Take a quick look around the farm/restaurant/market complex and you might think the Flippen family already has pushed the value-added concept about as far as possible. Think again. Flippen Fruit Farm, begun by family patriarch Jack Flippen in 1952, could be poised for its biggest venture yet.
Located 3.5 miles from the southeast corner of tourist-magnet Reelfoot Lake in west Tennessee, the Flippens welcome as many as 600 visitors a day to their Hungry Hillbilly Restaurant adjacent to their market selling everything from honey to pear preserves, sauces to salsas.
But when you think Flippen, you really have to think fried pies. They're now selling about a million a year. These fat pies started as family-created apple wonders. Now they also make peach, sweet potato, blackberry, strawberry, cherry, chocolate, coconut, sugar-free apple and peach.
To hear Jack Flippen tell it, just about everything they've done has been in response to one disaster or another.
“We planted our first trees because we didn't like raising cotton. A Stark's Nursery salesman came by and gave us a deal where we had five years to pay. So we set out 600 apple and 300 peach trees. We'd always had a few trees and melons. My family was what you'd call tailgaters when I grew up, selling off the back of a truck,” Flippen says.
“Back then Obion County grew more fruit than all the rest of Tennessee and there were orchards all over the county, so we knew this was a good place to grow fruit. Now a nephew and I are the only ones left.”
During the 1980s, frost wiped out many orchards in the county. At the same time, Washington State apple growers over-planted acreage and markets plummeted.
“Friends were going broke left and right. I was looking to diversify. I saw that something had to be done. Washington State was planting thousands and thousands of apple trees. I didn't know what to do. Then a hailstorm came along and beat the trees up pretty bad. I said there's bound to be something we can do with this stuff. So we peeled the apples, bagged and froze them,” he says.
Then Diane, Jack's wife, whom he calls “the brains of the outfit,” got to work. She began refining ideas for the perfect pie mix. Friends were invited over and asked for ideas. After a year of testing, she considered her pie mix suitable, and made her first commercial fried pies.
The Flippens made them on a grill and sold them at a Reelfoot Lake festival for 50 cents. Lines were so long they upped the price to 75 cents. At the next year's festival, they couldn't keep up with the demand. Jack bought a concession trailer equipped to cook 20 pies at a time. Demand still outstripped the supply.
“People stood in line a long time to get a fried pie. I said if they like them that much we ought to be able to get them up here to the farm if we had a market. So we built the market and made a place to fry pies,” Jack says.
Soon the Flippens were selling fruit and pies right from the farm headquarters. They had enough room to seat 17 people eating pies. Diane had long made meals for farm workers, salesmen and anyone dropping by around lunchtime. Her hamburgers were already in demand, so they decided to start selling them.
Business was still fairly small. That changed in a hurry.
“One day in January we were sitting here and a big busload of tourists came in and started ordering pies and fruit and hamburgers. We weren't ready and they about wore us out. So we knew we either had to really get in the business or get out. That's when we decided to build the restaurant and a big room for making pies. The fried pies are responsible for the whole business, really,” Jack says.
Tourists pour into the area to visit Reelfoot Lake, creating a natural market for the Flippens. A series of earthquakes in 1811-12 created the 18,000-acre lake. Today it's home to more than 50 species of fish. It also has one of the nation's largest winter populations of bald eagles, and eagle tours attract many of the visitors.
“We're in a good location. These buses come in here and people want to eat and they want to buy something,” Jack says.
But the Flippens, of course, weren't content to sit back and let customers just wander in. They took their concession trailer to festivals, flea markets, fairs and farm sales all over the Mid-South. Every time they sold a fried pie, they handed out a brochure touting the farm, market and restaurant.
“Six years ago we were doing 50,000 pies a year. We thought that was pretty good,” Jack says.
Then Jack and Diane's son, Hayes, took the pies wholesale. He ran a route to stores in Memphis and Arkansas, all the time talking up those good-tasting pies Mama made on the farm. Some wholesale distributors agreed to carry them. Custom-made equipment from California let them expand fried pie production to 800 an hour.
Sales now stand at about a million fried pies yearly. They're sold throughout west Tennessee, western Kentucky, Arkansas and southern Missouri. Every peach and apple pie is made from fruit the Flippens grew.
The farm itself evolved as this took place. Apples trees were pushed up and replanted to more-profitable peaches.
“We went from 200 acres of apples to 25. Peach pies outsell apple. The apple business went bust. Washington State over-planted and put in controlled atmosphere storage so they can keep apples in there year-round. They send them east on consignment. That killed the eastern apple market. Every time we grew a bushel of apples, we lost $2 wholesaling. Apples broke a lot of people around here. So we kept pushing up those 10-year-old trees and we got lucky. With fruit, you have to think four years ahead,” Jack says.
Even a million fried pies still can't use all that fruit, though. So they continue to sell their own peaches, apples, nectarines and pears in the market.
They now have about 100 acres of peaches. The peach market is nothing like the apple market, Jack says.
“We developed a reputation for peaches. We put a sign up saying Flippen peaches are ready, and people come to get them. Georgia peaches, Illinois peaches, they don't hurt us one bit. We pick a ripe peach. Ours taste like tree-ripened peaches because that's what they are. They're picked in buckets. They are not brushed.
“We seldom keep a peach in our cooler longer than two days. Several of these boys that set up stands buy from us, 20 to 100 pecks a day. We have four tents of our own where we sell peaches, too. People come here from Memphis, Nashville, Texas, Missouri, all over, to get our peaches,” Jack says.
The restaurant evolved from the days when the menu choice ranged from hamburger to cheeseburger. Now their Friday and Saturday night buffet features catfish and country ham, considered the local delicacies. They roll out good steak and chicken, as well. Some people make the trip just for the renowned corn casserole.
“We emphasize quality in everything, whether it's the food or the fruit. We want to buy the best catfish fillets, the best hams. We cook it like we'd cook at home for the family. Hundreds of thousands of people come through here every year now. I'm still kind of amazed by it,” Jack says.
The Flippens' daughter, Pam, directs much of the operation dealing with the public. Her husband, Steve Killion, manages the orchard.
Jack prefers being out on the farm to hanging around headquarters. He still has a sharp eye for the fruit business. Several years ago fire blight attacked most pear trees in the area. While driving to town, he noticed an undamaged old pear tree growing in a fencerow, loaded down with fruit. He traded some apples and peaches for cuttings off the pear tree and grafted them onto rootstock. Those trees are still untouched by fire blight. A commercial nursery is now testing the trees and may start selling them, with royalties going to the Flippens.
“It's called the Flippen pear. They're good for both eating and preserving. We want to see if they keep coming back true. They're in the third generation here. That original tree is still growing and producing pears, and people more than 80 years old have told me they ate pears from it when they were children. These pears can weigh more than a pound each. It's a very early-bearing tree, and it spurs real heavy. So I'm interested to see what comes of it,” Jack says.
Meanwhile, the fried pie business intrigues more distributors all the time, and a large convenience store chain may soon begin selling them. That could double the fried pie business — a prospect that doesn't awe Jack.
“When we went into value-added production, we came to realize we were not farmers anymore. We had to learn different aspects of the business. We learned this is a constantly changing business, and that nothing here would be the same any more. Twenty-five years ago we worked May through October and took off the rest of the year, to be honest about it. Now we're going hard 12 months of the year. But we survived and the other fruit growers here are gone.”