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Flying the Coop : Chicken Pie Shop Forced to Leave Hillcrest After 52 Years

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For half a century, Elizabeth Henry, 89, has been an eager diner at theSan Diego Chicken Pie Shop. Most mornings of the year, she boards a bus near her home in Normal Heights and rides to the corner of Fifth and Robinson in Hillcrest.

She enters a cafe where the line sometimes extends out the door and where the decor is one-of-a-kind kitsch . Ceramic and glass chickens line the shelves. Most of the art work is what the owner calls “chicken mosaics"--multicolored beans arranged to look like chickens cooped in a wooden frame.

And, of course, the food on people’s plates is chicken.

Chicken pies.

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Henry usually orders the “pie dinner,” a blend of chicken and turkey in gravy, wrapped in a double-crusted shell and complemented with whipped potatoes, carrots, cole slaw, a hot roll with butter and, of course, fruit pie for dessert--all for $3.20.

Contrary to rumor, owner George Whitehead says reports of the pie shop’s death are greatly exaggerated. The shop is being forced to move and by July will have abandoned its Hillcrest corner, a neighborhood fixture since it opened across the street in 1938.

Until Wednesday, Henry was not aware of the change, nor was a sizable chunk of the elderly clientele.

“Why, I guess I’ll just have to pick myself up and go to the new place!” she said with enthusiasm.

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The new location, which Whitehead hopes to have humming by late summer, is at 2633 El Cajon Blvd. in North Park. He sees “the pros” of moving to a new and larger location, with “plenty of free parking--imagine that!” Parking in Hillcrest is often more like driving around the block.

But he also sees “the cons,” and feels a bittersweet nostalgia at having to leave a home of 52 years.

“So many people who come in here are so lonely,” said Whitehead, 76, who has owned the restaurant since 1941. “When you take away something like this, and so many of them are used to having it right here, you’ve taken away a lot.”

The 4,000 square feet occupied by the Chicken Pie Shop, as well as the space next door, formerly occupied by Hillcrest Stationers, and the Chevron station in back, are all part of one parcel offered on the real estate market for $2 million.

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Whitehead said he can’t afford to buy the property and that his lease expires July 31.

“The owners told us they wouldn’t give us a new lease,” Whitehead said. “They said they wanted to try to redevelop the building.”

Redevelopment is booming in Hillcrest, and Stephen Dows of Realty Resources, who manages the property for the three separate trusts that own it, calls redevelopment a wonderful thing.

“Times change,” Dows said. “The institution is not going to die, it’s just going to require a longer trip. The Chicken Pie Shop is not going out of business.”

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Dows said new businesses are

“stimulating growth” in Hillcrest, where parking is at a premium and where the narrow, two-lane streets are packed almost any hour of the day. He said new establishments are enhancing what he called “the upbeat values of a changed Hillcrest.”

If that’s progress, said Jeri Slattum, 52, a pie shop regular since her days as a 4th-grader, “I’ll have none of it. I’ve been coming here since you could go to the (Guild) theater (on the same block) and watch 13 cartoons and a movie for 25 cents.

“Look at the senior citizens in here. They can come in here and get a hot, well-balanced meal for a great price. They can’t get that anywhere else, or if they can, I haven’t heard of it. You can feel a togetherness in here. It’s like a home instead of a restaurant.”

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Whitehead said a regular customer recently celebrated his 100th birthday by having his party at the pie shop.

He recalled a lawsuit in 1958 in which a woman swallowed a chicken bone and sued the restaurant. When each juror responded yes to the question of whether they had eaten at the pie shop, the judge yelled, “We’ll never get through this!"--and ordered the attorneys to stop asking the question. (Whitehead was asked to pay the woman’s medical expenses.)

Some of the regular diners include actor Victor Mature, who lives in Del Mar but eats at the pie shop, Whitehead said, whenever he has a dental appointment in Hillcrest. The late Ray Kroc was also a regular, which leaves Whitehead chuckling. The Padres owner made McDonald’s into an empire but on many occasions preferred chicken pies to Big Macs.

Manager John Townsend said the pie shop has been a favorite over the years of dozens of Padres and Chargers players. He said the bigger, stronger gridiron type usually orders two pie dinners.

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“I was raised at the Chicken Pie Shop,” said Mayor Maureen O’Connor. “It was one of the few places a family with 13 kids could afford to eat, and it’s still my mother’s favorite restaurant. I still drop in myself once in a while.”

The pie shop first opened in 1937 with a downtown location, where the Bank of America building now stands on Fifth Avenue. A second location opened a year later at the southeast corner of Fifth and Robinson, where an abandoned supermarket now sits, waiting for redevelopment. The pie shop moved to its present location, across the street, in 1971.

Whitehead, a friendly man with quick, darting eyes and a slender build, who looks at least a decade younger than 76, grew up in St. Louis, where his mother was in the restaurant business. He and his wife and young son (who has since given him four grandchildren) moved to San Diego in the ‘30s after hearing from a relative that the weather was far better than that of Hempstead, Long Island, where they were living at the time.

It was baker George Drake, the original owner, who first had the notion of cooking small chicken pies with thick double crusts. Whitehead remembers making $15 a week while working for Drake and renting a two-bedroom house in Normal Heights for $25 a month.

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He bought the business from Drake in 1941 and, for a while, the two partners ran chicken pie shops in Sacramento and Oceanside that later closed. Whitehead said the downtown location closed in 1969, when redevelopment forced it out. A few chicken pie shops remain in Los Angeles, but under unrelated ownership, “and their prices are a lot higher,” Whitehead said.

A local restaurant critic once dubbed the pie shop’s cuisine “prole food,” as in meals favored by the working-class proletariat.

“Prole refers to the ‘30s, when money was difficult to come by, and the primary requirement of a meal was that it be warm and filling,” wrote Eleanor Widmer in the San Diego Reader. “This usually meant food that was heavy on starches and God-knows-what, rather than an emphasis on low-calorie nutrition.”

One customer, who asked not to be quoted by name, Wednesday labeled the restaurant “the White Flour, Fat and Sugar Cafe,” but like General Patton surveying the battlefield, said, “God help me, I do love it so.”

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Most of the people who work there love it too. Pat Banashak, 57, has worked as a waitress for 20 years and has colleagues who have worked there longer. She said “only the young ones” are reluctant to stay as “pie shop lifers.”

“It’s a nice place to work and you can’t ask for a better boss than George,” she said. “The people who come here have gotten spoiled rotten, he treats them so good. It’s kind of sad we’re having to leave, but I don’t think we’ll lose a single customer. It means too much to too many people. Sooner or later, they’ll all figure out where we are, and here they’ll come, just screaming for pie.”


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