When I arrive at the bakery barn, Sam Pennington is heading out to the fields, his wife Cathy is packaging jars of jam for a mail order, and their daughter Sloane is finishing a batch of cookies.
Even in the time of quarantine, Pennington Farm’s sliding door opens consistently with people coming for pies, pre-ordered birthday cakes, or maybe an impulse Americano from the new espresso machine.
After Cathy tapes up the last box, we move to a table near the bakery entrance. A woman enters to pick up a birthday cake for her daughter’s thirtieth. Cathy waves her hand at the counter laden with berry pies on doilies and layer cakes in glass display cloches. She smiles, “Relationships are my favorite part of this.”
Cathy loves imagining people receiving gifts of baked goods. Recently, a man bought his mother a Pennington cake for her 93rd birthday—she hadn’t had a birthday cake since she was a teenager.
Cathy recalls her own childhood and says her love of baking likely began when she baked cakes for her brothers, who paid more attention to her when cake was involved. She laughs, “Bakers are the ultimate people pleasers.”
And hard workers. The huge chalkboard behind the counter displays a hand-written menu and “Sam’s thoughts.” Today’s thought reads: “No coulda, shoulda, woulda.”
Many of Sam’s thoughts end up on the Pennington T-shirts. Their merchandise—like all aspects of their business—grew bit by bit. Pennington Farms as it is today wasn’t the original plan.
Cathy laughs, “Most businesses have a business plan. We’re the opposite of that.”
In fact, if you had stopped by the farm when it opened in 1993, you wouldn’t find pies. You’d find flowers.
After Sam and Cathy married in the ‘80s, they moved from Sam’s home state of Hawaii back to Cathy’s home state of Colorado, where they started working for her family’s company. They had a mortgage to pay and kids to raise. Then Cathy gave Sam the book, Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow.
Sam said, “You know what I love to do? Propagate plants.” In Hawaii, everything had grown. In Denver—well….Sam started by planting their entire suburban yard with lilies. Then he approached the top florist in town who said she needed hydrangeas and peonies—so he planted those. The flowers sold, and soon, the Pennington’s were wholesaling to nationwide distributors.
When Sam and Cathy bought what is now Pennington Farms in the Applegate Valley of Oregon, they intended to continue planting flowers and selling them at the local growers markets. On a whim, Sam planted berries because he thought the family would enjoy them. And then he planted more berries.
They began selling tayberry and loganberry jam at the growers market. But people kept asking for raspberry and blackberry jam, so Sam kept planting. Even after selling berries, there were too many for even a family of seven to eat. With the excess fruit, the Pennington’s started making jam. Then pies. Though they still sell flowers to local florist Penny & Lulu, the farm is now known for its berries and baked goods.
It was a slow evolution. Cathy says, “Almost twenty years in, and it still feels like we’re only half-way there.”
And new ideas keep coming. Like the nods to Hawaii: Lion’s coffee, Pali sandals, and the Palaka plaid used on gift boxes. This red-and-white plaid was worn like denim by workers on Hawaiian plantations in the early 1900’s—a good fit both for the Pennington’s signature red logo and for celebrating their own workers.
As Cathy mentions this, she adds, “We always want to keep our crew employed and pay them sustainable wages.” And they do; the same berry pickers have worked on the farm for decades.
A couple walks in, and Cathy greets them by name. While they shop, she tells me, “You can buy great jam anywhere. But it’s all about the relationships.”
From their crew to their customers, the Pennington’s love the people of the Applegate. It’s a distinctive nook in the Northwest, where regulars might be long-term ranchers or tattooed #VanLife hipsters. The Pennington family offers something sweet to anyone who walks through their door, stops by their farm stand, or places a mail order.
“We’re all given gifts,” Cathy says. “When we use those gifts for others—that’s success. You wouldn’t start a farm or a bakery for riches. It’s about the lifestyle and relationships.”
Like their Instagrammable treats, the Pennington lifestyle is a rich one—rich in pies and people and everything in between.
Author’s Note: I can vouch for the wonderful relationships the Pennington’s create. Once upon a summer growers market, I met my fiancé at their farm stand. Of course, we’ll be serving Pennington pie at the wedding.