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Pie in the Sky : Marie Callender Had the Recipes and an Oven. Son Don Built a Family Baking Business Into a Southern California Empire.

June 15, 1986|DUNCAN STRAUSS | Duncan Strauss is a free-lance writer based in Orange County.

Well, it started so many years ago. I answered a help- wanted ad in our area in Long Beach for someone to help in a delicatessen. I worked part time there, making salads and bringing out something hot every day."

To the other people lunching in the elegantly appointed Marie Callender's on Wilshire Boulevard, the speaker--a spry, compact woman in a pink pantsuit--could have been anyone's grandmother reminiscing about her first job.

"Then the owner opened a little snack bar," she continues, "and he wanted me to make pies in there. Well, that was impossible because the oven wasn't the right type. So my mother and I made pies in our kitchen at home, and he picked up the pies there. Then he invested in a bakery in Long Beach, so I went down there and was supposed to make a few pies."

Marie Callender's eyes sparkle at the memory, and she pauses to take another bite of chicken sesame salad. "I didn't know anything about making pies like that. One Saturday I made 100-some pies myself. And I was dragging around 100-pound sacks of flour. So I told this man, Mr. Black, 'I'm going to quit this because I don't know what I'm doing, and I'm tired.'

"He said, 'Well, why don't you take the oven, start a pie business yourself, and I'll buy pies from you?' "

That's precisely what she did, and so began a mom-and-pop (and son) operation that last year posted sales of $180 million. Sitting in the $5-million flagship of the restaurant chain that bears her name, Marie Callender reflected on its earliest days.

Now 79, she makes it clear that if she had to do it over, she probably wouldn't. "I'd hate to be starting out today," she says, adjusting her glasses, which have a tiny M etched on one lens. "But I was in my early 40s then, and it was easy."

Easy? Far from it, to hear Marie (and son, Don, president and driving entrepreneurial force behind the 119-restaurant chain) describe the tight finances, lean years and marathon workdays it took to build the business.

To act on Mr. Black's advice, Marie Callender had to overcome one nagging detail: no money. The family did, however, have a new Chevrolet. The car was sold, and once the household bills were paid, about $700 was left.

With that, the Callenders--Marie, her husband, Cal (who died in 1984), and Don--bought some baking utensils, rented a Quonset hut in Long Beach and began making pies in 1948. Marie remembers that "there were only three of us, and there were no machines. We had three rolling pins and this old oven, and we used to work all night."

At that point, Callender's was strictly a wholesale operation. But baking was only part of the business, Marie says. "My husband would bake all night, shower and get cleaned up, and peddle the pies during the day."

Don Callender may have inherited his work ethic from his parents, but in any case, his entrepreneurial leanings surfaced early. "I always wanted to make money," he recalls, sitting in the lobby of the Newport Beach Marie Callender's, where he conducts his day-to-day business.

"I always wanted to be enterprising in some way. I remember one time when I was 5 years old, Mom made me some fudge, and I went out and tried to sell it house to house. Some big kids robbed me. That was the end of the candy-making business."

But it was hardly the end of his diligence. In high school, he had not one but two newspaper routes, delivering 500 papers a day: "I'd get up at 2 in the morning and work until school started. Then after school I'd work till 10 at night."

After high school, Don enrolled at Long Beach City College at his parents' urging, even though, he maintains, "school was just never very important to me." While in college, he held down a job delivering chickens and eggs.

But when Mom and apple pie beckoned, it was a good opportunity to leave college--and to work even harder. "When we began making pies," he says, "I started at 11 at night and I'd work till 5 or 6 the next afternoon. Straight through."

The Callenders continued at that energetic pace of wholesale baking for more than a decade. But, as Don remembers it, "we just didn't make very much money." He decided they needed to broaden the business and aim for bigger profits.

His solution--after convincing his reluctant parents--was to enter the retail world with a pie-and-coffee shop. The prototype of Marie Callender's restaurants, their first shop opened in 1962 on Tustin Avenue in Orange.

With an abbreviated menu offering coffee and a handful of pie choices, and little name recognition outside of wholesale circles, the immediate challenge was to attract customers. Don put to work his flair for solving problems: He offered a free slice of pie and cup of coffee to first-time visitors.

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