Jason Haught didn’t want to be rude.
It’s just that the Chico Bakery employee had pepperoni rolls to put out – even if meant sidling past a “Good Morning America” video crew to do it.
“Hey, folks, sorry,” he said. “I just need to get around you one more time. You try a pepperoni roll yet?”
Pepperoni rolls were why said crew was set up at the bakery on Beechurst Avenue on the mellow Wednesday afternoon.
Morgantown, and West Virginia, are the latest stops on the ABC morning show’s “Rise and Shine” tour of all 50 U.S. states.
Maryland and North Carolina are the most recent ones visited for the segment. The idea was to showcase the things that make every state in the union unique.
The West Virginia segment, which is set to air in the 8-9 a.m. time frame on Friday’s show , also includes a look at the New River Gorge Bridge.
When the Mountain State came up on the GMA schedule, Alyssa Acquavella was immediately consulted.
She’s a 2016 graduate of the Reed College of Media and is producer and writer on the show.
Her bosses knew she went to school in West Virginia, and when they asked her to name-check some things that make the state famous – she didn’t blink.
“I said, ‘You want to do something on the downtown campus and you definitely want to do Chico’s for Julia’s Pepperoni Rolls.’ ”
Sam Chico III was pretty jazzed by that, even if he (sort of) thought it might have been a crank call at first when Acquavella punched in his number.
“I feel really good that they wanted to feature us,” said the latest Chico to run the enterprise that has been part of Morgantown’s business life and times for a century.
“That tells me that we’re seen as just one of those iconic businesses that’s just always been around.”
You can thank the family patriarch Sam Chico Sr., for that.
No, it’s not a calzone …
Sam Sr. was a guy who knew how to get it done.
His family came to the U.S. from Calabria, and, with immigrant-kid zeal, he worked his way 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.
“And that was it for Florida,” Sam III said.
He and Julia married and went into the bakery business. The bread baked today for her namesake pepperoni roll is from her recipe which dates back to 1925.
Which is around the same time pepperoni rolls began being commercially produced fare.
Which, also, might have some readers asking a fair question: What the heck is a “pepperoni roll,” anyway?
Acquavella, a New Jersey kid who came to WVU for school, quickly learned … what it isn’t.
“Yeah, I thought it was a calzone at first,” she said.
If you have to ask, you didn’t grow up here either – and you haven’t been in town quite long enough to establish your culinary residency.
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 had taken 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 actually baked the pepperoni into the bread itself?
Thus, a signature food was born.
And no, as said, 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.
All hail the Keeper of the Pepperoni
Danielle Rochester, meanwhile, was oblivious to the TV-tumult all around her as she set about her task.
She doles out the pepperoni slices in every roll that passes by her station, and the bakery puts out 20,000 a day. Yep, a day.
It’s computerized, and your great-great Italian grandma’s kitchen, all at once.
The dough that Jason Haught wrestles with daily is hupped into a machine that precisely kneads it, while another machine from Columbus surgically slices the pepperoni.
If any of it is the least bit imperfect, it won’t roll past Rochester, who likes to joke about her job description.
“I’m the ‘Keeper of the Pepperoni,’” she’ll proclaim. “The most important job in here.”
Sam Chico IV, meanwhile – just call him, “Auggie” – knows all about jobs in the bakery, since he’s toiled at every one there is, at one time or another.
Russ Marhull’s ringing endorsement of the roll
As soon as he was old enough, Auggie Chico went to work in the bakery, from pushing a broom to crafting the pepperoni rolls synonymous with his last name.
He continued to work there through college.
Chico, the younger, graduated from WVU in 2020 with a degree in finance, and, before the pandemic hit, had founded a successful enterprise with two buddies that repurposes batteries used in electric cars for other alternative energy needs.
When COVID-19 rolled in, and the conveyor on Chico’s shop floor stopped rolling, Auggie Chico stepped away from his business to redirect his energies to the other one.
“It’s the family, and our employees are family,” he said. “Of course, I was gonna step in.”
“He was right there,” his dad said.
Now, the market for Julia’s pepperoni rolls is rebounding. The product is known regionally, of course, and it also ships its rolls to fans from New York to Florida to California.
“I’m anxious to see if we pick up any national orders after Good Morning America,” Auggie Chico said.
“It’s a thrill to get the recognition,” Sam Chico III said.
And there’s nothing like a satisfied customer, he quickly added.
“Oh, my God,” Stephanie Ramos, the ABC correspondent who conducted the segment, said with a thumb’s up as she sampled her first-ever roll.
Russ Marhull, the photography director and videographer who wielded the lens for the visit was even more vocal.
“Mr. President,” he said to Sam III after digging in, “these are badass.”