October 26, 2010 at 11:43 PM CDT - Updated August 23 at 8:05 PM
The red studebaker is from 1951, the same year that Lea's Lunchroom opened in the small central Louisiana town of Lecompte. But Lea Johnson actually started this business in 1928 in the nearby town of Cheneyville.
"He went to Cheneyville and he started selling gasoline and popcorn and coffee," said owner Ann Johnson.
That was the year before the Great Depression, a lousy time to start a business. But Lea made a great hire, a young woman names Georgie.
"My mother went to work for him when she was 17. So she started bringing my grandmother's pies up there, maybe one or two a week," Johnson said.
Lea and Georgie married. Their 82 year-old business is now run by daughter Ann Johnson.
"My mother did everything. She was the brains and he was the PR," Ann says.
In the beginning, Georgie sold a couple of pies a week. Today, the family lunchroom sells 65,000 pies a year. It's those pies that make Lea's and the town of Lecompte famous.
In the year 2001, the Louisiana Legislature declared Lecompte the pie capital of Louisiana because of Lea's.
The pie baking starts at 6am. The fruit fillings simmer on the stove. The pie crusts are rolled out by hand. The meringue is piled high on top of the chocolate, coconut, and lemon pies. The sugary smell of dark corn syrup and pecans fills the kitchen. A thin blanket of dough is gently laid on top of the cherry filling. The pies are then warmed to perfection in the ovens.
The recipes for these pies at Lea's haven't changed since the day the business opened 82 years ago. And those ingredients are still a family secret.
John Compton grew up eating at Lea's. He and his wife Fannie have been regulars for more than 50 years.
"Eating is very important to us. As most people in Louisiana, and we can have pie even for breakfast. A banana pie is wonderful for breakfast," says Fannie Compton.
The busiest day ever was the day before Thanksgiving, the year that a 90-plus year-old Lea Johnson was a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The baking started at midnight, and when it was all over, 1,200 pies came out of the ovens. Lea's has survived the opening of the Interstate 49, two miles to the west, and it's unfazed by other trends.
"It kind of worried me for a while when everyone got on a health kick and I was worried about pies because it was our main thing. But it didn't. Even people that have diabetes eat the pie, then run home and take a shot," Ann Johnson says.
No sugar free pies here. Just the real deal that has made Lea's Lunchroom a must-stop for generations of travelers.