By Peter S. Cohan
Over a hundred years ago, a sheep rustler in northern Greece killed a shepherd. Absent that tragedy, local pie maker Table Talk might not exist today.
As Table Talk CEO Harry Kokkinis explained in a September 27 interview, a sheep rustler killed his great grandfather in Macedonia – which was then part of Turkey and was home to Serbians, Romanians, Albanians and other groups. In 1912, Mr. Kokkinis’s grandfather immigrated to America to find a job so he could feed his family in Macedonia. Today Mr. Kokkinis – after significant ups and downs over the intervening years – leads the now nearly-$100 million (estimated 2016 revenues) pie empire that his grandfather co-founded back in 1924.
Theodore Tonna – Mr. Kokkinis’s grandfather – and Angelo Cotsidas met and worked at a bakery in Worcester. Before that Mr. Tonna was working at a bakery in Woonsocket, R.I.
The company started as a bread bakery. “Mr. Tonna had recently moved to Worcester, because there was a larger Greek population and a better market for bread and pastry. The owner at the bakery they were both working at was looking to sell and move back to Greece. They saw this as the perfect opportunity to open their own bakery – on Clayton Street, which is now underneath Route 290 near Belmont Street. They financed the bakery with money they had set aside due to their hard work. Their bread was very popular with the locals, so they wanted to expand into pies because they felt pies represented America and everyone loves pie. They were trying to come up with a name for the company based on my grandfather’s initials – TT – and agreed to call it Table Talk,” said Mr. Kokkinis.
Table Talk’s first customers were the local bakeries and grocers that were already buying their bread. The pies were sold in the store front and also out of the back of a truck. As Mr. Kokkinis explained, “They believed quality was their most important product. Mr. Tonna would say, ‘Pies have to be made with romance.’”
One of the challenges with a family business is what to do when the founders retire. Table Talk could not find a successor among the three founding families, so it sold the company in 1965 to Beechnut, a maker of baby food and other products, for $15 million to $20 million – a price that Mr. Kokkinis said was reported by the Telegram & Gazette. At the time, Table Talk was “the largest pie bakery in the country at the time with over 400 employees,” he said.
The main protagonist of the next part of the story was Mr. Tonna’s son-in-law, Christos Cocaine. Mr. Cocaine’s last name was changed from Kokkinis – which understandably raises questions in the minds of people who hear or read it for the first time.
From here, Table Talk headed downward. “Mr. Cocaine continued to work at the bakery even after it was sold until 1970. Beechnut was subsequently bought by Squibb, and Mr. Cocaine left in 1977. Squibb decided to sell it to Texas General, a leveraged buyout firm which pretty much ran the business into the ground. Its doors closed in 1984,” he said.
But at that point, the Table Talk story took a much better turn. “In 1985, Mr. Cocaine bought back the bakery, the building and the name – financed by a bank loan and a mortgage on the building – and built the business back up on our four-inch snack pies. In 1986, he reopened Table Talk – deciding to focus on the snack pies, because some of Table Talk’s restaurant customers – diners and luncheonettes – were going out of business as the fast food industry was becoming more popular. Table Talk sold the snack pies to grocers and convenience stores.”
Mr. Kokkinis came to work at Table Talk with his father in 2003, and took on the chief executive officer role after his father passed away in February 2015.
“In a few short years there were over 100 employees and we had over $30 million in sales. Since 2008 we have enjoyed great growth thanks to new products including eight inch pies and frozen private-label pies. Today we have over 300 full time and seasonal employees and sold over 100 million four inch pies in 2015 all over the United States. Our 2016 sales are trending towards $100 million,” Mr. Kokkinis explained.
Table Talk is investing in its local brand – planning to open a retail store that sells pies, on Green Street in October.
A story that started with a Greek tragedy a century ago has had a happy ending in Worcester.