Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Customers rush counters for stash of Hubig's pies


Hubig's Pies owners vow to rebuild bakery in New Orleans

Times-Picayune Staff 
Drew Ramsey stood in disbelief across the street from the Hubig's Pies factory early Friday.
Hubig's Pies fire
EnlargeCATHERINE THRELKELD / THE TIMES-PICAYUNE Firefighters work to put out the 5-alarm fire at Hubig's Pies, located at 2417 Dauphine Street in New Orleans on Friday, July 27, 2012.Hubig's Pies fire brings landmark to the ground gallery (11 photos)
A member of one of the two families that own the company, he watched as nearly 100 New Orleans firefighters -- almost two-thirds of the department's on-duty personnel -- attacked a five-alarm inferno that raced through the Marigny building before dawn.
Sunrise revealed total destruction of the place where for nearly a century bakers prepared millions of the fried fruit pies popular with generations of New Orleanians. Last year, the factory churned out as many as 28,000 pies a day.
As news of the fire spread, residents flocked to stores and left shelves nearly barren of the treats. And before firefighters could even declare the fire under control, Ramsey made a vow: "We'll be back."
Although the cause of the blaze remained under investigation Friday afternoon, Fire Superintendent Charles Parent said it apparently started in the fryer room in the middle of the factory at 2417 Dauphine St. Three employees were inside when the fire began, but none was injured.
At 4:28 a.m., not long after the last batch of pies went out for delivery in the morning, firefighters arrived at the business. They were able to enter but had to retreat as flames quickly engulfed the structure.
"The fire was already up the wall and across the ceiling, and we pulled our troops out for their own safety," Parent said, adding that the grease used in the production process acted as fuel.
He said a typical fire doubles in size every minute. "With the amount of grease and fuel in that building, it was probably quicker than that," Parent said.
Within minutes of arriving, firefighters struck a second alarm. Three additional alarms would be rung within the hour to help quench the fire.
'It's a total loss'
Travis Nathan, a Marigny resident awoke to heavy smoke in the neighborhood. "I got scared," he said. "I thought the house was on fire. There was smoke everywhere -- black smoke."
Hubig's Pies fire in New Orleans
EnlargePhoto by Dave Rhodes / RhodesArt.com The 5-alarm fire that destroyed the Hubig's Pies facility at 2417 in New Orleans blazes early Friday morning July 27, 2012.Spectacular photos of the Hubig's Pies fire gallery (8 photos)
Brett Martin lives behind the Hubig's building and awoke to the sound of several "mini-explosions" and the smell of smoke. He peered out a back window and saw huge flames lapping at the sky, apparently after the roof caved in.
At the front of the building, flames shot through the windows before they devoured the building, causing the front wall to crumble and leaving a pile of rubble in the street and a mass of charred timber and industrial equipment behind that. The fire was declared under control at 6:42 a.m.
In the historic neighborhood, where many houses sit almost on top of one another, wider destruction could have been possible, Parent said. One neighboring house had a small flare-up in the attic, but the factory's thick masonry walls and quick action by firefighters -- including some who positioned themselves and their hoses on nearby rooftops -- resulted in only "very superficial, minor damage" to surrounding properties, Parent said.
The factory, however, was beyond repair. "It's a total loss," Parent said.
N.O. staple since 1921
Simon Hubig, a baker from Cincinnati, founded the pie company in 1918 in Fort Worth, Texas, and expanded his business to New Orleans in May 1921, when he leased the Dauphine Street property. He bought the property in 1924 for $16,000 and settled in for good.
The company's branches in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio closed during the Great Depression. Only the New Orleans location survived.
After World War II the company produced other baked goods, such as strawberry shortcake, in addition to the baked and fried pies. In the 1950s, the Bowman and Ramsey families who by then owned the business decided to focus on the pies.
The fried pies came to dominate the business by the 1990s. After Hurricane Katrina, the company shifted to that product exclusively.
5-Alarm Fire at Hubig's Pies in New OrleansFirefighters respond to 5-alarm fire at Hubig's Pie in Faubourg Marigny in New Orleans after an employee calls in to report blaze at 4:30 a.m. on Friday, July 27, 2012.
Although the physical destruction after Friday's fire was great, the company's 40 employees were the biggest concern, said Ramsey, who appeared to fight back tears. He was wearing a white T-shirt with a silk-screened image of Savory Simon, the potbellied baker whose image appears on each pie wrapper.
One of those employees is Richard Siener, assistant route supervisor. He stood across the street as firefighters doused remaining hot spots. He said he heard about the fire when a co-worker called him.
"I thought he was joking," Siener said. After he realized his colleague was serious, he could only hope that the fire wasn't as bad as it sounded. "(It) turned out to be that bad," he said, "but we're gonna build back." Siener said he planned to work Friday, despite having no office.
'We'll be back'
Ty Green, Hubig's marketing and merchandising director, said he, too, would work. It was the first step toward "a full recovery."
"It was a devastating call to see history go down in flames like this," he said. "But we're resilient. We'll be back. How soon? We don't know.
"I'll go to work today and do the same thing I'm normally doing. ... Save our spots (on store shelves)."
Those shelves were largely barren by daybreak, and the wedge-shaped pies -- a glazed New Orleans institution -- were as impossible to come by as a fresh tub of K&B ice cream or a hi-ball from the bar at Schwegmann's.
Early risers who heard the news via television and social media rushed to supermarkets and stores to stock their freezers.
The instant rarity of the pies made them a popular item on eBay, where they began to pop up within hours. Some were as cheap as $2; one listed a sale price of $500 for anyone who wanted to bypass the bidding process.
Pies gobbled up fast
Locally, at the Ideal convenience store on Bayou St. John in Mid-City, only an empty box stamped "A New Orleans Tradition" remained at the checkout counter at 8:15 a.m.
Earlier, at the nearby Rouses supermarket on North Carrollton Avenue, service clerk Anna Saia had one of Hubig's apple-filled pies in her locker.
She heard the news of the fire on television before she arrived at work around 7 a.m., and customers quickly wiped out the store's supply. "They were buying six or seven at a time," she said. "I got one of the last ones."
The display had already been taken down by 8 a.m.
"It's like another icon gone down. I'm wondering how long it will take them to rebuild and come back," said Earl Peters, a landscaper who works with Nathan, the Marigny resident. "It's another disaster."
Danny Monteverde and Judy Walker wrote this report. Monteverde can be reached at dmonteverde@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3482. Walker can be reached at jwalker@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3485.

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