Each year, millions of tourists drive through the small town of Springdale, Utah, on their way into Zion National Park. There’s only one road, so they all pass a big sign that beckons them to the “Home of the Famous Bumbleberry Pie.”
Inside Bumbleberry Gift Shop and Bakery, a steady stream of tourists walk up to get a taste of local flavor. It was Georgian Lacy Musser’s first visit to southwest Utah and it felt like her Zion itinerary wouldn’t be complete without this impossibly purple nectar of the gods.
“It seems like a thing to do here, like part of the experience,” she said.
Calum and Amanda Nelson from California picked two pieces of pie a la mode. The ingredients of the gooey, delectable filling are top secret. But after scooping up his first bite, Calum takes a guess.
“It’s like blackcurrant and blackberry and something else,” he said. “The mystery ingredient.”
The story behind the secret recipe began one summer day in the mid-1960s when Constance Madsen had a dilemma.
A big bus of tourists had unexpectedly pulled up to her restaurant, then known as Grandma’s Kitchen. The crowd was hungry for pie, but she didn’t have enough of any single filling to feed them all.
To a consummate hostess like her, however, the idea of turning anyone away for lack of food would have been unthinkable.
“There was never such a thing as being closed,” her granddaughter Melanie Madsen said. “If there was someone who came and hadn’t eaten, it didn’t matter if the stove had been turned off and the oven had shut down, she would go fix something.”
So Grandma Madsen bumbled together a combination of whatever berries she had on hand, baked them into pies and served the busload. Her bumbleberry pie was born.
Long before #food was a thing on Instagram, word of this new recipe spread like wildfire from one tourist bus to the next. By the end of the summer, she said, Grandma’s Kitchen was selling dozens of bumbleberry pies a day.
In her living room, Melanie and two of her siblings, Richard Madsen and Holly Rowland, sat around a coffee table covered with old photographs, menus and postcards from the restaurant’s early days.
The Madsen grandchildren got to spend their time running around in the shadow of world-renowned red rock cliffs and then pulled up a chair for a treat at the family eatery whenever they wanted.
“Zion was our backyard, and pie was our dessert,” Rowland said.
Springdale looked different back then. No luxury spas. No lavish AirBnBs. Most of the homes that lined Zion’s entrance road were farms, Melanie said, and Grandma’s Kitchen was one of only a few restaurants in town. A vintage menu on the coffee table confirms that a whole pie used to cost just $1.25.
Melanie, Richard and Holly were between the ages of four and six at the time of the pie’s heroic origin story but they could still tell their grandparents’ place was a big deal.
By the ‘60s, Zion was already getting well over a half-million visitors per year. In the summer, there were long lines of customers out front. The grandchildren remember conversing with visitors from as far away as Germany, Japan and Israel. Many of them sometimes stayed in their home when the family’s adjacent hotel ran out of space.
Grandma Constance Madsen and her husband Julius lived and breathed hospitality, Melanie said. At one point, they made their home in a trailer that connected to the gift shop’s backdoor.
The grandchildren describe Grandma as an elegant, strong woman. They remember her beautiful dresses and table settings, along with the way she made each guest feel like the entire operation revolved around them alone.
“She was in her perfect element,” Richard said. “She just loved to put on a show.”
But Grandma was also rugged enough to pick up rattlesnakes with a stick to move them off the road. In an era when women were often expected to stay home, she ran a thriving business with a master’s degree in economics. Seeing Grandma’s example, Melanie said, instilled in her granddaughters the belief that they could do anything, too.
Grandpa Julius was the showman, known for his singing voice and dramatic flair. He would walk up to restaurant guests and swiftly pull the tablecloth out from under the dishes, Melanie said, “just the way you’ve seen in old movies.” They were the type of people guests remembered long after their visit.
The kids got into the act, too. Their father, J.R. Madsen, penned a fanciful song about the mystery of the bumbleberry — the fantasy land of Bumbleberry Valley where little creatures pick the fruit and invite other kind hearted people to join in the fun. At a moment’s notice, Grandma and Grandpa would call the kids over to sing for customers while they ate.
“Both of our grandparents were very impromptu,” Melanie said. “You know, ‘Sit down! Let’s feed you, let’s entertain you!’”
The bumbleberry business didn’t stay in the Madsen family forever, though. Stan Smith’s family took the reins in 1972, and they’ve been running it ever since.
Rest assured, he takes his work as guardian of the pie’s confidential berry blend very seriously.
“The only thing you’ll get out of me is: A bumbleberry is a burple and binkle berry that grows on a giggle bush,” he said.
The fantastic story of the bumbleberry people remains part of the narrative, too. Today, the bakery’s decor still features cartoons of Prince Nomannic — that’s cinnamon backwards — leading his little creatures as they carefully tend those giggle bushes and supply the bakery with its most vital ingredient.
And if one of Smith’s employees won’t stick to that mythical script?
“I’ll fire you. I don’t care how good you are,” Smith said. “If you don’t tell the bumbleberry story, you’re not working here.”
Some customers get frustrated that Smith won’t reveal the actual fruits that make the pie what it is. He remembers one particular incident where two elderly ladies yelled and swore at him. But he said they’re missing the point.
“It’s magic,” he said. “Especially nowadays in the world where everything’s so chaotic and people are so spiteful and hateful, what’s a little joy?”
Back in the ‘70s, the tourist season only lasted a few short months in the summer. Customer traffic slowed so much in the off-season, he said, that his family used to place mannequins in one of the window booths to give passing drivers the illusion that the restaurant wasn’t empty.
The bumbleberry business has boomed along with it. Smith said they’ve gone through up to 13 tons of berries in a single year. Next to the bakery, there’s now a 200-seat theater that hosts live music and a massive gift shop stocked with bumbleberry shirts, hats and jellies.
The Smiths have come up with new twists on the menu, too, such as their bite-sized balls of crust filled with berries known as pie holes. But the pie itself is the same as always.
“This is a recipe. These are the ingredients. This is how we make it,” Smith said. “We’re very strict on how the pie is made, and the recipe has not changed.”
Back at Melanie Madsen’s coffee table, she flipped through a tattered family cookbook that’s coming apart at its binding.
After a minute, she comes to a big, posed photograph of her grandparents that takes up most of one page. Above it, a short, simple recipe that’s now become part of the Zion experience for millions of visitors from all over the world.
No matter how big of a celebrity the bumbleberry becomes, for her family, it’ll always be a reminder of grandma. Each year around the holidays, they still gather and make those pies, sometimes as part of the family’s ongoing baking contest.
“It’s tradition,” Melanie said.
They have tried tweaking the recipe. But in the end, she said, nothing can top grandma’s original.
Editor’s Note: KUER Morning Edition host Ciara Hulet is the great-granddaughter of Grandma Constance Madsen. She’s looking to end her losing streak this year in the family’s annual Thanksgiving pie contest.