You may immediately conjure up images of pie when you hear the name Marie Callender’s, but are you thinking about their berry pies, all-American apple pie, or cream pies? Or are you imagining their savory chicken pot pies? One woman’s knack for baking pies would eventually inspire a restaurant chain and a line of frozen foods.
The Marie Callender’s brand is named for a real person. Marie Callender, the woman behind all those pies, might not have known they would become her life’s work when she started baking pies professionally in her early-40s (via Los Angeles Times). Shortly after she started working at a deli in Long Beach, California, the owner asked Callender to bake pies for his business. She found the work exhausting — baking dozens of pies a day and lugging 100-pound sacks of flour. Rather than give up on her newfound line of work, Callender took her boss’ suggestion and went into the pie-baking business for herself.
Pies were baked in the window of the first Marie Callender’s restaurant
Marie Callender, her husband Cal, and their son Don had a surefire recipe for success: hard work and Marie’s pies. According to interviews with Marie and Don Callender in the Los Angeles Times, Don Callender would bake pies all night, and Cal would hit the streets to sell them wholesale during the day. "Everybody predicted we’d go broke, but we outlived ’em all," said Marie. "So we knew we had something better."
Don, however, wasn’t satisfied with the family’s modest success in the wholesale pie business. He encouraged his mother to open the family’s first restaurant in Orange, California, in 1964. That first little shop was an instant hit, in part because of Don’s idea of giving free slices of pie and cups of coffee to new customers. "We put the oven in the window, so people could see the pies going in and out of the oven — I think that interested people," Marie shared.
Marie Callender’s was so successful at enticing customers, it quickly began opening new locations, the first in La Habra and Anaheim, according to The Orange County Register.
Marie Callender’s restaurant chain expanded its menu and its reach
By the end of the 1960s, Marie Callender’s had expanded its menu beyond just pies and coffee, offering hamburgers, sandwiches, salads, and chili (via Funding Universe). Around this time, the Marie Callender’s chain had grown to 26 locations, mainly in southern California. Next, Marie Callender’s restaurants began opening through franchisees, in Houston, Texas and Las Vegas, Nevada.
Don Callender was in charge of the chain’s expansion. Instead of having each Marie Callender’s restaurant look like all the others, he made sure they were built in a variety of architectural styles. The interiors, meanwhile, got a cozy, English country look that Don Callender thought would be the right atmosphere for their homestyle fare.
The 1970s brought a lot more growth. By the end of that decade, Marie Callender’s had 84 locations in seven states, according to the Houston Business Journal. In 1986, when Marie Callender’s had 120 locations, Don Callender cashed out. He sold the chain to Ramada for $80 million, according to Don’s 2009 Los Angeles Times obituary.
Financial troubles began after the family sold Marie Callender’s
Don Callender agreed to sell the Marie Callender’s restaurant chain to Ramada after rejecting offers from Marriott and others, in part because the sale agreement kept Don in charge of the company for another five years, according to the Los Angeles Times. But what seemed like a sweet deal coming out of the oven in 1986 turned sour shortly after. Another Los Angeles Times article, published in 1988, reported that Callender sued Ramada for not giving him any real power in the company. In any case, Ramada sold Marie Callender’s in 1990 to the Wilshire Restaurant Group, per the Houston Business Journal.
As Funding Universe explained it, each transaction sent Marie Callender’s deeper in debt. The business defaulted on its loans under Wilshire’s ownership, and Wilshire went fishing for new owners or at least some heavy investors. In 1993, the investment firm Saunders, Karp, and Megrue, LP put in enough funds to acquire a majority stake in Marie Callender’s. By this time, Marie Callender’s had 145 restaurants. New leadership tried to shore up the business’ finances by closing some restaurants that weren’t doing well. Marie Callender’s also sold a license to Conagra Foods in 1994, allowing the food giant to sell frozen meals under the Marie Callender’s name (via Reuters). Funding Universe said the sale of that license earned Marie Callender’s $140 million.
Marie Callender’s frozen food is made by an industry giant
You may be more familiar with Marie Calendar’s frozen dinners than you are with dining at one of the brand’s restaurants. Thanks to Conagra, you can find an array of comforting basics in the frozen aisle of your local supermarket: pot roast, country-fried chicken, spaghetti with meat sauce, meatloaf, pork chops, and more — all available as well on Marie Callender’s website. From the brand’s dessert webpage, store-bought Marie Callender’s offerings include cream pies, apple and other fruit pies, pecan pie, and cobblers. If you prefer making your own pie at home, but want to save time by using a pre-made crust, Marie Callender’s offers scratch-made pastry pie shells, too.
Reviewers on Influenster spoke favorably about Marie Callender’s frozen lattice apple pie. "Tastes like homemade without the trouble," one reviewer wrote. Another said, "The only way to possibly improve it is include vanilla ice cream!"
After two bankruptcies, Marie Callender’s has only 30 restaurants
The past 15 years in the Marie Callender’s history hasn’t brought a lot of good news. The company merged with Perkins, another family restaurant chain, in 2006, according to Restaurant Business. Both chains had been growing at the time, but they started to perform poorly shortly after the merger. Reuters reported that Perkins & Marie Callender’s filed for bankruptcy in 2011. One day later, the company sold its Marie Callender’s trademark to Conagra for $57.5 million, giving the company total control over the brand name. In turn, Conagra gave the Marie Callender’s restaurant chain permission to continue using the matriarch’s name.
Perkins & Marie Callender’s filed for bankruptcy again in 2019, per Restaurant Business, which forced the two chains to split up. Marie Callender’s didn’t even own its own name anymore, and the chain — what was left of it — sold for a mere $1.75 million. At the time, Marie Callender’s was down to just 28 locations. Currently, the Marie Callender’s online directory lists 30 restaurants — 26 in California, three in Nevada, and one in Utah.