Larry Antoine doesn't look up from behind the maroon conversion van parked in front of the headquarters of the Simon Hubig Pie Company. The salesman obsessively packs and repacks his Ford van, and by 6 a.m. the vehicle has left the Faubourg Marigny factory and is bouncing down I-10 to eastern New Orleans. The radio is silent, and the truck smells like tobacco and fried dough.
Antoine, 60, looks professional. His face is clean-shaven and his chambray button-down shirt is tucked neatly into slim black jeans. The former police officer wears aviator sunglasses, has a stern, don't-mess-with-me attitude, and his "stale" rate is the lowest of the Hubig's salesmen at 8 percent. If a pie isn't sold in a week, it is considered stale and the salesman must pay for it.
"The name of the game is to cut down on stales," Antoine says. "If you cut down on stales, the more commission you will make."
Hubig's doesn't provide Antoine with demographic data or sales charts. Instead, he studies the evidence of how people buy fried pies. Each day he must predict from his own informal research how many pies customers at his 28 daily stops will buy and in which flavors.
"I preload for customers in St. Bernard Parish, flavor country," Antoine says, explaining that white neighborhoods there like peach, pineapple, chocolate, coconut, blueberry, cherry, blackberry and sweet potato. "In the East, it is just apple and lemon." French Quarter customers buy every kind of pie, he says.
Exiting the highway and turning into the parking lot of his first stop at Winn-Dixie, Antoine parks parallel to the store. The job of moving pies off the shelf falls to the pie salesman, and he must be clever and fierce to compete with behemoth food companies. With the air of a secret shopper, Antoine surreptitiously walks through Winn-Dixie's automated doors, intent to learn how his pies fared.
"How do people shop?" he asks rhetorically. "They start with the produce, and they end with dairy." The astute pie seller, aware his product is an impulse buy, fights companies like Frito-Lay for a good location at the end of this loop, either in the bread aisle or near the checkout lanes.
The pie rack in Winn-Dixie, centrally located near the nine-items-or-less lane, has been decorated with balloons by the grocery store brass. "That's good, we like balloons," Antoine says. He sees a rogue Snickers bar in the box, quickly grabs it and puts it on the candy rack. He arranges each Hubig's pie individually to create five-straight rows so the smiling Savory Simon logo stands at attention.
When you examine the white metal, three-tiered rack, it's clear Antoine has mastered the puzzle of pie sales. There is an empty box, and another heavy with pineapple, chocolate and peach pies. He restocks 12 apple and lemon, and puts out a new full box of 60 pies. As he predicted, apple and lemon sold well in eastern New Orleans. Maneuvering the rack into a good location meant people saw his wares and bought them.
A rusty blue and red sign with raised green-neon lettering hangs outside the Hubig's Pies factory among bike-riding hipsters, mod coffee shops and homes of long-time Faubourg Marigny residents. Entering Hubig's factory from Dauphine Street is like stepping through time. A short hallway leads to a gray lunchroom where employees sit on metal picnic tables and smoke cigarettes. On the wall outside the lounge there is an old electronic punch clock flanked by manila timecards. On the factory floor, giant industrial ovens rest fallow, and assorted industrial mixers are covered with protective black vinyl. Former workstations have been replaced by pallets stacked high with flour and sugar.
The factory is divided into six main workstations: the kitchen, the dough station, the pie-making machine, the fryer, the cooling rack and the pie-bagging station. There is nothing modern about it. From the pie recipe to the sales strategy, the fiercely local New Orleans company hasn't changed the way it does business in 87 years. "We could probably make a whole wheat crust, and a sugarless icing," General Manager Andrew Ramsey says. "It would work, if you were on the Sugar Busters diet, but it wouldn't be a Hubig's pie."
Many pre-packaged snacks are an assortment of trans fats baked in the shape of a pastry, iced with chemicals, shipped from a faraway factory on an 18-wheeler and have a baked-in-a-factory taste. But when you tear open the opaque white Hubig's package emblazoned with the pudgy, elated baker Savory Simon holding a steaming pie, the contents are different. Fried crusts are glazed with sweet confectioner's-sugar frosting and pipeded with one of the numerous fillings. The pies are probably the closest thing to homemade you can get in a convenience store.
At Hubig's, "sustainable" is not a corporate buzzword, and the pies are not branded so the all-natural set can feel better about eating them. But unlike most items available at grocery and convenience stores, Hubig's Pies have traveled less than an hour to reach the consumer. The company makes pie filling with strawberries, sweet potatoes and other fruit from local farmers, depending on when fresh produce is available. Whenever possible, the company buys flour and shortening from local vendors. The recipes haven't changed in decades; only four ingredients are preservatives, two of which are considered natural. This has nothing to do with ecological footprints; it's the way Hubig's has always operated.
The factory gets its spark from good-humored employees. Many of Hubig's 27 employees have been fixtures in the factory for much of their lives, including owners Thomas Bowman and Otto Ramsey. In 1950, Otto Ramsey's father and Bowman's uncle purchased a stake in the company. Otto's son Andrew runs the company's daily operations; his first memories of the factory date back to grade school. Lead baker Donald "Sam" Albert has been using the same recipes for pie fillings and icing for the past 27 years.