With the chicken-salad sandwich lunch rush looming, Pam Wright wastes no time sprinkling just enough water on the butter and flour mixture on her countertop to bind the pie dough. The owner of the Cobbler Lady in Leimert Park gathers up a butter-speckled ball and rolls it out in quick strokes, then dangles the dough over one corner of a small rectangular aluminum pan, letting it buckle generously into sporadic folds on top of the peach filling.
"Customers always ask for more crust, so I experimented to get the most in there without drying out the filling," she explains, adding that she slips a layer of dough into the middle of each fruit-filled pan to lend a dumpling-like texture to the filling.
A blue-ribbon-worthy presentation is not Wright's goal. She's weathered one too many sour business deals over the last 20 years, including a failed restaurant that left her penniless (and homeless), to worry about how a wrinkle or two in the crust might appear.
"Really, everyone doesn't make cobbler this way?" asks the 57-year-old L.A. native, who was less influenced by her North Carolina grandmother's fruit cobblers than her own ingenuity.
Taking her customers' suggestions to heart for more of that shaggy crust has given Wright more time to focus on the trickiest part of making cobbler for a living — figuring out how to expand the business without losing everything.
For Wright, it's been remarkably generous customers, family and friends, and even the occasional landlord who have given her more support over the years than any bank loan ever could. (Her winning smile and those fresh-from-the-oven peach cobblers haven't hurt either.)
"I don't talk a lot, but I listen," says Wright, adjusting her lime green chef's jacket as she takes a seat at one of a handful of small tables in her nondescript strip mall cafe. "Like when people first told me they wanted cobbler, even though I didn't really know much about Southern cooking when I started."
Although Wright's family is from North Carolina, she and her mother were raised in California, so the 7-Up cakes and sweet potato pies also lining her bakery case are not part of her childhood memories. "But when I get something in my head, I find a way to do it."
Figuring out how to give Southern-style cobblers year-round appeal when the main ingredient — peaches, initially — is seasonal was the first challenge. Wright says she experimented using frozen peaches, but they didn't have the flavor her customers preferred. For her peach and apple cobblers, she ultimately settled on canned fruit. (She prefers frozen fruit for the blackberry and cherry cobblers she later added to the menu.) "It really is all about the butter crust," she says.
For several years, Wright made cobblers to order for friends and family, but owning a commercial oven was always in the back of her mind.
In the mid-1980s, she took a job as an independent wholesale car dealer, hoping to scrape together enough money to open a small bakery. "Someone told me it would take $40,000 to open a shop, which sounded like $400,000 back then," she recalls.
With little saved after three years in the car business, Wright decided to look for a more direct route to making cobblers for a living. She scoured the Recycler's classified ads every Wednesday for deals. In 1989, she found an affordable 500-square-foot retail space in a Westchester strip mall and promptly signed on the dotted line.
But there was one rather pressing problem. The space didn't have a kitchen, nor did Wright have enough capital to build one. "I had no idea what I was doing running a food business back then," she says, waving to an employee from a nearby bank who has stopped by the cafe to pick up the sandwich-soda-cobbler lunch special to go.
Wright eventually persuaded the owners of a small restaurant upstairs to allow her to use their ovens in the early-morning hours. She couldn't afford a retail sign in front of the shop, but it didn't seem to matter. "When people smelled the warm cobblers, they came right in," she says, pushing thick black curls from her face.
Wright's cobbler luck continued to carry her through those first months. A customer offered to sell her a discounted storefront sign for the Cobbler Cafe, the bakery's original name, if Wright added blackberry cobbler to the menu. And she landed a used oven for half of the asking price when she told the seller her story. "He said he liked my karma."
But success wasn't always sweet. Wright's landlord noticed the growing line of cobbler devotees in front of the shop and raised the rent. "It was such a tiny space, there'd be a line out the door with almost no one in there," Wright says.
With barely six months of professional dough-making under her belt, Wright couldn't justify the higher rent at such a small space, nor could she afford a larger space.
After several rejections, one prospective landlord offered to stagger her rent payments for the first few months after seeing her in cobbler-making action. "I couldn't believe someone I didn't know would do that for me."
At her Inglewood location, Wright added boxed lunches to the menu to keep the cobblers coming out of the oven. "Lunch is how you keep going."
In 1995, Wright decided to try her hand at wholesale cobbler baking. "My problem is when something is going well, I get bored and want to do something new," she says. "I love the wheeling and dealing of setting up new businesses."
But the wholesale business folded within a few months. Three years later, Wright opened a small Southern-style restaurant, Cobbler Cafe No. 2, but it never got off the ground either. With debt from those failed businesses growing, Wright was forced to close the Cobbler Cafe in 2000.
"I was spent, emotionally, spiritually, physically, and I never wanted to be back in the kitchen again," she says. She was also homeless, having sold her home in Windsor Hills to pay off business loans. For more than a year, she hopped sofas at friends' and family's homes with her two dogs in tow.
But Wright couldn't get cobbler off her mind. "Customers were asking when I was going to start back up, and this little seed was starting to grow again — I just had to figure out how."
She still had plenty of good cobbler karma. Her niece, Angela Spires, offered her own credit as loan collateral. A landlord in Leimert Park, charmed by the Cobbler Lady, gave Wright her first few months rent free. "I had no money, I couldn't have done it without him," says Wright, tears welling up in her eyes as she looks around the small shop where she's been selling cobblers, still warm from the oven, to loyal neighborhood customers for eight years.
With the business going strong, this time around she has one thing on her mind. "The next time I get bored, I need to go on vacation."