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VOL. 40 | NO. 9 | Friday, February 26, 2016

Lovingly baked: Slice of heaven in Berry Hill

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Suzanne Loving waits at the front counter for the next hungry customers to come into the Loving Pie Company in Berry Hill.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Thick coffee and baked pie aromas mingling inside the tidy building signal I’ve found perfect refuge from the storms of life. All the damned snow. And then the cold rain. Waiting for the sun.

The Loving Pie Company, the name on the outside of 2806 Columbine Place in Berry Hill, offers sensual, perhaps slightly erotic, promise too good to resist on a gloomy afternoon.

What can a poor old man do when offered both “loving” and “pie” during a mean season when predicted snow dustings have become four-inches high and rising?

That’s why I find myself sitting across a table in the post-WWII bungalow where Suzanne Loving offers up her savory and sweet pies.

It was a coffee-chess pie day for me. I usually skip lunch (a habit honed in my 40-cups-of-coffee, three-packs-a-day, invincible newspapering youth.) But on this day, I consider splurging for a chicken pot pie.

Or maybe I should try the shepherd’s pie …. I decide that if I return on St. Pat’s Day I’ll certainly order the “holiday” special, a corned beef and cabbage pie, good for a tummy before going out for green beer, I suppose (another delight long in my past).

One day, the need for a good spice sweat could lead me to one of those salsa-crowned Mexican-styled quiches.

“I don’t use any corn syrup when I make my pies,” says Suzanne -- the Loving baker, proprietor, boss and, of course, namesake – whose dream flourishes on this side street that helps connect the flock of recording studios that have overtaken a neighborhood built for working-class heroes.

The soft-spoken baker’s blue eyes sparkle when talking about her 7-year-old, gray rescue cat, George (who does not come to the restaurant, but chooses instead to stay in Suzanne’s home, also in Berry Hill.)

“It takes me two minutes to get home if I need to,” she says, professing her love for this guitar-strumming neighborhood that has turned into what Music Row was 40 years ago and wishes it could be again, though condo developers and concrete-shoebox greed have made that impossible. When the music’s over, turn out the lights. Kristofferson doesn’t live here anymore.

Instead, singer-songwriters, guitar pickers, luthiers and producers now are more apt to be found in Berry Hill, where instead of taking themselves down to the Tally-Ho Tavern they seek out Suzanne’s pies between swapping licks of the guitar variety.

Many wash dinner and dessert pies down with gourmet caffeine concoctions without realizing they are dealing with the source of the restaurant’s name as well as its very heart.

“You’d be surprised how often it happens that people have been in here many times and don’t put it together unless I’m wearing a nametag with ‘Suzanne Loving’ on it,” says the gentle baker, pausing to sip from her coffee mug. “They’ll see that nametag and then they’ll say ‘Oh, Loving… Loving…. Now I get it.’”

Many visitors – from honky-tonk heroes to a visibly battered journalist – venture here simply because the “Loving” name, coupled with the word “Pie,” evokes Norman Rockwell-flavored memories of grandma’s kitchen of love and pies.

And that’s not bad, according to Suzanne, who says the product of her one-oven kitchen should remind us of our grandmas’ kitchens in the days before the frozen desserts aisle became so popular.

That’s the reason the good-old-days-seeking 50-plus clubs who frequent this restaurant have found happiness (if not Johnny Carson or Andy Griffith) here.

“Having those people that are grandparents come in here especially for something as nostalgic as pie is great,” adds Suzanne, who eagerly takes “as much time as I can to get to know the stories of the people who come here.”

She has great memories of her own grandmothers making pies – from pumpkin to sweet potato to chocolate and beyond – while she grew up “in Portsmouth, near Virginia Beach,” her Tidewater life before she became a Music City pilgrim.

Suzanne brought her warm spunk here almost by accident. After being exposed to our city by summer jobs at LifeWay-run camps, she decided this was home, the place she’d settle while searching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Instead, she found potpie.

“I didn’t have a job,” she remembers, adding she and her then-roommate dropped whatever they were doing (which really was nothing) and moved to the Nipper’s Corner area. “She still lives over there with her husband,” says Suzanne, single for now.

