MORGANTOWN – Seriously: Do people enjoy what you do for a living, as much?
Rick Hardy and Danielle Rochester share in what is arguably one of the single-most appreciated jobs in all of north-central West Virginia.
They’re the keepers of the pepperoni.
“And the cheese,” Rochester said, chuckling. “Don’t forget the cheese.”
Hardy smiled across the conveyor.
“Well, you know,” he said. “We do what we can.”
Which happens to be making pepperoni rolls at Chico Bakery.
The Chico family, along with its various food-related enterprises, has been a staple of the Morgantown business community for going on 100 years.
Their bakery is famous for its line of “Julia’s Pepperoni Rolls.”
Some 15,000 a day are created by Hardy, Rochester and the other employees at the shop on Beechurst Avenue.
If you don’t know what a pepperoni roll is, you didn’t grow up here.
Or, you just moved here and haven’t established your culinary residency long enough to have tried one, yet.
The pepperoni roll, the Mountain State’s uniquely exclusive snack food, was born right here in the north-central climes.
It harkens back to coal mining and Italian immigrant culture.
Every company house in the coal camp had a kitchen and some even had bricked bread ovens in the postage stamp back yard.
Either way, the oven was the epicenter, and the pepperoni roll that eventually emerged was a study in resourcefulness and creativity.
A guy’s gotta eat, especially when he’s looking at a grueling, dangerous
shift hundreds of feet underground.
Some miners took to grabbing sticks of pepperoni and slices of bread for a de facto sandwich on the way, as they walked to the portal, the entrance of the mine.
Thing was, it was a little awkward to eat.
What if you baked the pepperoni into the bread itself?
Thus, a signature food was born.
And no, it’s not to be confused with a calzone — or staked out as a stromboli’s poor second cousin.
Pure and proud, it’s a pepperoni roll.
Or, a roll with pepperoni therein.
But that still doesn’t mean it can’t evolve every now and then, Sam Chico III said.
Julia gets a makeover
“We’re pretty excited about where we’re going with this one,” the bakery owner said last week.
It was quite cold outside, with snow in the air.
Inside, though, it was warm, with the olfactory bounce-back of a coal camp kitchen.
The aroma of fresh-baked bread, you know.
Chico Bakery’s operation is a mix of high-tech and history.
That’s because oh-so-calibrated, 21st century machinery is working from a bread recipe created by Chico’s grandmother, Julia — yes, that Julia — which dates back to 1925.
One such machine from Holland precisely kneads the dough while another from Columbus, Ohio, surgically slices the pepperoni.
Eyeballing is still involved, though, no matter how shiny and fancy the machines.
“You have to make sure it ‘looks’ right,” Rochester said, as she and Hardy tweaked rows of pepperoni and slices of cheese that rolled by onto their conveyor to be folded into the dough.
That’s all the time and especially now, Chico said, echoing Rochester.
The bakery, you see, is debuting a new roll.
‘Fast food for foodies’
Say hello to “Julia’s Par-Baked Pepperoni Roll,” which the bakery started turning out in July.
“Par-Baked,” is marketing-speak for “partially baked,” and that’s the hook, said Chico, the third generation in the family to produce pepperoni rolls for a living.
A specially channeled “double-decker” Tuscan roll with two rows of pepperoni slices and sharp provolone does the heavy lifting for this latest addition to the line.
It’s delivered halfway frozen.
You pop it in your convection oven for a couple of minutes, and the result is something that could have emerged from a trendy eatery in Manhattan, Chico said.
“It’s fast food, for foodies.”
Right now, Julia’s Par-Baked Pepperoni Roll is a commercial offering.
The roll is being marketed to restaurants, college dining halls and other entities across the East.
Five months in, the sales pitch has proven popular, which means the bakery’s 21 employees who work in two shifts are now putting the pepperoni pedal to the metal.
It’s the free sample that gets prospective vendors, Chico said.
“One client said, ‘I could use 10,000 a week.’ ”
After the internal happy-dancing and invisible hyperventilating calmed, Chico smiled, and extended his hand.
“I said, ‘Sure. We can do that.’ ”
Most of the bakery’s employees have worked there for years. A couple of decades, even.
Marketing director Steve Simons is Sam Chico’s buddy from the old St. Francis High School.
“Heck, we go all the back to kindergarten,” Simons said.
Founder Sam Chico Sr., whose family came to the U.S. from Calabria, worked himself through Penn State University shining shoes and cutting hair.
He was on his way to check out job opportunities in Florida when he stopped in Morgantown and met a bubbly young woman named Julia.
“Well, that was it for Florida,” Sam III said.
Sam Chico IV, meanwhile, is also working at the bakery while finishing up a degree in finance at WVU.
He interned last summer at a brokerage house in Philadelphia and wants to head out in the world a bit before coming back home.
After building a career in his field, the fourth-generation Chico baker, known as “Auggie,” said he’s sure he’ll settle back with the family business.
“I’m proud of the lineage,” he said.
“And I just love the idea of this place.”
“We’ll be here when you get back,” his dad said, before going off to examine the latest batch.