4:46am

Sat July 27, 2013
Food

Pie-Deprived New Orleans Roots For Bakery, A Year After Fire

Originally published on Sat July 27, 2013 11:59 am

Almost any kind of comeback gets New Orleans excited, since the city lost so much in the flood after Hurricane Katrina. That goes especially for food.

One year ago Saturday, New Orleans lost a beloved brand when Hubig's pie bakery burned to the ground. The hand-held, fruit-filled crescents, fried golden-brown, had been delivered fresh to more than 1,000 local stores each morning.

Pie fans have come out in droves to support the company. But it takes more than T-shirts and fond memories to restart a business from scratch.

As news spread that a pie cooker in the nearly century-old bakery had caught fire, locals flocked to the scene. Many others flocked to the pies.

"Some trucks were actually on the road delivering to convenience stores and grocery stores," says Drew Ramsey, the third generation of his family to run Hubig's Pies. "They did not make the whole route. People stopped 'em, and they never even made it in the front door. They were out of pies by the time the sun came up."

Even a year later, the rumor mill churns on Twitter: Who has the last stockpiled Hubig's pie? Today, fans still mourn their favorite flavor. Dale Stainbrook and Ann Martin ate a Hubig's almost every morning with coffee. Stainbrook's favorite flavor was cherry. He jokes that he's lost weight and sleep since the fire.

It's been like a yearlong jazz funeral to cope with pie withdrawal, complete with musical tributes. Dave Jordan wrote a tune mourning the loss for his album, Bring Back Red Raspberry (named for his favorite flavor). Even the New Orleans City Council roots for pies. A meeting on permits for the new Hubig's factory prompted calls for two lemon pies and one coconut before taking a vote.

Fans have done more than cheer. They've bought merchandise. Hubig's T-shirts, ties, Christmas ornaments — even full-body pie costumes. Without actual pies, the company logo is the only product. It shows a triple-chinned baker in a fluffy white cap named Savory Simon.

"That's all we have left, you know, the little fat man holding the pie," Ramsey says.

Trinket sales make up a fraction of lost pie revenue. But community image is key to the comeback, says geographer Richard Campanella, who's written multiple books about New Orleans.

"Hubig's is one of those things that had not yet been co-opted by the tourism industry like beignets have," he says. "And it had that deep-rooted localism that endeared it."

Even Hubig's factory was endearing. On a block of carefully restored pink and green Creole cottages, it was the lone industrial holdout. "You know, it produced something. It kept the neighborhood real," says Campanella, a professor at the Tulane School of Architecture.

Authenticity gets expensive. The historic neighborhood means a long list of regulations. And 1920s factory gear is hard to replicate. Owner Ramsey has custom machinists and a metallurgist crafting a special wheel to cut the pie dough. How will he know the new product stacks up?

"We got a stash in the freezer that are gonna be the prototypes. It'll have the same little ridges that crimped the dough. It'll be the same size. It'll be the same," he says.

To get that first pie off the line — hopefully next year — Hubig's will have to do something it's never done: take on debt. Probably more than $1 million of it. But fans like Stainbrook and Martin pledge they'll buy plenty of pies. Stainbrook says he'll be waiting in line as soon as the doors open.

"We'll be camping out," Martin says.

And in a city as die-hard about local food as New Orleans, Hubig's Pies might just be able to take those testimonials to the bank.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

One year ago today, New Orleans lost one of its most-beloved bakeries and signature brands when the Hubig's Pie factory burned to the ground. Since then, pie fans have come out in droves to support the company. But it takes more than T-shirts and fan testimonials to rebuild a business from scratch. From member station WWNO, Eve Troeh reports.

EVE TROEH, BYLINE: Behold the Hubig's Pie: a fruit-filled crescent fried golden brown and delivered fresh to more than a thousand local stores each morning - at least, until a year ago, when a pie cooker in the nearly century-old bakery caught fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Nearly 100 firefighters descended on the Hubig's Pie factory.

TROEH: As news of the early morning blaze spread, locals flocked to the scene - but many flocked to the pies.

DREW RAMSEY: Some trucks were actually on the road delivering to convenience stores and grocery stores.

TROEH: Drew Ramsey is the third generation of his family to run Hubig's Pies.

RAMSEY: They did not make their whole route. People stopped them and they never even made it in the front door. They were out of pies by the time the sun came up.

TROEH: Even a year later, the rumor mill churns on Twitter: Who has the stockpiled last Hubig's pie? Today, fans still mourn their favorite flavor.

DALE STAINBROOK: Cherry was the best, but they didn't have them all the time.

ANN MARTIN: I happen to think apple was the best. I'm an apple girl.

TROEH: Dale Stainbrook and Ann Martin ate a Hubig's almost every morning with coffee.

STAINBROOK: Lost weight, can't sleep.

MARTIN: He has PTSD from missing his pies.

TROEH: It's been like a year-long jazz funeral to cope with pie withdrawal, complete with musical tributes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUBIG'S PIE")

DAVE JORDAN: (Singing) All I wanted was a Hubig's Pie, a Hubig's Pie, a Hubig's Pie...

TROEH: That's Dave Jordan, from the album "Bring Back Red Raspberry" - his flavor. Even the New Orleans City Council roots for pies. A meeting on permits for the new Hubig's factory prompted this.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Colleagues, do you have any comments or questions before we go to public comment?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: We're wondering where our pies are.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: We don't vote without Hubig pies, I can tell you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Two lemons and a coconut.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Our preferences up here so far are two lemons and a coconut.

TROEH: Fans have done more than cheer. They've bought merchandise. Hubig's T-shirts, ties, Christmas Ornaments - even full body pie costumes. Without actual pies, Drew Ramsay says, the company logo is the only product. It shows a triple-chinned baker in a fluffy white cap, named Savory Simon.

RAMSEY: Well, that' all we have left, you know, our little fat man holding the pie.

TROEH: Trinket sales make up a fraction of lost pie revenue. But community image is key to the comeback, says Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella.

RICHARD CAMPANELLA: Hubig's is one of those things that had not yet been co-opted by the tourism industry they way beignets have. And it had that deep-rooted localism that endeared it.

TROEH: Even Hubig's factory was endearing. On a block of carefully restored pink and green Creole cottages, it was the lone industrial holdout.

CAMPANELLA: You know, it produced something. It kept the neighborhood real.

TROEH: Authenticity gets expensive. The historic neighborhood means a long list of regulations. And 1920s factory gear is hard to replicate. Drew Ramsey has custom machinists and a metallurgist crafting a special wheel to cut the pie dough. How will he know the new product stacks up?

RAMSEY: We got a stash in the freezer that are going to be the prototypes. It will have the same amount of little ridges that crimped the dough. It'll be the exact same size. It'll be the same.

TROEH: To get that first pie off the line - hopefully next year - Hubig's will have to do something it's never done, borrow money, likely more than a million dollars. But fans like Dale Stainbrook and Ann Miller pledge they'll buy plenty of pies.

STAINBROOK: Yeah, but I'll be waiting in line the first time the door opens.

MARTIN: We'll be camping out.

TROEH: And in a city as die-hard about local food as New Orleans, Hubig's Pies might just be able to take those testimonials to the bank. For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh, pre-ordering a peach Hubig's pie, in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUBIG'S PIE")

JORDAN: (Singing) 'Cause I wanted was a Hubig's pie, a Hubig's pie, a Hubig's pie. But I love you, baby, morning, noon and...

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.