If that situation changes for the 31-year-old blonde, don’t expect “Loving” to leave her nametag, her business or even her driver’s license.

“’Loving’ makes so much sense for what I do,” she explains. “It would have to be a pretty good last name for me to change it.”

While we sit on the comfortable chairs in the yellow room of the little cottage – each room has a different bright, Bermuda-style color – her staff of four works coffee machines, waits the occasional mid-afternoon customer and prepares dough Suzanne will roll out and turn to hand-crimped shells when she returns to the kitchen.

The quirky color scheme, the tidy little rooms, the butt-pleasing furniture – “it ought to be comfortable, we bought it used. All broken in,” she says, with a smile – is all part of Suzanne’s anti-corporate approach.

“So many coffee houses (she doesn’t use names, Starbucks and wannabes), now use that industrial design, with the high ceilings and the furniture that’s not particularly comfortable. It’s like they don’t want you to stay long,” she says.

Her place eagerly embraces those who want to linger. Of course there are always those in a hurry, no matter wherever they are.

Many neighborhood Nashville Cats drop in for caffeine infusions to go.

“Sometimes they’ll be out walking their dogs and they’ll tie them up outside while they come in,” she adds, nodding toward the railing of the handicap-accessible ramp fronting her restaurant.

Across the street, a fellow, who at least looks like a musician, plays with a large dog of vagrant breed in one of the four small neighborhood parks spread through Berry Hill.

“I think that’s just called ‘Columbine Park,” Suzanne says, when I press her for the name of that particular green space and playground that helps give her block even more Mayberry charm.

Trained at the culinary school at the Art Institute out by BNA, Suzanne’s career had sterling corporate beginnings. “I worked in different restaurants … worked my way up in different kitchen settings.”

Her non-corporate soul began to emerge while she was executive chef at an unnamed Brentwood establishment.

Suzanne Loving works the dough into a crust ready for filling.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“I was working a lot of hours. I was in the highest position you could have in my profession,” Suzanne explains. “But it didn’t seem like my staff and I were getting the respect we deserved ….

“When I was back there in culinary school, I didn’t ever think about having my own restaurant. The more I worked in restaurants, though; I wanted to have the ability and autonomy just to have fun.

“Fun,” by the way, is defined by the bright colors and lively concoctions. In addition to berry (in season), apple and chess, there are all varieties of nut and fruit pies.

“Livin’ La Vida Mocha” for example is a chocolate custard concoction “with a coffee-cream-cheese ganache” she dreamed up when needing another chocolate dish on her menu.

“Pie Want to Dance With Somebody,” is a special pie fashioned to honor Whitney Houston.

“I have it on real good authority that her favorite dessert was carrot cake. So, we made this pie with crust, a cream cheese ganache and a slice of carrot cake in it with a layer of cream cheese mousse on top.

“It was very popular. We played Whitney on Pandora all daylong.”

And then there’s Suzanne’s hospitality hero, Walt Disney.

“I read the book “Be Our Guest,” and it’s all about his philosophy of how to make people feel welcome. They are spending their time and their money with you, so you want them to feel like they are your guests. It’s all about hospitality.”

No, there are no Dumbo carousels here, but the genius who created the Mouse that Ate Florida’s guest-hugging, spirit-lifting, morale-boosting attitude offers her a blueprint for a business that offers fun along with fine food.

“We really celebrate Halloween here,” she says, by way of example. “We all dress up like ‘Pie-rates’ – get it? – for the week leading up to Halloween.

“One day we were on Tennessee Crossroads and the host (Joe Elmore, the deadpan nice guy who takes Channel 8 viewers to state treasures and funky towns) had this story about this nice, little pie shop in Berry Hill.”

That was taped long before the Halloween week airing, so when the customers came in because of Elmore’s description of the homey, simple place, they were greeted by “Aye, Matey” at the front counter and by a staff dressed up like, well, Pie-rates.

“It caught them off-guard,” recalls Suzanne. “It wasn’t what they expected.” Still, once they learned what was going on, most likely settled into a pattern, like many customers, who visit at least twice a week.

“You can’t expect customers to come in here and eat pie every day. It’s probably not good for you to eat pie every day,” she says, fingering her dark glasses frames. “Of course, if you want to, we are more than happy to serve you.”

