Cover Story » Current Issue

Talking pie, Worcester and comebacks with the owner of Table Talk

By Bernard Whitemore, Photography by Demet Senturk
 
In my universe Pie = Happiness. So just the thought of meeting with the owner of Table Talk Pies at his Green Street facility was exciting — all those delectable pie fillings!
In recent months, Table Talk had been in the news with its expansion into a new plant in South Worcester. Plus, the Table Talk store on Green Street had been re-opened in the past year, returning pie to its place of rightful prominence overlooking Kelly Square.
Which led me to wonder: What had happened to Table Talk? They seem as big as ever, but hadn’t they faded away for a while? When I sat down with Harry Kokkinis, I asked him start out with some Table Talk history. 
Kokkinis: My grandfather, Theodore Tonna, started the bakery in 1924 with his partner Angelus Cotsidas on Clayton Street, which is now, I believe, under Route 290. They started the bakery, as we like to say, “baking pies at night; delivering them during the day.”
They originally started baking Greek specialties and Greek bread. Then, all of a sudden, my grandfather said, “Gee, I notice a lot of Americans seem to like pie. Maybe we should start looking at pies.” That pie business grew and grew.
Then, during the ’30s, they started selling pies to Fort Devens, which really gave them a big increase in business. It started off as just two Greek immigrants who worked together who decided to start their own business.
The business grew from there, from those humble beginnings to, ultimately, just before they sold the business in 1965, they had over 400 employees, almost 400 routes delivering pies all over New England and New York City.
In the ’60s, they decided it was time to sell the company and they got an offer from Beechnut, a major corporation here in the United States. It was very lucrative for my grandfather and our family. But as future events show, it probably wasn’t the best fit. I think my grandfather had the idea that they’d be able to continue running the business, but as what usually happens in those situations, the new owners think they can run it themselves and the old owners get pushed off into an office and told, “Go read the newspaper.”
They ended up playing a lot of golf and reading a lot of newspapers.
At the same time, my dad joined the business in the ’50s and became the general manager in the late ’50s. He stayed on with the business. At this point, they had more than $15 million in sales. He stayed with Beechnut for a while but ultimately left in the mid-’70s. Beechnut had been bought by Squibb at that point. Ultimately, the business basically fell apart and they closed the doors in 1984.
This great pie company was mismanaged to where there was nothing left. It’s sad because so often that happens when a thriving family business gets sold to a large corporation. So the business ultimately fails.
They lost the secret sauce of the business and probably didn’t know they had lost it. The business just deteriorated and, at that point, this becomes the story of rebirth.
Table Talk is an idea that refused to die.
My father, Christo Cocaine, wanted to see if he could rebuild the business. The company went into bankruptcy, and he was able to buy the building here on Green Street, the name and logo, the intellectual property, the recipes and a couple pieces of equipment. Then, he worked on rebuilding the business just focused on little 4-inch pies.
That took some gumption to do that. He pooled his resources to get that done. But here he was. There were no customers. He needed machinery — all but a few pieces of equipment had been sold off; there were just a few pieces of equipment he was able to hold onto.
It’s an amazing job that he did, to rebuild the business from nothing up to when I got involved in 2003. With roughly $30 million in sales, it was a solid base for a business to move forward upon.
At that point in time, in 2003, we were starting to branch out into frozen pies. We sell pies all across the country; we ship our 4-inch pies all the way to California. The retailer just thaws the pie out. We sell under the Table Talk name and private label. We sell a lot of fresh pies from Maine to Virginia and as far west as Ohio.
But given the fresh nature of the product limits our scope. Being able to freeze the pies and then thaw them out, without a significant loss of quality, has enabled us to branch out and ship across the country. That growth in 4-inch pies helped justify the new building in South Worcester because we need more 4-inch capacity.
It’s interesting; my dad wanted to focus on the small pies, but in 2009, there was a real opportunity in the 8-inch pie business. A major player in that business had left the marketplace and there was an opening, and we decided to take a chance and see what we could do with it.
That business is largely private label; let’s just say that a lot of the pumpkin pies that people eat here in the New England/New York area may have someone else’s label on it, but was produced here. Those customers will remain nameless.
We just like to make pies. If we have to put someone else’s name on it, that’s fine.
The Table Talk name? My grandfather and his partner Angelo were sitting around the table one night trying to figure out a name. They got on the subject of “talk of the town” and variations of it. Then they stuck on Table… then Talk.
I think it was helpful that the two initials in Table Talk matched the initials of my grandfather, Theodore Tonna… Maybe just a coincidence.
[While on the subject of names, some clarification: Theodore Tonna, Table Talk founder, was Harry Kokkinis’ maternal grandfather. Christo Cocaine, Harry’s father, had his surname “adjusted” upon immigration into America. Harry Kokkinis subsequently restored the original Greek family name.]
We sell a lot of pies; last year we sold over 150 million 4-inch pies — that’s 3 million a week. With our new plant, we hope to get over 4 million per week.
