Ah, comfort food. We could all use a little bit of it these days, and with the dishwashers and pans getting more use than ever due to stay-at-home ordinances, comfort food that we DON’T have to prepare, well, that’s even better.
Enter Paul’s Pot Pies. You’ve got your Shepherd’s Pie. You’ve got your Chicken Pot Pie, of course. You’ve even got your Sloppy Joe Pot Pie, and an ever-changing menu of goodness tucked inside a flaky, buttery, freshly-made crust. Just pick it up, pop it in the oven for about an hour, and you’ll feed the whole family with a home cooked meal without ever breaking out the cutting board. And it’s all made by hand by a Jersey boy, but we won’t hold that against him since he’s called Marietta home for more than three decades.
Paul Lubertazzi, owner and chef of Paul’s Pot Pies, started the business in 1984 with his mother, Patricia, as a catering company called Traveling Fare Catering. Having worked for IBM (which brought her to Atlanta from New Jersey), she had the sales background and Paul, 24 and newly-graduated from culinary school, had the culinary background.
They rented a tiny little retail space on the Marietta Square to run their business, which they still call home today, though its seen a few changes over the years. At first, Traveling Fare was just a catering and takeout business, but when they added a few tables for sit-down service, they started selling their popular chicken pot pies by the slice, along with a few other lunch food staples like quiches and salads.
“Chicken pot pie was always our biggest seller, so we added a pot roast pie and a jambalaya pie so we could offer people three different flavors,” Paul said. “And it was always the biggest-selling item. If we served 70 people one day, probably 50 of them had pot pies, by the slice. And then one day, maybe 15 years ago, a customer came in and said, ‘Can you send me a whole pie?’ I was like, ‘Sure, why not?’ And that’s how it started. She came back like two weeks later, ‘Oh, remember me? You made me a pie. Can you make one for me and my friend?’ ‘Okay.’ It just took off word of mouth.”
Paul had found his niche, and it wasn’t quiche. Pretty soon after that, people began coming in more and more, asking if he could sell them a whole pot pie.
“I remember thinking to myself that these pies were really selling, without even trying. No advertising, no billboards. I remember telling my wife, ‘Wow! We sold 12 pies this week.’ And it just kinda took off like crazy. And I think mostly because it’s a comfort food. It’s an easy meal, it tastes homemade. Then we added a few more flavors once we started selling the whole ones and it just took off, and then the sales are higher for the pies than it was the restaurant. And then one day I told one of my friends, ‘You know, the restaurant’s getting in the way of these pies!’ So he said, ‘Forget this restaurant! Close it down and call it Paul’s Pot Pies!’ And that’s what I did. That’s how it started.”
“The door almost fell off”
So how does a Mom-and-Paul shop come all the way from New Jersey to find a home on the Marietta Square?
“Me and my mom were just driving around and we loved the Square. But back then, it was pretty empty. I remember going to look at the space that we’re still in, and I opened the door and the door almost fell off, it was so old,” he said.
The quaint spot, located near Stockyard Burgers and Bones and across from Cool Beans Coffee Roasters at 10 Mill Street, was previously called The Mill Inn Store, from what Paul could recall.
“For 10 years, we would still have people come by asking, ‘Where’s The Mill Inn Store?’ I think it was just so in place. On the corner, when we moved in, was Brumby Furniture and it was funny ‘cause we would go over and open the door and I’d be like, ‘Where are they?’ And it’s the three older guys in the back, sleeping on the rocking chairs,” Paul recalled, with a laugh.
Paul also recalled that pretty much every retail spot near him and down Church Street were antique stores.
“Schillings was of course there, he was the longest one and now we’re the oldest food establishment on the Square. Marietta Pizza, I believe, was Chicago Hot Dog. Tommy’s Sandwich Shop was on the corner. Jimmy the Greek was down the corner where the church is, but there weren’t many restaurants,” Paul said.
Paul said the Square has come a long way since dusty antique stores and lunch-only courthouse crowds.
“It’s just nicer. The arts has really been great here. There’s new places. But we still have a lot of the same loyal customers from when we started in the 80s. Ledies Bargo used to come in all the time, he was one of my favorite customers. We’d close at 2, and he’d come in everyday about 2:30 and I’d have to make him a cup of coffee and he’d have a piece of carrot cake,” Paul recalled, with a smile. Bargo is the late father of longtime Marietta Daily Journal columnist Sally Litchfield.
A takeout business in the age of COVID-19
Paul, who opened a second shop in Kennesaw five years ago, said business has actually picked up since people have been staying home more due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. His business model has always been based on carryout, so now more than ever, people have wanted something safe and easy that they can still cook at home.
Each of his pot pies comes either fresh or frozen, the latter just taking a little longer to cook but still filled with the same fresh, already-cooked ingredients. Cooking them in the oven just heats the insides up and bakes the crust. And if you don’t want to eat it that day, you can put the pies in the freezer and save them for another day.
But that doesn’t mean that Paul hasn’t had his fears for the business, nor his concerns for his fellow business owners.
“It’s just terrible, ‘cause I know how much work goes into it,” he said. “People put their life savings into it and you know, when things are going good, it’s still hard and it’s a hard business and now you have these things that you can’t control. It’s just terrible. Terrible.”
Paul said he now cooks pies for both locations out of his Kennesaw kitchen, which is much bigger than his kitchen on the Square, to say the least.
“I think the Square space is like 900 square feet, and this is like 4,500 square feet. I’m probably making over 200 hundred pot pies a day. Can you imagine making that many pies out of my shop on the Square?” Paul said, with a laugh.
So far, because business has been good, Paul said he hasn’t had to layoff any of his four employees, but he also still does most of the chopping and cooking himself. He recently became USDA certified, so he hopes to begin selling his pot pies out of other stores but wants to stick to his own model of Mom and Pop stores. He also will be able to start shipping his pies.
“I won’t make it 20 more years, but hopefully another 10 years,” he said. “But I’m really excited about this USDA thing and I think it’s really going to propel business. And I think even after this, people are still going to want to keep buying takeout food. But once all of this is over with the virus, I sure hope people will go out and support the restaurants because they have to stay alive and keep their employees. There’s so many hourly employees, and who knows if you even get all of them back? There’s gotta be 30 restaurants now on the Square, not counting the Marietta Square Market. But I hope we all do what we can to support each other and do what it takes to help each other survive.”
For more information on Paul and to hear the podcast he did with Cobb Life Editor Katy Ruth Camp, click here: https://mariettadailyjournalpodcast.libsyn.com/pot-pies-during-a-pandemic or listen under the MDJ Podcast, wherever you get your podcasts.