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American apple pie warms struggling Spain

By Al Goodman, CNN
updated 8:11 AM EDT, Wed July 31, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Liberty Pies & Cakes founder Burton Novack says job creation is the way to economic recovery
  • Novack's key hire is a veteran pastry chef who formerly worked at an American-style pie shop in Madrid
  • The company is nearly making a profit, even as 200,000 small businesses have closed in the crisis

(CNN) -- It was a difficult choice: the apple pie or the New York-style cheesecake?

Both sat in front of me, looking succulent on separate plates, on the counter at Liberty Pies & Cakes in Madrid. I pushed my coffee aside to study this opportunity.

We were in the middle of filming a report about Burton Novack, an American expat in Madrid whom you might call an unusual entrepreneur.

In the midst of Spain's economic crisis, he opened a shop two years ago to make and sell American-style pies and cakes.

Unusual because he's an octogenarian. He looks pretty fit. He says he still plays tennis. He certainly still drives because I took a ride in his car from the shop to his office, where I met his large parrot.

"I said, 'why don't I go after that making apple pies and cherry pies and things like that. Of course I really didn't know anything about how to do it,' " Novack said.

Read more: Spain's tourism boom keeps troubled country partying

But he knows about business. He built a successful engineering firm over decades, with projects for the nuclear power and automotive industries, among others. His oldest son now runs Liberty Pies from a sleek office in central Madrid, which also serves as the pie firm's administrative hub.

The company is nearly making a profit, even as 200,000 small businesses have closed in the crisis.

Novack isn't the typical young entrepreneur the Spanish government aims to help with a new law to make it easier to open a business.

Watch more: Spain is betting on exports

But even without the help, the pie shop has created seven jobs, in a nation with soaring unemployment.

Novack says job creation is the way to economic recovery. His key hire seems to be a veteran pastry chef who formerly worked at an American-style pie shop in Madrid that closed years ago.

The chef, David Mota, demonstrated in the kitchen how his small team -- an assistant chef and a kitchen aide -- prepare the crusts and fillings for the pies. Novack insists they can make just about any kind of fruit pie.

Read more: Europe's politicians tackle unemployment

"The labor market has been squeezed so tight," Novack said, "they (the government) have to find a way to give work to the people because if the people don't have any money, there's little they can buy."

Will Spain need a total bailout?

"Of course, in a moment when things are like this," Novack added, "even restaurants are wanting to offer something that will attract the attention of their clients and our products do."

Energy CEO: Spain's economy improving

Sixty five percent of the desserts are sold and delivered to upscale restaurants and hotels. Novack personally convinced each of these big clients, and we went along for the pastry delivery to the Hotel AC Aitana on Madrid's main boulevard.

Spanish economy struggling

"We improve our buffet with the pies," said Hugo Vazquez, food and beverage manager at the hotel, "because the American guests try to find American products in Spain."

His shop, in northern Madrid, is decorated with images of Hollywood icons like Marilyn Monroe and Kirk Douglas, along with bright red restaurant stools and other furniture made in St. Louis, Missouri, where Novack was born.

Novack plans more expansion, even while he's worried about his own waistline.

"I should be fatter because I taste and eat a lot of pies and cakes," Novack said.

Which brings us back to my choice. Clearly, I wouldn't be able to have an objective opinion about the apple pie or the cheese cake unless I tried them.

So for the sake of the story, I dug in. Research is research. And it persuaded me that American-style desserts can come out quite well, even when prepared far from their normal settings.

Novack politely interrupted our conversation to take another call on his mobile phone. He says he's just lined up 10 more hotels to take his pies. Despite the economic crisis, his phone keeps ringing.

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