That sense of fun is showcased in the ever-evolving concoctions she offers up in addition to the standard menu pie and coffee, a by-the-seat-of-your-pants freedom she didn’t enjoy in the corporate world.

“Out there, so many people have corporate owners, more than one person you answer to. Then it gets to where you feel defeated, really, before you even get out of the gate.”

The Loving Pie Company fits nicely into the retail, residential and recording center that is Berry Hill.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

An outcast from the corporate journalism world, I tell her I understand that fun generally isn’t found in small cubicles and narrow minds.

When she fled corporate Nashville, her mind quickly set on pie as her golden-crusted vehicle to the future.

“There’s a lot of pie in Nashville. But it’s mostly in meat-and-threes. But you never know where those pies came from? Who made them? Where were they actually assembled and baked?”

Hers are old-fashioned methods. For example, by avoiding corn syrup in her chocolate pecan pie, it turns out lighter. “The pecans float to the top and the chocolate to the bottom. You feel less guilty eating it.”

And if you go in and are baffled by the menu and just which savory or sweet pie to order, all you need to do is ask the wait staff. “They all have their favorites,” she says.

She admits that coconut custard pie is the most highly recommended pie on her menu, “because it’s my favorite. If you are passionate about something, it’s very easy for people to be able to tell. Some people can fake it, but when you really believe in something it kind of radiates from you.”

Could pie become the next big thing, supplanting the cupcake as the It-city hipster dessert of choice?

“Pie’s not like cupcakes,” she vows, adding that people do call and ask for cupcakes … and she steers them to one of her favorites among Nashville’s star fleet of mini-cake purveyors.

“I don’t know that pie will ever be a trend,” says Suzanne. “It’s such a traditional food. It’s been around for a very long time.

The first pies date back to the 1300s, when apple pies were encased in something that wasn’t very edible.

“Sugar was very rare at that time. They continued to make pie and later in the 1500s, sugar was more available and humans finally concocted an edible, enticing crust,” she continues her history lesson.

“Pie is still relevant 500 years later…. You need an occasion to have cake. You don’t need an occasion to have pie. You can have pie every day. We won’t tell you, ‘No.’”

In her three years on Columbine she has not only added more pie to the palates of Music City denizens, she also has made a literal stand against sexism.

“Nashville’s more progressive than most Southern cities, but being a female business owner in the South, you’d be surprised when I first started, I had so many people who would call who wanted to speak to ‘my husband’ rather than me. They just assumed ‘my husband’ would be handling things.

“I don’t feel the need to rely on anybody else to do what I want to do,” she says. Of course, no man nor woman is an island, the dead poet said, and “I’ve since learned to ask for help if necessary.”

She goes to the front-counter caffeine lab. Today she desires an espresso shot. But if interested, folks can order a wide variety of beverages, including “Greased Lightning,” a mix of vanilla Coke, a double-shot espresso and other undisclosed ingredients – “we all have our deepest secrets.”

Upon discovering this strange brew, Suzanne and her cook decided they’d better test-drink it. “We sipped it all day. By the end of the day you could hear colors and see sounds. Now on our menu it says ‘limit two per customer.’”

Still, she adds, there are a few regulars who come in once or twice a week for a special jolt, usually around 2:30, to help them make it through the workday.

Don’t forget the food holidays. On National Popcorn Day, for instance, she crowned a chess pie with caramel corn and “drizzled it with more caramel …. We sold out very quickly.”

And then there is Pi Day, not Pie Day, March 14 (aka 3/14), an occasion for numbers nerds (God love ‘em and keep ‘em) to celebrate 3.14159, etc. with a sweet or savory wedge.

“They come out of the woodwork on that day. They need pie. They line up outside. We sell out of pie in two hours.” Sometimes Pi’s not squared…. it’s round and has crust on it.

Suzanne easily admits her success so far has been “a crazy adventure… and I’m not done yet.”

She’d like to expand the business, either eventually find another location or simply add onto her current oasis.

“We’re so different. We’re not tied to any kind of corporate boundaries. Since we’re not a chain, we don’t have to adhere to corporate rules.

“We can have fun.”

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