By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
The story of Angie’s Pies, the new pecan and pumpkin pleasures on sale for the holidays at Canyon 49 Grill, begins a little more than a year ago. Robert Vera noticed Angie Celis washing a Grand Canyon University Hotel window and struck up a conversation.
“Robert, what do you do here at GCU?” she asked the Director of the Canyon Ventures Center.
He, in turn, wanted to know what her job was and was startled to learn that she previously had been a pastry chef at The Phoenician resort in Scottsdale. She also told him that she dreamed of owning her own pastry company.
Why was she washing windows? Her reason for coming to GCU was simple and simply heroic: She wanted to give her children an opportunity to attend college.
“I told him I left my career for my kids so they could have a better opportunity,” she said.
GCU’s employee tuition benefit – free tuition for employees and their dependents – made that opportunity possible. Her daughter, Alexis, is now a sophomore nursing student.
But Vera wondered why a skilled baker was dealing with panes instead of pastries. So he asked her to bake her special pecan pie for him.
She wondered if she was up to it. She had left behind her career six years ago. But her husband told her that it’s like riding a bicycle, so off she went to get the ingredients and make that pie.
Vera was blown away. She remembers the conversation going like this:
“Robert told me, ‘Oh my God, Angie! This is so good! You could make your own company.’”
“Robert, I don’t speak English very well, I don’t have money, I don’t have experience, I know nothing about business.”
“A lot of people can help you.”
“Robert, you’re my angel.”
Vera took the pie to Brett Cortright, General Manager of GCU Hotel and Canyon 49 Grill (“My other angel,” Celis said), and Angie’s Pies was born. They’re on sale – pecan or pumpkin – for $15 each and can be purchased here. A dollar from each sale goes to GCU’s Give with Purpose campaign.
Cortright said it is an example of a key aspect of the University’s Five-Point Plan – creating jobs for people in the neighborhood – in action. GCU President Brian Mueller has talked often about helping local entrepreneurs start food businesses, and “Angie would be the perfect person for something like that,” Cortright said, adding:
“Brian Mueller describes how valuable and how life-changing it can be for an immigrant from another country who can make food that we don’t experience every day. They can run their own business and we can be the catalyst who helps make that happen.”
Lots of bakeries offer pecan and pumpkin pies, of course. But there’s a difference between good and great, and that’s where Celis’ creations stand out.
“Pumpkin pie, in my opinion, is one of these things where it takes a little more for it to taste superior to what you’re used to,” he said. “Pecan pie, you take a bite and in a second it’s wonderful or subpar. Pumpkin pie, they’re almost all in the middle of the field, and then every once in awhile you have one that’s so good, and that’s kind of where Angie’s are at. She’s definitely operating at a high level.”
Cortright is all about giving opportunities to students as well as neighborhood residents, and another recent GCU Hotel/Canyon 49 development demonstrates that attitude: Kelsey Schultz is the new student general manager.
Schultz has the best of both worlds these days. She doesn’t graduate until next spring, when the world hopes the pandemic will have eased, and she’s still getting to learn about the hospitality industry in a high-profile role.
“Everyone was very uncertain about this year, but I get to see how much the industry bounced back from it with creativity and innovation,” she said. “We can’t have people sitting inside, so let’s do delivery. Or let’s have to-go drinks. How can we get people to still come in? How can we do dinners-to-go, dinner-for-two, desserts.
“It’s been really cool to see how the industry has combatted it. It’s just doing things in a different way. It’s been cool to be a student in this time and not have a full-time position I got furloughed from. I’ve been able to see it from an outside perspective of what I’m going into.”
Cortright works closely with Dr. Jennifer Elfenbein, hospitality management instructor in the Colangelo College of Business, to equate the experiences students receive in class to what they do for the Canyon 49 Grill and GCU Hotel. For example, Schultz’s classwork involved labor data and employee scheduling, and she’s applying those ideas to the hotel.
Schultz started as a hostess and has done just about every job in the hotel and restaurant, and they all have one thing in common – customer service. Cortright makes sure of that.
The fact that they get to do so many different types of jobs makes what they learn that much more valuable.
“Before I graduate, I will have those soft skills of communicating with people, making phone calls, emailing professionally instead of having just been a hostess,” she said. “It’s been a very good learning experience.”
Schultz took over as manager when her predecessor, Karen Madlock, graciously stepped aside to give her the opportunity to do the job. Madlock, who graduates in December, stayed on to do social media and wait tables.
Both will be recognized at the tree-lighting ceremony the Grill plans for Dec. 3. That event also will feature the awarding of the Dave Landau Scholarship to a deserving hospitality student who then will get to plan and execute the end-of-academic-year awards ceremony next spring.
“This program is working,” Cortright said. “We identify these students who are operationally savvy and educationally productive and successful, then put them into these positions where they have more responsibility and get to use more initiative to create the projects that are their responsibility.
“Watching them among their peers and watching them separate themselves from the group, it’s really incredible. They develop this adult-like, management-like persona and characteristics – it’s blown me away.”
Just like Angie’s Pies.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].