This year marks the 80th anniversary of San Diego Chicken Pot Pie Shop being in business.
“After the Peking Restaurant (circa 1931) closed last year,” said Lisa Townsend, “we became the fourth oldest restaurant that is still operating in San Diego County.”
The oldest operating restaurants that predated the pie shop on El Cajon Boulevard (on the corner of Oregon Street) are the Waterfront Bar (circa 1933), Las Cuatro Milpas (circa 1933), and Tobey’s 19th Hole Cafe (circa 1934).
“John Townsend, my father-in-law, worked for George Whitehead, the original owner, for many years,” she said. “Then in 1990, George became ill, and my father in law purchased the business. Then after my father in law passed, my mother in law ran the restaurant until she passed away 2 years ago in September 2015. She passed it along to their two sons, Bob, my husband, and Chris.”
Townsend, 48, said when they officially took over in January of 2016, she quit her day job as a sales rep to manage the pie operation, and the brothers continued working at their jobs. The brothers occasionally come in to help with the behind the scenes operations.
“We know that we have growing competition around us,” she said, “something that’s been beneficial to us are the delivery systems, including Postmates, Grubhub and DoorDash. Before we took over, my mother-and-father in law wouldn’t have thought to have done deliveries. But younger people would come in and say ‘Hey you need to start delivering’ and this opened us up to a whole new world, that has caused a great increase in our sales.”
The North Park shop that seats about 186 patrons, makes about 300 transactions a day.
“Since we took over, there’s been an increase in to-go and delivery sales,” she said, “but a decrease in dine-in sales.”
Townsend is trying to attract some of the customers that frequent southern North Park on University Avenue — by posting four updates a week on their social media accounts. The most recent photo was of their baked chicken accompanied with a cold beer.
“We also recently started selling wine and mimosas,” she said.
"My friend’s a photographer and I interact with the 3000 plus fans on Facebook and 600-something on Instagram. Interaction with them is important ….. and the most popular posts are the throwbacks.”
Last month she posted a black and white photo on Facebook and captioned it “TBT (acronym for throwback Thursday) (followed by a chicken-head emoticon). Diners lined up for a seat in the Chicken Pie Shop, April 10, 1943.” The post garnered 93 reactions and 19 comments.
“Steve, the baker, has been here since 1955,” said Shalia Costello, a 62-year-old waitress that’s been serving their pies filled with chicken, turkey and gravy — since 1975. “When they opened the Hillcrest one, the downtown restaurant was opened for a while. George’s brother Bill ran the one downtown, and George ran the one in Hillcrest. The one in downtown closed sometime in the 1960s and I’ve been waiting at the one in Hillcrest since 1975 and then we moved here to North Park in 1990.”
On April 6 at about noon, both Costello and Townsend helped the walk-in and dine-in traffic during our interviews. The restaurant was about three quarters full and every minute-or-so, patrons would walk in.
“I’ve been coming to the pie shop for 45 years since I was a young boy,” said a to-go customer, “and now I’m only 87 years old.”
“I’ve been waiting on that man for a long time,” said Costello.
“I’ve waited on Archie Moore a lot,” Costello said, “he usually ordered the chicken pie and coleslaw at the old days in Hillcrest. Then when we moved here, he didn’t come too much."
Barbara, the other waitress that is in her 80s, refused to be interviewed.
“Barbara’s waited on Russ Washington, the San Diego Charger,” Costello said. “He still comes in on the weekends and gets a lot of food to go. Coconut cream is his favorite.”
Last month, on March 14, was Pi Day, which is dedicated to the 3.14 number that corresponds to a circle’s circumference divided by its diameter. Many pie businesses in the U.S. capitalized on this day, including Townsend’s pie-shop. “In the morning there was a long line outside,” she said, “and later that evening at 8 p.m., we sold out of 1600 pies for $3.14.”
As of late, on normal days, an a-la-carte chicken pie will cost $5.99. Six years ago, it was less than $3.
Townsend added that they are negotiating their new lease. If everything goes as planned and they stay, they will knock down a portion of the walls by Oregon Street and El Cajon Boulevard, and construct an open-air space to dine.