Before Arlene Botta opened The Measuring Cup Cafe in East Dundee, she sold pie at the Old Dundee Farmers Market.
Every Saturday morning Botta arrived armed with the 50 pies she made in her home and within three to four hours, she would be completely sold out.
One particular morning, Botta sat down after her morning rush and watched as an agitated woman raced up the street. Fearing the woman was experiencing an emergency, she worried and wondered what the problem might be.
Finally the woman rushed to Botta's booth and stood, bent over at the waist and gasping for air. Finally she choked out, "Thank God you're not out of pie!"
Botta's husband Marco looked on in amazement and commented, "It's time to open a restaurant."
Botta hadn't always been a baker. She worked at the Chicago Stock Exchange for 10 years and cooked and baked as a hobby. In 2001, her daughter Yania Noriega suggested Botta follow her heart and that became a light bulb moment.
"I always had a passion for cooking, I just never thought of it as a career," Botta said.
Soon after, she enrolled in The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, Le Cordon Bleu, graduating in 2003. She went on to become a personal chef and caterer in Chicago under the business name Arlene's Ala Cart.
In 2007, Botta and her husband began looking to move to the Fox Valley to be closer to her husband's children from a previous marriage. Botta began making pies to sell at the Old Dundee Farmers Market, while she looked for a location to permanently open shop.
Finally, in May of 2008 a small location opened at the dead end of River Road on Barrington Avenue, behind a gun store, just north of the farmers market. With the help of her daughter, now an architectural and design student, Botta planned a cozy cafe with an outdoor patio next to a bike path.
Once she opened The Measuring Cup Cafe, Botta branched out. Her menu now includes sandwiches, homemade soups, quiche, hand made pizza, and salads. She also serves breakfast pizzas and buns (bread with scrambled eggs, cheese and herbs baked inside) on Saturday mornings.
Her baked goods selections have also expanded with a variety of cookies, muffins and the occasional cake.
But it's the pie that stokes Botta's creative juices and the expansive list on the blackboard on the back wall of her shop testifies to that creativity.
Among the temptations are: strawberry banana, raspberry, peach strudel, dark sweet cherry, crabapple, apple and triple berry, double chocolate mousse, pumpkin. banana crème, coconut crème. Other pie varieties include shepherd's, tomato and caramelized onion and quiche.
A category of pies Botta believes can only be found at her store are her wine pies, a concept Botta is considering trade marking.
"It's my creation. I like dessert wines and I thought, that should work in a pie. But the recipe is a trade secret."
Botta offers a blackberry merlot, and strawberry Champagne and peach sangria.
"I'm still working on more," she said.
Botta finds herself perpetually working on ideas for pie.
"Different things inspire me," she said. "It's a challenge and it's fun. It's an art, it's a culinary art."
Her inspiration also includes local produce. Once or twice a week she shops for ingredients, so the seasons affect her recipes.
"I handpick all of my ingredients," she said. "I think when you use quality ingredients it makes the work easier. And my space is limited. My problem is your advantage because I can't buy in bulk. I have to get fresh."
Last summer, Botta even grew her own vegetables and herbs in the space behind her restaurant. One of the results was a quiche that captured the sweet bursting taste of summer tomatoes.
"Being in a grocery store is like being in a toy store for me," Botta said. "It opens up a whole new world. Any chef likes to take ingredients to the next level and that became my passion here," Botta said. "And who doesn't like pie? It's an old-fashioned market that's wonderful and traditional."
But before inspiration strikes, Botta begins with a simple crust: flaky, dense and a little salty.
"If you don't have a good crust, you don't have a good pie. It doesn't matter what you put in there."
Some of her creations are responses to the sign in her store that reads: "If you have something more in mind, please ask."
"I was creating an Almond Joy pie when he (a frequent customer named Ted) walked by," Botta said.
Ted related that his favorite candy was Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Soon the Ted pie was born and has subsequently become a best seller.
She is currently working on a "just like mom used to make" pie for another customer.
"On Thursday I have a pie which is a graham cracker crust with butterscotch filling and a chocolate topping and I hope it's as good as his mom's," she said.
Seating is limited at The Measuring Cup. There are only a few chairs and a small table. During the summer Botta's patio provided a relaxing place to savor and recommend her food to inquisitive bicyclists on the adjoining bike trail, but in the winter, takeout comfort food is the norm.
"I'm going to focus on stews, casseroles, shepherd's pie, things that are easy to take home."
The holidays bring along a new challenge as the pie orders are already streaming in. Botta likes the idea that her pies will become part of family traditions.
"Last Thanksgiving I was thinking, 'my pies are in the middle of someone's Thanksgiving table, creating memories.' Food does that," Botta observed. "That's why food is such a passion for me."
The Measuring Cup Café
Where: 217 Barrington Ave., East Dundee
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed on Wednesday and Sunday.
Menu: Features pie, baked goods, sandwiches and soups
Info: Call (224) 484-8233 or visit themeasuringcupcafe.com