Page 2 of 2
"[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.