Eyes on the pies

Pies and pasties have proven to be a lucrative investment again this year for high street butchers continuing to ride out the recession.

According to Kantar Worldpanel, the total pie and pasty market has continued to grow, up 1.1% in the 52 weeks ending 17 April 2011. The industry is now worth nearly £745m, with hot pies taking the largest slice of the action. Pork pies have showed enduring appeal, with a 2.6% rise by value, although pasties fared less well, down 3.9% and still lagging far behind quiches and flans. However, it was sausage rolls that saw the largest increase after a rocky year in 2010, up in both value (by 3.9% to £138m) and volume (4% year-on-year).

With the market remaining relatively buoyant, there are ample opportunities for butchers to get a slice of the action, whether through making their own pies from scratch, buying in the pastry and getting full utilisation of the carcase or baking off pre-prepared pies and pasties, for a boost of value-added profit.
John Mettrick of J W Mettrick & Sons butchers in Derbyshire attributes much of the reason for pies and pasties holding their own under challenging circumstances down to their convenience and the continuing consumer desire of buying good value. “With price-conscious customers looking for cheaper meal solutions there is no doubt that pies are becoming a very important part of our business. Other butchers I speak to are also finding this to be the case,” he says.

“Our pork pie sales have increased dramatically in the past six months and we sold more at Christmas 2010 than ever before. Our weekly sales have also increased significantly. The good weather at Easter and around the Royal Wedding also boosted sales of our 1 1/2lb pork pies as they cut up well for celebrations.”

Faye Moffat of Nicholson’s Butchers in Nelson agrees: “Although the recession has hit hard, our pie sales have actually increased over the past three years. Pies represent good value for money as they provide a hearty meal for relatively little money and we feel this has increased their popularity during the recession.
“The people of Lancashire really enjoy their pies, so pies are a big part of our business. For us, pies mean profit. They provide a great way of utilising cuts of meat that would otherwise be thrown away, which limits costly waste and boosts profits. However, we don’t sell a huge range as this reduces profit.”
David Dunne of Interbake, which supplies baking and catering equipment to butchers and farm shops, has seen a growth in the number of butchers diversifying. “A lot of butchers who don’t know the market are dipping their toes in,” he says. “Once they get into making pies, they see how lucrative and beneficial to the business it is.

“If there’s a demand at lunchtime and you can site an oven in the shop, then hot pies become an impulse purchase,” he says, adding, “People buy with their eyes.”

Stephen Clifford, marketing controller at Country Choice, agrees, pointing out the rise of the slice, a modern twist on traditional pies, suitable for lunchtime. “They’ve really taken off as they’re hand-held and dry-fill, and have a more contemporary feel.”  He also identifies ‘ambient’ savoury pastries as a key introduction to the market. “Retailers listing the product have experienced good sales without any steal from their hot products. Another advantage is that they do not incur VAT – this is particularly useful given the recent VAT rise,” he says.

For a long time, pies have suffered from a negative public image – often coming in for criticism by the health food lobby. A survey released earlier this year by the Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH), which identified pies as the favourite food of nearly half of men, singled out salty pies in pubs and cafés as endangering men’s health. However, the upside of this is that butchers can concentrate on offering good-quality, fresh pies, in contrast to other retailers, and thereby challenge the supermarkets’ dominance.

As David Dunne points out: “It’s also a wonderful opportunity for butchers to compete on freshness and quality against the supermarkets. A supermarkets pie has to be 24 hours old by the time it’s on the shelf, but baking on-site, you can determine the quality and freshness yourself.”

The rise of the artisan pie

The success of companies such as Bristol-based gourmet-pie maker Pieminister and Higgidy also underlines the appeal of fresh, ‘homemade-but-better’ pies and demonstrate how butchers can profit from them.

Nicholson’s is one butcher who is hoping to challenge the traditional image. Faye Moffat explains how this attitude has been changing: “For many people, butchers’ pies have a certain stigma. They are seen as unadventurous, bland, boring and a bit common. We will soon be launching a new range of pies that will hopefully shake this image. La-de-da Pies by Nicholson’s Butchers is a range of pies for people who like the finer things in life. The idea behind this new range is to attract customers who wouldn’t normally think of buying our pies.”

Adventurous pies seem to be in the ascendancy, with butchers being increasingly imaginative with their recipes. The award-winning Yorkshire-based butcher The Ginger Pig has been making more and more cooked products and, having invested in an on-site bakery, now stocks an impressive range of pies, which are available as part of their home delivery service. Office manager David Harrison explains that one their recent innovations is creating impressive three-tier savoury pie ‘wedding cakes’, incorporating layers of gourmet game, pork and chicken pies, often with a champagne- or cider-flavoured jelly or topped with decorative cranberries.

“Our wedding pies started as a one-off,” he says, “but we’re being asked about it more and more. We displayed it at the IFE and it has proved very popular.”

Exhibition shows and awards are a great way to raise the profile of a butcher’s pies and pasties and help to drive customers. John Mettrick says: “Our hot eating pies are selling well, especially the steak and potato that won best football pie at the British Pie Awards. The award created a lot of publicity that brought in new customers who wanted to try the pie. We even had a pub in London taking the pies last summer when the Football World Cup was on – pity it was short-lived! We use the diaphragm skirt and the heart skirts in our steak pies as the meat is very rich and holds the gravy between the meat fibres very well.”

However, it isn’t only footfall in store that has been driving sales. Faye attributes much of Nicholson’s success to increasing web traffic. “Having an online shop has definitely helped to raise the profile of our pies and increase sales,” she says. “Before we had the online shop, our customer base was very limited. We relied on local people buying our pies. We now sell our pies nationwide.”

However, success can cause challenges of its own. Nicholson’s has identified the problem of keeping up with demand, for as Faye points out, “Catering customers can often want our pies at a moment’s notice. This can cause problems, as our pies are quite time-consuming to make. Firstly the raw filling has to be prepared by the butcher and cooked overnight. The pastry then has to be made and blocked into the pie tins. Once the cooked filling has cooled, it is divided equally into the pie bases and lastly the pies are lidded.”

However, these challenges can be overcome by either buying ingredients in or moving into bake-off. More and more butchers are turning to companies such as Interbake and  Country Choice, who can supply the equipment, products and ingredients, as well as offer training and support, identifying the best products for the butcher’s particular market.

In a competitive market, it pays to do the groundwork, as John Mettrick acknowledges. “In the last few months, we have employed a food technologist part-time to help develop different pies, some of which we are already selling and getting good feedback,” he says. “We will continue to strive to improve our pies, so that they are no longer outshone by our fresh meat offer – our profit margins are likely to be dependent on it.”