I met up with Frisch’s VP of Marketing to get the scoop. Karen Maier, a fourth-generation member of the family behind the Big Boy in the checkered trousers, has told this pie story before. She’s got the numbers. Frisch’s sells 85,000 whole pumpkin pies in the 16 weeks that it’s in season — nearly half that in the two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. That’s in addition to the 840,000 slices they sell individually to diners in the restaurants or at the carry-out windows — which, my friends, adds up to a hell of a lot of pie.
Maier and I each had a slice for breakfast at the Covington Frisch’s. I had mine with whipped cream, of course. Virtuously, she did not. As I raised my fork, she pronounced wisely — like the Dalai Lama of pie — “The first bite of the season always makes you believe it’s better than ever.” Amen, sister.
Is it that good? I’m a fan. It’s my favorite Frisch’s menu item for sure, and I look forward to it every fall. The crust is OK, but the filling is perfect. They get the spices and the texture just right. The nutmeg is assertive but not overbearing, it’s not too sweet and it’s not runny or weepy, like custard pies can be. As of this year, when you order a piece to dine in, it’s served with freshly whipped real cream — though pies ordered for carry out continue to come with Rich’s whipped topping, a more stable travel partner.
I figured I ought to get another professional’s opinion, so I brought a pie to expert pastry chef Summer Genetti, formerly of the Palace Restaurant who has recently joined her friend Shoshanna Hafner at Honey in Northside.
Summer’s crazy about all things pumpkin, and she agreed with my assessment of Frisch’s pie.
“You can taste the pumpkin,” she said, nodding. “This pumpkin has presence. It’s not annihilated by spices. The pie’s not just a vehicle for the cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves. It’s a little sweet for my taste, but it’s got really good texture and flavor.”
Genetti agreed that the filling has an almost imperceptible texture, a body to it, that’s substantial. It’s made from canned pumpkin, and that’s a good thing. A pumpkin that’s fresh off the vine has too much moisture to set up consistently, so Frisch’s buys the orange beauties, then cooks them, adds spices, and cans it themselves, right in Walnut Hills. It seasons for a year before it gets baked into pies — again, at Frisch’s own commissary. In fact, Karen Maier told me Frisch’s makes most of their own products here except a couple salad dressings and the buns for their burgers, which are primarily baked locally by Klosterman’s.
Pumpkin is Frisch’s No. 1 selling dessert while it’s available. Their strawberry pie takes the top slot during the summer months, and Hot Fudge Cake is the year around sales leader. I’m amazed at the little nuances Maier tells me about that influence the restaurant’s dessert rotation. For example, Carrot Cake is the Lenten seasonal dessert, and Chocolate Cream Pie is only available after Lent. I make a mental note to research whether that means that carrot cake is the signature dessert of Purgatory.
Frisch’s rotates their pies from the menu every eight or nine weeks. That way, Maier explains, diners who visit every three weeks get to try them more than once. These “every three week” visitors are her “medium users.” There are plenty of daily customers who, like Norm on Cheers, have their own stool at the counter.
But if the pumpkin pie is such a huge favorite, why not keep it on the menu year around?
“Always leave them wanting more,” Maier laughs, switching persona from the Dalai Lama to the PT Barnum of pie. She knows her marketing. Seriously, though, I’m impressed with the new items featured on the placemat under my pie slice. They’ve got sweet potato fries, a Portobello mushroom burger, a salmon burger and a turkey burger with spicy remoulade. They sounded tempting and sophisticated, like they might be there to lure in a customer who’s been spending time at Max & Erma’s or Fridays.
“We know we lose customers between the ages of 18 and 24 because they want to have a beer with their burger,” Maier admits. “But when they have a family, they come back.”
So will they ever add beer to keep that customer?
“No,” she says. “It’s not who we are. Sure, beer is a high-profit item, but I think it’s a positive that we work harder to make up for not having that easy alcohol money. We do a better job because of that.”
Then I notice that Frisch’s hand-dips their milkshakes. A local business, a hand-dipped shake, a Portobello burger and a slice of pastry-chef-approved pumpkin pie with real whipped cream? Suddenly I feel like Mrs. Mia Wallace at Jack Rabbit Slims, and those red checkered pants look hipper than I’d thought. Welcome — or welcome back — to Frisch’s.
CONTACT ANNE MITCHELL: firstname.lastname@example.org