiches.
This “apple first” establishment does feature an assortment of fruit pies in addition to their signature apple pies and relies on seasonal produce to drive their rotating menu. Peak peach season has brought an abundance of perfect Michigan peaches to the Happy Happy apple via Ellis Family Farm in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
Wichert, a Door County, Wisconsin native, acquired her job at the Happy Apple through word of mouth more than a year ago. She loves the peach pies they churn out at The Happy Apple best-of-all because she enjoys peeling the fruit. She also appreciates the fleeting nature of peach season.
“You can only get these pies once a year,” Wichert says with pride, “and these peaches are juicy and sweet!”
Mascaro calls her approach to pie-baking “fruit-forward.” That means she and her eager crew keep recipes as simple as possible to let the fruit flavor shine through; a less-is-more approach is the key to success at The Happy Apple. According to Mascaro the hallmarks of a perfect peach pie are all about preserving the integrity of the peaches. A Happy Apple peach pie celebrates true peach flavor without too much interference. Mascaro uses an intentionally light hand when it comes to spicing all of her her fruit pies, but really pulls back on her peach pies so flavorings don’t overpower the filling. She adds a few sweet spices and relies on a little punch from fresh ginger to off-set the tartness of the fresh peaches.
“Ginger and peach are a prefect pairing,” says Mascaro, “but I would never say we make a ginger-peach pie because we only use spices to enhance the fruit; I am betting most people wouldn’t even be able to name ginger as an ingredient.”
Peach pies, like all of The Happy Apple’s seasonal fruit pies, are sold on a “when they’re gone they’re gone” basis. A Happy Apple peach pie is a get it while you can experience and you can get one now. August 24th is National Peach Pie Day and The Happy Apple will have full and mini pies available to mark the day. Stop by for a slice; you really can taste the happy in a every bite of a Happy Apple peach pie.
Other PEACHY things happening at The Happy Apple:
Art Nights at The Happy Apple: Beginning in September The Happy Apple will host artists on the first Friday of every month. Mascaro looks forward to displaying and selling the work of visual artists and hosting musicians as well. The evenings will feature people of all abilities. If you are interesting in participating please send Michelle Mascaro an email at email@example.com
Happy Apple Catering: Lisa Whlchert, and her fellow Happy Apple employees, remember making 980 pies for one gala and she is ready to do it again; don’t forget The Happy Apple is ready to cater your next event.
Compost for Sale: The Happy Apple also sells the compost from the Glen Art Farm in their shop; you can pick up a bag for use in your home garden.