by Tom SimsAt the corner of Olive and Wishon in Fresno’s Tower District, there is an institution dating back to 1956. Family and community legend date it back even earlier to the Great Depression when Mary Richardson made chicken pies and put them in the window to cool. The undisputed truth is Grandmother, Mary Ross (AKA Grandmarie) did provide the influence and flavor that still lives on this corner. The Chicken Pie Shop is one of the few institutions in Fresno with continuity of ownership and management that dates back well over 50 years. That continuity is reflected in a consistency of culture, design, and sensory affect. As owner, Gary Ross says, “My customers won’t let me change anything.”
It is like walking back into the 50s when you walk through the doors of the Pie Shop. The layout, the decorations, the seating arrangements, the deli, the menu, and, most likely, one or two of the customers, have remained the same.
Gary’s father, Robert Ross, opened the Chicken Pie Shop 56 years ago. Others had the same idea, including a Chicken Pie Shop in Long Beach. However, there is no connection other than lore and overlaps in menu.
Gary calls the story of Mary Richardson, “a wives’ tale,” but it rings true to me.
“We are full on weekdays,” noted a family member seated at the counter. “Half of the people are regulars.”
Rishele added, “Many people come every day.”
We arrived at 3 p.m. when one might expect a place like that to be virtually empty, but folks were coming and going. At the counter, we were greeted by a very friendly Alannah Cardosa who tended to our wants. Her smiling face made us feel welcome. She filled our order with precision and dispatch and balanced all the plates so masterfully that I had to take a photograph of the feat. I thought that was a lost art ….
….. but then again, we were back in the 50s.
This is not a food or restaurant review. This is the beginning of a cultural stroll. Nevertheless, I shall share our mid afternoon order. My wife, a committed carnivore, had the bacon cheeseburger which she described as “huge.” She shared it and the side dishes with our grandson and both went away full. Our grandson ordered the apple crisp for which he had no room. It happily provided three desert experiences for me. The “small” salad also lasted me for three meals. Thank goodness for take-out containers. I judge a salad by crispness, freshness, and a good blue cheese dressing. This one passed with flying colors.
The food is simple, basic, and well prepared. The specialty is chicken pie, but I no longer eat meat. However, when I did, I actually had one at the shop and it was delicious. Growing up in Virginia, what we called “chicken pot pies” were a staple and provided a warm and nurturing meal with meat, bread, and vegetables all in one dish.
Breakfast is served all day. It is traditional and hearty for hearty souls. Gravy flows like water.
Throughout the day, pies, rice pudding, and, of course, apple crisps, provide a constant temptation for susceptible souls. The welcoming space provides a place to linger and chat. It is a “wander in and have a seat” sort of place.
After closing time when the dining room is no longer available, the deli stays open for a few hours and people stop by and pick up whatever they crave.
This is not a gourmet establishment. Plenty of them exist. It is not an historical landmark. It is more of a cornerstone for a community that expresses itself in the uniqueness of each individual business and its ability to embrace all sorts of diversity. Why not have something from the middle of the twentieth century as one of the anchors?
The coffee is better than average for a place where customers like it that way. It is fresh, hot, and plentiful. It is also served with big smiles.
What keeps the Chicken Pie Shop going as a continuous presence in a changing community? It is not their contemporary marketing techniques. They have no website. They do have a Facebook page with some basic information. However, Gary himself does not even have an email address.
It is neither their innovative décor nor exterior appearance. As stated, it has not changed much through the years. Nor is it their experimental or trendy menu. A burger is basically a burger and a pie a pie. The menu has remained pretty consistent. It is made and served with love and care.
What ‘it is” is something different. What makes this not a food or restaurant review is the secret of this icon’s longevity. It is about culture and community. The Chicken Pie Shop is embedded in the community and is also a place where community happens. It does not exist in isolation. People gather there and feel at home. It convenes and encourages community. It invites participation without demanding it. Walking in the door, one may not notice that one is not being assaulted by someone’s version of what the music of the day should be, but the benefit is present. It facilitates friendships. It cultivates familiarity.
If integrity has to do with being integrated into the whole, the Chicken Pie Shop stands as an integral presence.
It is the perfectly logical place for a stroller to begin his stroll through the Tower District.
Every neighborhood in America needs gathering places where neighbors can meet neighbors and newcomers can make friends.
I asked Gary what the neighborhood might need to thrive and he suggested that some major anchor stores might help bring in more people. He observed that events like Art Hop and other celebrations tend to bring more people into his establishment.
The “magic’ of the Tower is not the clever business models, gimmicky marketing, or other forms of contrived pizzazz. It is, rather, the creative and friendly people, the relaxed atmosphere, the welcome mat for artists and artisans, and the old and young who are building a sense of neighborhood through their presence, participation, and partnership
Gary Ross is one of those people and the Chicken Pie Shop is one of those warm, friendly, and recognizable places where people can gather for some comforting food and comfortable, relaxed, and prolonged conversation.
Gary and Rishele, along with great employees like Alannah, are keepers of a legacy. Whether they need or will need to make changes as time goes by is incidental. Great business minds and culinary geniuses can consult on those questions. What is clear to me is that they need to continue and deserve the support of the all, who like me, love this District.
They are, after all, a Tower institution.
Strolling through the Tower, this is Tom Sims.
The Chicken Pie Shop can be found at:
861 E. Olive
Fresno, California 93728
Phone 1 (559) 237-5042
Mon – Fri: 7:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Sat: 7:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Sun: 8:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.