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Centerville Pie Co. won over Oprah — and so many others

Centerville Pie Company’s top-seller: chicken pie.

By Diane Bair and Pamela Wright Globe correspondents 

Oprah Winfrey may be a part owner of Weight Watchers these days, but she still loves her pie. As evidence: She named the signature chicken pie at Centerville Pie Co. one of her “favorite things” in O Magazine this year — the third time the 30-employee Cape Cod pie bakery has received this honor. (Other years they were named a favorite: 2009 and 2012.) So, owners Laurie Bowen and Kristin Broadley are gearing up for an Oprah-driven bump in sales — maybe 35 or 40 percent — during their crazy-busy holiday season. This past Thanksgiving, Centerville Pie Co. sold about 5,000 pies. (“You’ve not seen excitement until you’ve seen a pie shop in the days leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says Bowen.)

The pie that won Oprah’s heart is stuffed with one pound of slow-cooked hand-pulled chicken, baked into a flaky, hand-crimped crust and oozing with homemade gravy. Even more gravy is served on the side. No wonder Oprah deemed it, “the closest thing to homemade I’ve ever tasted.” You won’t find mixed veggies in this one, though. “I hate peas and carrots in my pie,” says Bowen. Plus, the original recipe — created by another pastry-making Mrs. Bowen (no relation) and bequeathed to Laurie — didn’t have them. “Eat a salad on the side,” Broadley shrugs, or a serving of butternut squash, if you’re dining at Centerville Pie Co.’s restaurant, which is attached to the pie shop. The menu is mostly pie, both sweet and savory versions. Everything is made by hand on the Cape; the pair even dry-picked their cranberries this year. (The frozen pies they sell in supermarkets like Roche Bros. and Market Basket are made off-Cape, but are similar to the ones sold in the pie shop.)

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Bowen and Broadley — a married couple — have been Cape Cod’s premier pie ladies for nearly a decade. Broadley, a Rhode Island native, attended Johnson & Wales University, while Bowen, a Cape Codder, perfected her skills at a local pastry shop. Both of the women worked at the Hearth ’n Kettle Restaurant on the Cape — Bowen was a chef and manager — but then the pair took wildly different career paths. Bowen served as a Barnstable deputy sheriff for six years and Broadley worked in banking. After being robbed twice at the bank, Broadley had had enough. She quit her job and, with a small inheritance, bought the space that now houses Centerville Pie Co.’s pie shop and restaurant. She enticed Bowen to join her — with the fabulous chicken pie recipe that Bowen had tweaked and baked over the years.

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The year was 2009, and the economy was in shambles. “People thought I was totally crazy to start a business then,” Broadley recalls. Success seemed like a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. Then along came Oprah.

In August of that year, Broadley heard through the grapevine that Winfrey was in town for Eunice Shriver’s funeral, and staying at a local inn. “I brought over a chicken pie and a peach pie to Oprah with a note that said, ‘I love and respect you,’ along with my home phone number,” Broadley recalls. “By the time I drove home, Oprah and [BFF] Gayle King were on the speaker phone with me,” raving about the pies. When Bowen heard the news, “I was jumping up and down,” she says.

“Oprah was sizing us up,” Broadley recalls. “I lied and told her we had six employees, because three just didn’t seem like enough,” she says. Later, King asked for some warm pies to take on her flight, and some frozen ones to take home. “We worked right through the night and made 40 pies,” Bowen recalls. The next day, they drove out to the private jet at Hyannis airport to deliver the goods.

In 2010, the pair was invited to appear on the Oprah show, during its final season. On the set, they were so shaky with nerves that producers had to glue the pie to the plate so they wouldn’t drop it. They sold 280,000 pies in 15 minutes — a daunting number, considering they were making just 12 pies at a time back on Cape Cod.

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To help meet the demand of a national market, the company hired disabled adults for their operation. This practice continues today; about 10 of the Centerville Pie Company’s 30 employees are adults with disabilities. “Some of these original employees are still working for us,” Broadley says. “They make every single crust on every single pie.”

