Thursday, July 10, 2003

Potpies fill late-night niche

Hungry after midnight? Tom Wolfe delivers

By Maggie Downs
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Bartender Michael Flint (left) buys a homemade potpie from entrepreneur and cook Tom Wolfe at the Cock and Bull English Pub, Covington.
(Leigh Patton photo)
| ZOOM |
Tom Wolfe creates a parking spot in front of a dim Covington bar. He switches on the hazard lights and sticks a magnetic "Delivery in progress" sign to his vehicle.

He works fast. Takes long strides. Opens the back of his black Jeep Cherokee in one swift motion, then carefully slides out the precious cargo: Potpies.

This is Wolfe's mission - to bring homemade food to those who hanker for hot chow after dark.

The Ludlow resident has found a niche market in potpie delivery. He sells all his pies each weekend, from midnight to 3 a.m., in places where food options are minimal after midnight.

"Seriously, dude, who else delivers?" says Allan Godshall, 27, owner of Neon's in Over-the-Rhine. "These save the day at the end of the night."

During the past 10 years, Wolfe, 58, has fed everyone from Major League Baseball players to tipsy bar-goers, everywhere from exotic dance clubs in Northern Kentucky to trendy Mount Adams joints.

For five hours each weekend, Wolfe uses the kitchens of local establishments - currently Coco's in Covington - to make the pies. (This meets health department standards because the cooking is done in places that are up to code.) Wolfe then loads up the back of his Cherokee with full plastic carriers and travels from bar to bar.

The potpie itself is a minor culinary miracle - the dough crust conceals peas and carrots, thick gravy and chunks of all-white chicken meat, which Wolfe cooks himself.

"You'll never, ever find a piece of gristle," he says emphatically.

It's even more of a miracle that Wolfe transports the sizzling goodies to a long list of establishments each weekend.

Every potpie (about $5, depending on demand) is placed in a Styrofoam bowl, covered on top by another bowl, then wrapped in aluminum foil.

The customers also receive a side of pasta salad and a Ding Dong.

"The pasta is cold, kind of refreshing," Wolfe says. "The Ding Dong just came to me in an epiphany - it sounded like a nice dessert."

His own recipe

The whole business was something of an epiphany.

Wolfe's life is long and storied, including a stint in the military and three years studying at a seminary.

About 10 years ago, the affable fellow was working at a restaurant in Anderson Township. Frequent customer and Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jose Rijo requested Wolfe's food for the team.

Wolfe came up with the idea of potpies. He used his own recipe, which he has refined over the years.

"I just wanted something that would keep well if the game went into extra innings," he says. "You can keep these pies warm for a long time, and they actually get better."

It became a hobby for Wolfe, who delighted in how much the players enjoyed his food. Though the Reds now get their grub from caterer Sportservice, Wolfe still makes potpies for visiting teams on occasion.

"At 1, 2, 3 in the morning, everyone (on the team) is starving to death," he says. "They always look forward to my pies."

That venture led Wolfe to a small lunch business, delivering food to downtown companies. He also began circulating the potpies at night among his friends - an entrepreneurial effort that really took off.

Amy Sander, 30, of Mount Lookout, was one of the skeptical.

"At first it was really scary - you know, a guy selling potpies in a bar," Sander says. "But then you see other people eating them, and you have to try them. They taste like Grandma made them."

In bar after bar on a recent Friday night, patrons recognize Wolfe's vehicle immediately. They start clamoring for the pies before he leaps from the driver's seat. Some practically lift him into the air with shouts of "Hooray!"

Wolfe is a tall, graying man, rarely without a smile, who tosses out potpies in a dizzying fashion. He greets most people by name, often combining salutations with a hug or a handshake. He knows everyone's story, and he often will ask about family, friends or pets while accepting money.

"The man's a legend," says Craig Johnson, owner of the Cock and Bull English Pub in Covington, where Wolfe typically begins his route.

"We have one employee who's addicted to Tom's food," Johnson says. "He won't work unless we give him some of the pasta salad."

Next stop is Rodney's Le Foxx, a strip club in Covington, where dancers climb offstage to nab their food.

At Coco's, the pies ease liquor-drenched tummies.

"They help sober up people before they get out on the road," says bartender Brian Atteberry, 30, of Petersburg, Ky. "Plus, who doesn't like a good potpie?"

An inebriated man, slumped over a bar stool, loudly announces, "Potpies. I'll tell you who invented potpies. Came from Chicken Kiev..."

"Now that's a guy who needs a potpie," Atteberry whispers.

Wolfe's route continues in the Main Street bar district in Over-the-Rhine, where he stops at places like BarrelHouse Brewing Co., Japp's and Neon's.

In between, Wolfe pauses to feed the police on detail along Main Street. As he does so, a crowd gathers around the trunk of his car, where the food is starting to dwindle.

"Hey, where's my potpie?" someone shouts.

"I'll hit you tomorrow," Wolfe promises with a firm handshake.

By the time Wolfe makes it to Mount Adams, only a few stragglers remain in the bars. At this point, he is the supplier for ravenous employees at Blind Lemon, Yesterdays Old Time Saloon and Longworth's.

"This is my first choice for late-night eating," says Mike Shutt, bartender at Longworth's. "It's kind of peppery, not like a Stouffer's pot pie. It's light and flaky and has good chicken."

The workers are typically so hungry, it becomes a scramble to get to Wolfe first.

"If there aren't enough pot pies for everyone, there's a fight," says another Longworth's bartender, Lindsay White, 24.

Shortly after 3 a.m., his containers empty, Wolfe takes the delivery sign off his car. Meets up with friends. Relaxes with his customary drink - tequila and water.

Then Wolfe reflects upon the work he's done for the day.

"Has anyone gotten as much mileage out of potpies as I have?" he says, breaking into boisterous laughter. "I tell you, I have more fun than anyone."

Tom Wolfe will deliver homemade chicken potpies anytime, anywhere. For information, call 319-3481.


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