Photo above: Tony Vella poses with Cootie Brown’s key lime pie delivery container at Lot 8 on State of Franklin Road in Johnson City. Photo by Collin Brooks
By Scott Robertson and Collin Brooks
On April 26, as the Johnson City Public Building Authority was considering whether to enter into negotiations with one of three entities (the Chamber of Commerce Serving Johnson City, Jonesborough and Washington County, Cootie Brown’s or Purple Cow) to build on a vacant lot along State of Franklin Road across from the ETSU parking garage, Cootie Brown’s owner Tony Vella offered a sweetener. In addition to operating a restaurant that would provide the PBA $34,000 annually in tax revenue, Vella said, his company plans to sell key lime pies online nationwide, with projected gross revenues of $49 million, and all the sales tax will be generated at the State of Franklin address.
Eyebrows were raised and most PBA members said they wanted more concrete information, but agreed that prolonging the process to allow that information to be gathered would not be fair to the other parties involved.
PBA Chair Dr. Jon Smith encouraged board members to not take into the account of collecting the revenue from the pies, because it wasn’t a solid and concrete number, yet. “When we make decisions, we’ve got to make them based on concrete, or at least nearly concrete, prospects,” he said. “And Tony is not this way, but I have run into people that have pitched some of the greatest ideas to me ever, and I am still waiting for some of them to happen. I don’t mean to be facetious, but we need to limit ourselves to what is in the near term and practical.”
In the end, Cootie Brown’s won the right to negotiate for the property. And while PBA members said the literal pie-in-the-sky revenue figure for online pie sales didn’t enter into their decision (Cootie Brown’s restaurant alone projects to generate $3,000 per annum more than Purple Cow would have and almost $12,000 more than the chamber), Vella’s announcement has created quite the buzz.
The company has spent a year in research and development of the shipping container for the pies, Vella said. “We have been working on developing a container that we can use to ship our pies in. We had a container company create a container that can hold dry ice top and bottom and can lock the pie in place so it can’t move or be destroyed in shipping. These pies have to be shipped frozen or very well refrigerated.”
Once the box was created, the company set to shipping pies around the nation with thermometers in the containers. When the pies arrived at their destinations, the recipients sent pictures back to Johnson City showing the temperature and state of the product. That R&D process is ongoing, Vella said after the PBA meeting. “I can ship one frozen to California, but if I ship one to Memphis it’s 60 degrees,” he said. “I’m thinking they put it on a plane and fly it straight out to California, but they may drive it to Memphis. So we’re still going through that process, but we should be ready by 90 days from now, ready to sell the first one online.
“I’m going to sell a million of these pies, I guarantee it,” Vella said. “And I am going to use this address to process the sale. The back office building will be my home office for Cootie Brown’s Pies and Dessert.”
The pies will sell for about $49 apiece and Vella was adamant that he would sell a million a year. “If y’all don’t think I’ll sell a million of these, then you would have never thought that Cootie Brown’s would be in business today,” said Vella, who also told the PBA his new location won’t hurt sales at the existing Cootie Brown’s location on North Roan Street. “I count the cars that drive away because that parking lot is full,” Vella said. “This city can support two Cootie Brown’s just like it can support more than one McDonald’s or more than one of any number of restaurants.”