We’ve been adding to our research and development team. We have some new flavors we’ve been working on. The strawberry pie we’re working on is great, and I feel the same about mango-pineapple. It’s a great pie! We hope to bring that flavor out next year and start selling it.
Our competition? We always look to see what’s out there in the marketplace — we have to! But there aren’t too many competitors in terms of the regular-baked 4-inch pie. Often what you see are fried pies, more like a turnover.
Frankly, I was always taught that if you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything. That’s how my mother brought me up.
But fried pies often taste more like a jelly donut than a pie. When my grandfather developed the 4-inch pie, he wanted it to be a smaller version of the real thing, of our larger 8- and 10-inch restaurant pies.
He called it a junior pie. It’s a baked pie. I’ve always been taught that pies are round!
Our rule is that we always have more filling than dough. A lot of the pastries you get, unfortunately, have some filling in it, but it can be hard to find. We want to make sure that with our pies, there’s always more filling than dough.
Questions: With such high volumes, you’re really a bakery and a manufacturing facility. How do you maintain quality?
Kokkinis: I’m glad you asked that question. It goes to the heart of the matter, of how we have prospered for so long. Here we are in our 93rd year. It’s based on the principles my grandfather set forth. His main emphasis was on quality. He was once asked, back in the ’60s, “What is the most important product that you make?”
He just looked at the guy and said, “Quality.”
That was always the most important product. It wasn’t a flavor, apple or pumpkin. This was from a man that didn’t go to school. He came over on a boat from Greece when he was 12 years old by himself. He was a very amazing man. He always had sayings that just showed the true intelligence that he really had.
Our customers need to get the quality that they expect. Every day. It’s one thing to make a quality pie, but we make a quality pie consistently every day, where every pie matters.
It goes to being demanding; we use the best ingredients. We get people calling us up, “I have a special deal for you for apples. We’ll beat your price by five cents.”
We say, “Well thank you, but we have our own supplier.” We work on maintaining long-term partnerships with our suppliers, the ones that give us the consistent quality that we demand, day in, day out.
Q: So you’re buying apples to make your own pie filling? I thought you purchased the fillings!
Kokkinis: No, we make all our own. We have big kettles that will hold 500 gallons. If you don’t make your own fillings, how would you control quality? This way we know what goes into our fillings. All of our fillings are made here.
On advertising:
We do a little bit; we’re taking more of a look at it. We’ve always felt, “Let the pies sell themselves.”
But how did we overcome having had the doors close?
I think it’s been amazing how people have responded to the actions we’ve been taking in the last couple years; the new building and the store on Green Street. There’s love that’s come forth from the city; the city government and people on the street.
It’s been overwhelming; everyone has memories and a Table Talk story to tell. Day in, day out, people come in to the store and tell Caitlin Enck, our store manager, these stories. It’s amazing, the stories people have.
It goes to the kind of workplace that my grandfather, and then my father, created.
Q: Why do you stay in Worcester?
Kokkinis: It’s been so important to us. At the ribbon cutting for the new location, my mother spoke a little bit — she stole the show! — but at the end of her talk, she exhorted everyone to “Love Worcester!”
It’s such a great place to live and raise a family and to build a business. It’s been so much a part of Table Talk, it’s hard to imagine one without the other.
It’s just like the more recent thing we’ve been working with Wormtown Brewery. They came up with the idea of having a Table Talk Pumpkin Pie Ale. [Brewmaster] Ben Roesch just called me up one day and said, “What do you think? You want to try this?”
Sure! We didn’t worry about who’s gonna pay for what, we just brought over 30 pumpkin pies and threw them, pies and crusts, into the vats (without the tins!). It was great! And it was great-tasting beer; bottles are for sale in their tap room.
That’s the kind of place Worcester is. People work together. As I said, it’s been so much a part of our company. That’s why it was so great when this opportunity came up in South Worcester with the city. We wanted to take advantage of it. It’s great to be able to build and expand the company in the city we were born. I hope more people follow our example. The industrial park was an excellent deal with the city, and I think it’s paid off for both of us.
Q: Do you eat pie?
Kokkinis: (Patting his stomach) Look at me! I gotta tell you, though, someone’s got to taste them! I love the lemon pie, but pumpkin is my favorite. But that’s what pies are all about; the dough is really just to showcase the fillings. You have to have great fillings.
I’ll tell you a story about my father. I like to say he went all in. In 1985, he used all his resources to help build up the bakery. Back in 2003, he’d actually had an investment company as a partner and they wanted to sell out, to sell their shares. My father said, “I’ll do whatever I can to buy them out if you agree to come back.” I’d been living in New York.
He used all his assets to buy out the investment company. Just think of that. He was 79 at that point in time. As I like to say, “All in at 79!”
Who would do that? He was a man on a mission. It’s amazing that he did that!
I’m just so thankful. I’ve had two great men in my life that have formed who I am: my grandfather and then my father.
There’s a plaque in the new building dedicating it to my dad. It came from the employees; they bought that plaque.

Comments are closed.