Colorado Cherry Co., a four-generation pie business, evolves to next level

A family business that started with a roadside pie and cider stand in southeastern Wisconsin and grew into a well-known northern Colorado attraction is evolving again. The fourth generation is leading the way.

Elias Lehnert opened a pie store in northwest Denver in 2020, the fourth location of the family-owned Colorado Cherry Co. He and his wife, Rachel, are going to expand their kitchen and rebrand their side of the business as Legacy Pie Co.

The name change will be official early next year. The 29-year-old Lehnert and his wife wanted to honor the family legacy while putting “pie” front and center.

“It’s exciting for us. The business has such a good foundation,” Lehnert said. “We’re excited to continue to run it. Hopefully, we’ll improve it and build upon it and take it to the next level.”

The Colorado Cherry Co. got its start in 1929 in Lake Geneva, Wis., where Katherine Lehnert began selling her cherry pies and cider.

“They had a little fruit stand where they used local fruit,” Lehnert said of his great-grandparents.

His grandparents, Sunny and Monrico Lehnert, moved to Colorado in the 1950s. His grandfather was a professor at the University of Colorado. The couple transferred the family business to northern Colorado, where they used cherries from the orchards that once grew in the area and ran a shop on the outskirts of Loveland in the summers.

Lehnert’s parents, Anthony and Kristi Lehnert, eventually bought the Loveland store, which is on the road to Rocky Mountain National Park, and another store in Lyons. They added a location at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park about seven years ago.

Although he grew up working in the family business, Lehnert said it took him a while to decide to make it a full-time venture. “I was a little bit of a wandering spirit,” he said.

Lehnert and his wife took a big road trip to Alaska and Mexico.

“We just had a lot of time to think about what we want our personal legacy to be, what we want to do with our time,” said Lehnert, who grew up in Greeley.

He worked with his parents for a couple of years and saw how much people liked the products, which include several kinds of handcrafted sweet as well as savory pies, cider, jellies and jams. His parents’ shops are in touristy areas. He wondered how a shop would fare in Denver.

Lehnert and his wife opened a kind of pop-up pie shop on Tennyson Street, a popular small-business district, in November 2020, in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They started by selling pies out of the big sliding glass window.

The shop now seats 28 and the staff has grown from two to 11 full-time employees and as many as 20 employees overall during the busy seasons. Along with a new name, the shop will have a bigger kitchen and a more compressed seating space. Much of the business is takeout.

Leading up to Thanksgiving, the compact kitchen was bustling and noisy. Sarah Banks, the bakery manager, was pinching the edges of the crusts for mini pies. The store had so many holiday pre-orders by the second week of November that it had to stop taking them.

  • Pies are displayed at Colorado Cherry Company in Denver on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

  • Cranberry for pies are prepared at Colorado Cherry Company in Denver on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

  • Sarah Banks makes pies at Colorado Cherry Company in Denver on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

  • Baked Pecan pies are pictured at Colorado Cherry Company in Denver on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

  • Colorado Cherry Company's exterior in Denver is pictured on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

“This year, we’ll bake at least 4,000 pies in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. We work with a lot of Realtors and different businesses that want to buy pies for their clients,” Lehnert said.

The Denver shop had sold approximately 80,000 pies of all sizes by Nov. 11. Lehnert is upbeat about his plans for the business, saying he has seen how resilient his parents were through devastating floods in northern Colorado, wildfires and the pandemic.

He’s encouraged by the community interest in the business. More than 60 people have contributed to a fundraising effort to expand and upgrade the bakery.

Kristi Lehnert is excited about what her son wants to do with the shop. She joined her son and other family members on a recent segment of ABC’s Good Morning America “United States of Pie” competition. A Colorado Springs bakery was chosen to attend the grand finale in New York.

“I think he’s done an amazing job,” Kristi Lehnert said. “I think he’s way smarter than I ever was. It’s going to be a really fun thing to watch and see how it grows.”

She started getting involved in the family business when her four children were younger. Her husband was in pharmaceutical sales and she started working in her in-laws’ store to make money for her four children’s “braces, hockey and college.”

Eventually, the Colorado Cherry Co. expanded its hours beyond the summer season. The family bought a second building in Lyons and then opened the Stanley Hotel location.

“My mom really led the charge in creating the foundation for the recipes, which are all inspired by my grandma’s simple ingredients done right, done well,” Lehnert said.

His parents added several varieties to the favorite one, cherry pie, which has little hearts on the crust in a nod to Loveland. Other flavors include apple, mixed berry, apple caramel bourbon, peanut butter, cherry cheesecake and such seasonal pies as peach, strawberry rhubarb and pumpkin.

“Elias is even crazier. He’s very creative,” Kristi Lehnert said of her son.

He has made coconut cream, banana cream and maple honey pecan pies. The shop sells hand pies and several different kinds of savory varieties: chicken pot pie, mushroom and vegetables, vegetable curry and bison, bacon, mushroom and stout.

“We want to really highlight that pie can be enjoyed any time of day for meals, for dinner, lunch, breakfast as well as dessert,” Lehnert said. “In America, we have an idea that it’s more a dessert-type thing.”

So, what is his favorite pie? “My favorite pie is cherry pie, 100%,” he said, prompting a few groans from his bakery crew.

“I’m not just saying that. I love it,” Lehnert insisted. “It’s got the right balance of sweet and tart. We’ve perfected our crust. It’s buttery, flaky and crispy. And we’ve got turbinado sugar on the top, which adds that extra crunch.”

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