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.
"[After Katrina], I wanted to come back here; I have been here so many years," Albert says. "They pay me good money." Vicky Sills, 66, has been working at the factory for almost 30 years, and by her own request operates the pie-making machine. "I'll continue to work here until my legs don't let me," she says. Her sister Cynthia Eagan works at the pie-bagging station. The atmosphere on the factory floor is light and jovial as employees joke with each other and their managers.
The dough goes through a set of rollers on the pie-making machine, which has been stamping the same product for at least 75 years. The machine flattens and folds the dough at an angle. Before sealing the pastry, a slotted, rotating wheel drops filling into the waiting crust. The machine folds the dough and another arm on the conveyer belt stamps the pie into an empanada-like shape. An industrial dryer blows on the stamping machine wheel to warm it so the pies don't stick. The stamping machine cuts off about an inch of dough, which is rolled out again and used in a later batch of crusts.
Sills places pies 10 across on a conveyor belt en route to the deep fryer. She discards pies that are broken or don't have enough filling. A small laser beam, one of the most modern features in the factory, counts the pies so employees know when to change flavors. About 16,000 pies will come out of the factory each day. Half will be apple and lemon; the rest will be peach, pineapple, coconut, chocolate and blueberry. The conveyor belt loaded with pies dips into 300-degree oil like a roller coaster passing through an underwater tunnel. After the pies are fried, the belt takes them through a liquid wall of icing.
The machine ushers pies onto a multi-layered rack, and standing fans blow a constant breeze on the carousel to cool the pastries, which takes about two hours. When a pie reaches the top of the shelf, it falls down a ramp. A rubber arm catches the pastry, slowing its fall. At the bottom of the ramp Cynthia Egan grabs the pies and quickly places them on a conveyor belt that carries them through a sleeve of labels where they are sealed and stamped with the date and flavor. A rotating knife cuts each sleeve into individual bags. For a small price, packages can be personalized, with messages like "Welcome to New Orleans Lewis Family!" The bagged pies come off of the conveyor belt and are loaded into red plastic trays five dozen at a time for delivery the following day.
The story passed down by the Hubig's owners is that Simon Hubig emigrated from the Basque region of southern France and northern Spain at the turn of the 20th century. His mother owned a bakery in Europe, and Hubig followed her as an early entrepreneur. He opened his first factory in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, positioning the company near military bases. By the time of his death, Hubig ran bakeries and satellite bakeries with partners across the country.
"He would ride the train with a clipboard and take inventory," Andrew Ramsey says. "I just couldn't imagine, before nationwide baking, nationwide fax machines and computers."
The Great Depression rocked Hubig's factories. Many went bankrupt, while others were purchased by larger baking companies. The New Orleans operation was an exception. When raw materials such as sugar and rubber were rationed, dedicated employees gave the company their ration coupons to purchase the supplies necessary to bake pies, repair tires on delivery trucks and keep the business going. History repeated itself in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina almost put the company out of business. Hubig's lost delivery trucks, cold-storage and dry-storage facilities.
"After Katrina, when our employees came back, we had no electricity, no nothing," Andrew Ramsey says. "At the time, we said, 'We can't pay you; we will pay you when we can.' And they came back, and they brought their brothers, and they brought their sons-in-law."
When Ramsey speaks of his employees, a deep pride rises from the gut of the heavyset man and his face glows like Savory Simon on the Hubig's package.
"I am the beneficiary of many generations of doing the right thing," he says. "I am sure they would teach you that in the moral and ethical portion of a [business school] class, but you can't really quantify that until it comes back."
Intergenerational business relationships also helped revive the struggling company. "I have been buying the same trucks from the same guy from the same dealership for years and years," he says. "My dad bought them from him, and my grandfather bought them from him. We lost two of the brand-new trucks that we hadn't even paid for in the flood in St. Bernard Parish. And I had to call the guy that I bought the truck from, and say, 'Not only can I not pay you for the one I took last month and I wrecked, but I need more.'" The truck dealer gave Ramsey the trucks at no charge, no questions asked.
Vendors were loyal to Hubig's after Katrina. "The guy in St. Bernard Parish would call up and say, 'My daddy bought pies from your daddy, and I buy pies from you, and I am back in business. And you have to be here between this hour and this hour, because I have a generator in my parking lot where my store used to be. I am under a tent. And I have Cokes and an ice chest, and someone agreed to bring me a case of cigarettes, and I want your pies.'"
Hubig's doesn't have a board of directors. It doesn't have a sales strategist or a consultant on retainer to advise the company how to increase market share. It doesn't advertise and makes no real effort to grow. It owns one brand, employs 27 people and sells one product with seven different flavors (six are produced year-round and others are rotated in seasonally). As long as sales are consistent, the people who run Hubig's are happy.
The company relies almost entirely on brand loyalty. As the logic goes, if the company continues to do exactly what it does and nothing else, New Orleanians will continue to buy the pies they have eaten since childhood. This strategy has worked in a town famous for preserving idiosyncratic culinary traditions (think beignets, muffulettas, jambalaya, boudin, po-boys, gumbo, Abita Beer and Zapps potato chips).
"You would have more trouble finding a place that doesn't sell a pie than does," Andrew Ramsey says. Even in Central Lockup, you can get a pie. For Mardi Gras the New Orleans Police Department feeds arrestees in holding cells apple and lemon pies. When the Swanson Company became the food supplier for the police department and was responsible for standardizing all prison merchandise, officers demanded it provide Hubig's pies.
Naturally, the company competes with situational factors: When the weather is hot, people buy sno-balls over pies. Sales take a hit the day after Halloween and Easter and when king cake first comes out. "But by and large our competitor is not snack items, much less handheld snack items. There are only a few of us," Ramsey says. "The real competition is the economy in general, what people are going to do with an extra or discretionary dollar."
Antoine rolls down the windows and lights a short cigarette as his van barrels toward Walgreens at 7401 Read Blvd. The time between stops is too short to finish a full cigarette, so he saves the long pack for his way home. He reaches for his cell phone and dials Walgreens manager Bryon Bergerson on a personal line. As planned, when Antoine pulls across two parking spaces in front of the store 15 minutes before it opens, a gray-haired Bergerson happily unlocks the door, assuring no time is wasted in the busy salesman's day.
Antoine needs his pies to be at the counter. "'Don't hide them, they have to be able to see them,' I tell them. It is a constant battle maintaining shelf space. Most people are right-handed, so you want your pies on the right of the counter."
With arms-crossed, Antoine and Bergerson chat in the dark Walgreens. To the right of the two men, next to the register, there is an unobstructed box of pies. Hubig's is the fourth best-selling item at this store.