A Massachusetts success story: How the love of pie and family brought Table Talk back from extinction
By Noah R. Bombard | firstname.lastname@example.org
When Table Talk Pies owner Harry Kokkinis was just 3 or 4 years old, his father took him one weekend to the family factory in Worcester's Kelley Square. There, in an office, Kokkinis' grandfather, Greek immigrant and company founder Theodore Tonna, and his business partner Angelo Cotsidas would often have a sampling of pies from the day's production.
"They had a pumpkin pie there and I still remember them offering me a piece," Kokkinis recalls.
He quickly gobbled it up.
"They said, 'Oh, you like it that much? Have another piece.'"
He had another piece. And then another.
"All of a sudden my father turned around and said, 'You ate the whole thing!'"
It was Kokkinis' first piece of a much bigger pie that he would one day inherit -- a multi-million dollar family business that today produces a whopping 3.6 million pies a week and employs more than 300 people between its Canal District production plant in Worcester and another location it recently opened in Shrewsbury. The company also just announced plans to build an additional production plant in the long-vacant South Worcester Industrial Park where it will hire 50 more employees. It is opening a retail store on Green Street -- the first Table Talk retail store in more than 20 years.
The pie business in New England's second largest city is booming. Table Talk Pies anticipates pulling in $100 million in revenue this year for a product that (in its 4-inch version) costs about a buck.
But it was almost all lost.
Having built a successful pie business that began in 1924 with horse cart deliveries on the streets of Worcester, Kukkinis' family sold Table Talk Pies to Beech-Nut in the 1960s. Kokkinis' father, Christo Cocaine (the Americanized version of the family name), continued on with the company to help run it until 1977 when he left the pie business behind.
The company went through a couple of other corporate changes until 1984 -- when the then-owners closed the doors on Table Talk. The factory was shut down.
And that could have been the end of the story.
"Ultimately, the subsequent owners ran it into the ground," Kokkinis said. "I don't know what happened. There were a lot of changes in the marketplace at the time -- the rise of in-store bakeries in supermarkets, the falloff of diners, although diners have since come back."
But Kokkinis' father, Christo, couldn't let the family legacy die. With the help of an investor, he bought back the building, the Table Talk name and a couple of pieces of equipment. About a year later, Table Talk Pies reopened.
The new business plan: Own the snack pie market.
If there's a good example of Worcester's recent renaissance being more than just a surge in downtown development and trendy dining and coffee shops, Table Talk is it -- although its story of rebirth stretches over more than 20 years.
It started with that 4-inch snack-sized pie.
What has been a core product for Worcester-based Table Talk Pies for decades started off as simply a way to get customers to return pie plates.
Faced with trying to rebuild a shuttered business, Christo Cocaine concentrated on doing one thing and doing it really well.
"My father came back focusing on the 4-inch and really building that snack business back up," Kokkinis said.
The company may not have invented the 4-inch pie, but it quickly owned the concept -- filling supermarket aisles across the region with it's snack-sized apple, blueberry, lemon and about nine other flavors of pies, including seasonal favorites like pumpkin.
"It was just a great lunch pail desert," Kokkinis said. "So many people would talk about how their mothers would put the junior pie in their lunchbox every day. As my son often tells me, 'Dad, I don't believe you're selling it for as cheap as you are. You can't buy a candy bar for under a $1.50.'"
MassLive found 4-inch Table Talk pies in area stores ranging from 75-cents to a $1 a pie.
It took time, but the company went from a shuttered factory to a thriving business.
Kokkinis had since moved away, but in 2003, his father invited him to come back and help run the pie businesses together as it grew.
"Dad was looking to buy out the investor who helped him grow the business," Kokkinis said.
With the 4-inch pie in just about every major supermarket in the area and starting to stretch across the country, the company took the next big step -- a return to making larger pies.
"Some opportunities came up in the marketplace that we took advantage of," Kokkinis said.
Eight-inch pies began rolling out of the company's ovens. Now, the business long known for the 4-inch snack pie, takes in about 50 percent of its revenue from the larger 8-inch pies it bakes.
The output is impressive. Table Talk produces about 180,000 4-inch pies every day in it's Worcester plant, Kokkinis said. Another 80,000 8-inch pies are produced daily there.
"We've been growing by leaps and bounds," he said. "Our 4-inch pies are growing out across the country."
In fact, the 4-inch pies are now being sold in California. They've even been spotted in a store in Puerto Rico. And even though the larger pies have become an increasingly larger part of the business, it's those smaller snack pies that have really fueled the growth and are the force behind the company's plans to build a plant in the South Worcester Industrial Park -- a once-bustling manufacturing center of the city that for years has been a post-industrial wasteland.
"It's going to create some jobs in that particular neighborhood," Worcester City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. told MassLive last week. "People who live right in that neighborhood could potentially work at those jobs."
That's been the attraction at Table Talk's Canal District plant for years.
Kokkinis says the company has a low turnover rate of workers with many of them living in the neighborhood and either walking or taking public transportation to and from work.
That's a recipe the city has been trying to replicate in its ongoing renaissance -- getting more people to both live and work in the city.
For Central Massachusetts, the growth of a brick-and-mortar business like Table Talk shows that although the area economy has moved away from manufacturing, it's far from dead, says Greater Worcester Chamber of Commerce President Timothy P. Murray.
"In 2013, the chamber put out a report studying the Central Mass. economy," Murray said. "Manufacturing played an important role, but the manufacturing base has shrunk from [number] 1 to [number] 4. But it's still hugely important."
Although the product itself is important to success, Murray said family ownership of businesses like Table Talk is also key.
"They've had deep routes in this community for years in lots of different ways," Murray said.
In fact, Christo Cocaine was on the chamber board for years.
"And because of that, they understand the importance and significance that their jobs provide."
Kokkinis' father passed away in 2015 at the age of 90. He continued to work seven days a week until the time of his death.
"I'm just sorry he's not able to see this," Kokkinis said. "We were growing a lot, but just [to see] the continued growth [in the past year], the new facility we have in Shrewsbury and now South Worcester."
As for the company's success, Kokkinis says he recalls a newspaper interview his father did in the 1950s.
"The [reporter] asked 'what's your most important product?' 'Quality. Quality is our most important product,'" Kokkinis recalls his father responding. "He always said pies have to be made with romance -- or as some people say, with a little love."
"He was a great man."