When we hear about how the pandemic and ensuing lockdown has affected local “industry” we might not have been thinking of the Gourmet Cobbler Factory.
Gourmet cobbler? Factory? Yes, another little known facet of our local dining scene is that apparently Pasadena has been the epicenter of artisanal fruit cobbler production for several decades. Just around the corner from the Academy Theater, the current iteration of the Gourmet Cobbler Factory dates to 2002, when Clifton and Gloria Powell brought their recipes for “Southern” fruit cobbler to replace those at the original cobbler operation, which had been producing cobbler in the same location since 1978.
Clifton had worked as a machinist at Disney for 30 years and the Powells lived across the street on Catalina when they heard the original owner was leaving. According to Clifton, “I bought a lot of cobbler from him, [but] I had my own Southern recipe… crust on the bottom, double crust.” Confident in the provenance and quality of their recipes, the Powells seamlessly installed their operation to insure that Pasadena never suffered a deficit of competently rendered fruit cobbler.
When we meet, Clifton Powell, 76, is standing in the small lobby of the “Factory” next to a display case of cobbler in tins and small individual pecan and sweet potato pies. On the back wall behind him is a painting of a New Orleans street scene with Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral in the background. Born in rural Mississippi and largely raised in New Orleans, Clifton moved to Los Angeles in 1960, where he finished high school and met Gloria, 75. The pair have been married for 56 years and have four grown children, 13 grandchildren and one great grandchild. However, none of their offspring have pursued the family legacy of cobbler baking. But did we mention the barbecue?
“I started the barbecue about five years ago…” Originally the barbecue offerings were prepped outside in back of the store. “I liked doing it in the barrel.” A neighbor’s complaint compelled him to invest in a wood-fired indoor smoker. “Someone was calling in… it was an environmental thing. I had the Health Department come out and they said I was fine. I haven’t had a problem with the Health Department or anyone else since.” He’s fully satisfied with the new equipment. “It gives me a good smoke… I can do 15 racks [of ribs] at a time.” I’m even allowed behind the wizard’s curtain, where heaving open the steel door of the smoker, Clifton draws out a fragrant, oak-scented rack with a dark glistening coat of bark. My timing is right. A catering order sold out the morning’s batch and by dinnertime my rack should be fresh, rested and ready.
Barbecue is not native to New Orleans’ creole cuisine, but gumbo is and Clifton has an original and savory take on the classic dish. “I make the roux with garden vegetables and put chicken, sausage, shrimp and crab in it.” Eschewing flour in the roux, it also happens to be gluten-free.
Okra? Apparently it’s a naïve question. “Okra is gumbo!” Taking a pint home with me, along with the ribs and cobbler, I can attest to the gumbo’s complexity, spiced with a subtle heat and a relatively light but pleasing heft, shot through with generous portions of shrimp and chicken. (It’s available in pint, quart and gallon portions.) I came for the cobbler but have become distractedly besotted by the ribs and gumbo. The side orders accompanying my ribs further verify the care taken here to insure tastiness. The potato salad is tanged with mustard, the collard greens spiked with pepper flakes, and the baked beans are nicely thick, but not too sweet.
Oh… and the cobbler? It’s the Gourmet Cobbler Factory y’all, come on now! I’ve sampled the peach and cherry so far… apple, blueberry, blackberry, mixed berry… keep ‘em coming! All the cobblers are available in portions that serve between 2 and 50, but give Gloria four hours’ notice for the larger trays. By the way, I have a “thing” about pecan pie having fruitlessly chased a fleeting childhood memory of my Aunt Lucy’s perfect rendition for years. Although, my sample here was a small individual tin, I have to say the “Factory” pecan pie is rich and thick with nuts and comes pretty darn close to taking me back home to Lucy.
Though I’ve probably gained five pounds in my two days of gorging on barbecue and cobbler here, I have no regrets. There is an unmistakable and distinct “down-home” quality to the food and atmosphere here that is deeply restorative, nourishing, and somehow reassuring that everything will be alright.
As it turned out, my first call into the Gourmet Cobbler Factory last week coincided with the first week of their re-opening. The Powells actually shut the business down a few days ahead of the lockdown in March and only opened up again on May 18. Concerned for their own safety, the couple quarantined at their home in Victorville. In the meantime, as a family operation without a standard weekly payroll, they were deemed ineligible for the Payroll Protection Program loans. They have applied for an SBA loan but have yet to be approved. Will the business be secure? Clifton Powell seems quite unflappable when asked. With a resigned and weary sigh he replies, “Customers are coming back. I’ve struggled for 18 years with this business. I’ll be fine.”
Let’s make sure that’s true. The Gourmet Cobbler Factory and Clifton’s Barbecue are vitally unique aspects of our local culture that deserve to be supported and sustained. Come for the cobbler, but don’t leave without some ribs and gumbo.
You will be happy and we’ll all be better off. –