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

NPR icon by Eve Troeh
A A
Chris Granger

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.

Copyright 2013 WWNO-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wwno.org.

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