Tara Royer Steele’s famous bakery helped hundreds of neighbors during the pandemic. Now she ships pies—and inspiration—nationwide.
Posted in , Sep 29, 2021
I’ve visited Round Top, Texas, several times during one of their fabulous annual spring or fall Antiques Week. On my very first trip there in 1995 I met Tara Royer Steele. After shopping the tiny town’s endless vintage venues, on the recommendation of umpteen people, I visited Royers Round Top Café, owned and run by Tara’s family. Her dad, Bud “The Pieman” Royer, hollered at me from where I sat waiting on a bale of hay and pointed to a huge round table filled with diners. As I stared at the solitary empty chair, Tara, then barely out of her teens, welcomed me. Her downhome charm eased my misgivings about sharing a meal with folks I didn’t know.
Amidst a sea of turquoise-studded hats and boots, I learned that stranger is a word you don’t hear in Round Top, especially at Royers. Within 30 seconds, Tara had us all talking. Judy from San Francisco went on about her cousins who lived in my “almost heaven,” West Virginia, and five-time visitor Mary Ann gave the rundown on the pies. “I’m warning you, we all share!” she said, her fork in midair. “So it’s a good thing we’re family.”
Even as a child, Tara always imagined having a bakery. Every Sunday she’d deliver her loaves of homemade breads and cookies to church. But life was not easy as pie for her hard-working family in Katy, Texas, a little town on the outskirts of Houston. In the 1980’s when her dad found himself out of work due to the oil crash, he picked up small jobs while her mother taught piano and did whatever else was needed to keep things going. When she was 11 the family started making and selling wooden jewelry. “Looking back I see I was learning to be an entrepreneur at a really early age,” she says.
For a change of scenery, Tara’s family would sometimes make the one-and-a half-hour trek to Round Top, a town of just about 80 people. (It’s now home to 90 people!) In 1987, one of those jaunts proved to be life changing. “There was a little hole-in-the-wall café, a burger joint,” she says, “and the owner of the place didn’t want it any longer.” When the lady noticed Bud jumping up and bussing tables, refilling drinks, and thoroughly enjoying himself, she felt a divine nudge to ask if he wanted to take over.
Faith-filled locals learned of the Royer family’s God-given opportunity and taped gas money to their door. The family soon opened Royers Round Top Café, which served up piles of Texas comfort food and mouth-watering pies. “We had no idea what we were doing, but we all dug in. I waited tables and my brothers did whatever they could to make it work,” says Tara who was 12 when the eatery opened. When weekenders noticed the café was changing, the family added higher-end items to the menu.
It was then that a second miracle occurred. Tara found out that the eatery was voted the “Best Country Café in Texas,” by readers of the Houston Chronicle. “We got a call one day telling us we’d won, and come to find out, this group of ladies we didn’t even know had stuffed the ballot box,” Tara say. It didn’t take long for the word to get out and it snowballed from there.
Tara ended up taking over the café in 1997. When marital strife and an eventual divorce rocked her world, she learned to rely on God as never before. “I’d always gone to church and earned all the badges,” she says. “Now I trusted my Heavenly Father as my source for absolutely everything. Jesus became my best friend,” she says.
A year after her divorce, Tara met Rick Steele. The two married, eventually had two sons, and worked together in the business before selling it to her brother and sister-in-law in 2016. But Tara wasn’t done with the restaurant industry—and she was certainly far from done with pies. In 2011, Tara and Rick had opened Royers Pie Haven, a little bakery next to Royers that served only coffee and pie. “I always like to find where the need is, figure it out, and be part of the solution,” Tara says. Her philosophy is richly reminiscent of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s maxim: Find a need and fill it. “When an old house with big oak trees turned up for sale next to the café, it just seemed crazy right,” she says “The idea just totally worked. I mean, who doesn’t want to get a slice of pie and a cup of coffee and sit under the breezy Texas sky and a wonderful tree?”
Sounded pretty havenish to Tara!
Tara filled the walls with old ceramic pie plates with recipes on them. And whenever she’d happen upon a vintage item at Round Top’s spring or fall Antiques Week she thought would fit in with the quaint ambience, she’d snag it and figure out a spot for it later.
“I’d think, I’m gonna write on the walls too,” Tara says, describing how she hung chalkboards with inspiring quotes and Scripture. Customers did the honors in the bathroom, covering the walls with encouraging, brightly-colored sticky notes that remind folks they are loved, seen, and valued. One of her favorite scribbles is the verse from Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in his time.”
At the beginning, Tara and Rick only sold sweet pies. Then the menu evolved to include savory pies like Margherita Chicken Pizza Pie and Hee-Haw Pie in a crust with herbs. Texas Trash—a gooey mix of caramel, coconut, chocolate chips, pretzels and more—and Not My Mom’s Apple Pie are perennial favorites for those with a sweet tooth. Tara loves to watch for facial expressions and oohs and aahs when visitors are enjoying her creations. “It’s that whole nostalgic thing,” she says. “Like going to your granny’s.”
When the pandemic hit in March 2020 Tara had another opportunity to fill a need. Royers Pie Haven had 2,500 pies—and empty pie crusts aplenty—in the freezer ready to go for Round Top’s then-cancelled spring Antiques Week. Tara heard of folks in surrounding communities who couldn’t get out and had nothing to eat. The crisis became an opportunity to reach out to an ever-new family. In addition to their pie deliveries, they hosted a drive-through for kids and fed others in need. Their Facebook page, called Feed His People, offered a menu of budget-wise casseroles, cookies, and the like. By the end of the first week, the pandemic had forced Royers Pie Haven to pivot. It ended up being a win-win; they had 500 grateful new customers.
When “snowmageddon”—the Great Texas Snowstorm of 2021— hit in February it was yet another opportunity for outreach. “When we put out on social media that we had free food, it was shared hundreds and hundreds of times,” Tara explains. “Somebody in North Dakota read the post and called her brother who was only five minutes down the road from us. He’d been shot, couldn’t get out of bed, and had no electricity or food. That’s how it’s done, God, I thought. All of this happened because of pie and You.”
In 2021, Tara’s tiny little eatery was named one of the South’s best bakeries by Southern Living magazine. That honor landed Tara a June 2021 appearance on Live with Kelly & Ryan where she made her famous and fun Junkberry Pie. Tara hasn’t let her new celebrity status go her head; while she and Rick are expanding into other ventures she remains committed to celebrating Jesus through pie and sweet treats. In 2020 Tara published Eat. Pie. Love. The book is comprised of 52 devotions, plus recipes, designed to satisfy the mind, body and soul. (Tara illustrated the book herself.) As I move forward in my life I try to always keep in mind what Tara wrote in the book’s forward: 1 dash of love + 1 heaping scoop of grace = life sweeter than pie.