Hollywood came calling in 2011, when the company was asked to offer swag bags at the Golden Globe Awards. “Other people were handing out $5,000 watches. We were giving out pieces of chicken pie, and a coupon for a free pie!” Broadley recounts. Even skinny celebrities can’t resist pie, it seems. Every single one of those stars redeemed their coupons, she says.

Among their most zealous fans that night were Modern Family cast members Eric Stonestreet and Rico Rodriguez and actress Jennifer Love Hewitt. Eric McCormack of Will & Grace initially refused his sample of pie, saying, “No, I make great pie.” Bowen urged him to try a slice anyway. “He came back and said, ‘Your crust is better than mine,’ ” Bowen says.

With publicity churning for the annual list of Oprah’s favorite things, including a TV special on the OWN network, the Centerville Pie Co. is in the spotlight again. Step inside the pie shop and restaurant, though, and the vibe is definitely “neighborhood hangout.” (And neighborly they are; the pie ladies give leftover pies to the MSPCA office next door, and donate 100 pies to charity at Thanksgiving.)

“Centerville Pie Co. is a gem,” says Susan Centofanti of Watertown, a summer resident of Cape Cod. “Friendly staff and the aroma of freshly baked pies greet you when you enter the shop — and those pies! The owners’ commitment to employing people with disabilities makes this shop all the more special.”

“How are you doing, Sunshine?” Broadley asks a patron in the 16-seat restaurant during the lunchtime rush. Tables sport red-checkered cloths; there’s also a bar that offers a good view of the pies. A slice of coconut cream pie, piled high with whipped cream, looks tempting. Here, the slogan, “Life is short. Eat dessert first,” applies. Entrée-wise, there’s always the signature chicken pie (the number one seller by far) and two or three other savory pies on a rotating basis, among the blackboard specials. Shepherd’s pie takes the number two spot, and French meat pie (Broadley’s personal favorite) is coming on strong. Younger customers go for the Buffalo chicken pie (“Kids like hot,” Broadley notes.) On the sweet side, apple pie is a clear favorite. The Cape Cod Crunch pie — featuring chocolate pudding mixed with butter toffee, topped with whipped cream and bits of toffee — is hugely popular.

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Beyond the beloved chicken pie that launched the business, the Centerville Pie Company now makes 12 different savory pies, including a clam pie; a clam, chorizo, and linguica version; a seafood pie made with shrimp, scallops, and whitefish simmered in a mild Gruyere cheese sauce; and (of course) a buttery, bisque-y lobster pie. They also make a vegetarian pie filled with spinach and feta. Fruit pies, cream pies, and other pies (among them, a chocolate chip cookie pie and a killer Key lime) round out the menu. Every year, the company launches a new pie or two, just to keep things fresh. They don’t make gluten-free pies currently, but not for lack of trying. “We just haven’t found a gluten-free flour that works with our pies,” Bowen says. However, “lots of people just eat the insides out of our pies.”

So what is it about pie that seems resistant to food trends? “It’s the ultimate comfort food,” Broadley says. “People who are going through cancer treatment often can’t taste, but for some reason, they can taste the chicken pie.” Bowen points to the nostalgia factor; many of us remember hanging in the kitchen with a grandparent, helping bake a pie. These days, parents are working and don’t have time to make scratch pastry. But they can stop by the shop for a hot pie to bring home, or pick up a frozen one and bake it in their home oven. “It takes an hour-and-a-half, or two glasses of wine,” Broadley notes. And it sure makes the house smell good.

Even if you’re trying to cut down on carbs (and who isn’t?), some things are worth the indulgence. Just ask Oprah.

The Centerville Pie Co.,1671 Falmouth Road, Centerville; pie shop 774-470-1406; large pies (serves 4-6) from $22; small pies (serves 2-3) from $11; delivery anywhere in the continental United States; www.center
villepies.com
.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.