On the Bake

Given time and cost constraints, baked-off goods are useful to butchers who wish to capitalise on the extra revenue they bring, but without the hassle of baking from scratch. Keren Sall reports


Pies are quintessentially British and are increasing all the time in popularity, as they offer an easy meal option for parents with children and those who are rushed for time. All they need to do is heat up a pie in an oven or a microwave, add a few vegetables and there is the afternoon tea or evening meal. And the good news is that total pie sales increased by 1.2% to £490m in the 52 weeks to 15 June 2008, according to TNS Worldpanel. Even better, hot pie sales rose by 8.8% to £216m during that period.

The smell of hot baked pies is synonymous with fresh in consumers’ minds. They imagine the pie has been made fresh that morning, when the pie may just have been baked-off that day. This is because with looming labour shortages butchers have to learn to take shortcuts to make pies that boost sales while keeping production costs down. So very few butchers nowadays make all their pies from scratch. Instead, they will outsource the production of pastry and buy in a choice of pastry shapes to use in pasties, sausage rolls or en croute dishes, pie shells, blocks and rolls.

A number of companies, including Unifine, Bako, Pukka Pies, South England Pastries and, in Scotland, Bells Bakers, supply these products. The latter supplies around 300 butchers and independent retailers in the region with the puff pastry it has made in the traditional Scotch method since 1930.

Peter Mayes from Pukka Pies attributes the growth in pastry sales to butchers to two factors. “Energy costs have gone up, as have ingredient costs. Flour has risen in price by over 100% and the cost of margarine has risen by 80%.” The price of the latter, he says, is related to the price of oils, which has soared significantly. His company will be reviewing its prices next month.

Bake-off success

Some butchers go further: they buy in some of their pies frozen unbaked, which just require baking-off. Walter Smith, a chain of 24 butchers’ shops, initially tested bake-off with Cornish pasties from Shire Foods, back in 2000. “We thought it was the best pasty we had seen or tasted for some time, and that was the right sales decision for us,” says Tony Yorath, marketing director at Walter Smith.

Meanwhile, Kevin Newey, retail sales executive at Shire Foods, believes the armadillo hand-crimping of the edges differentiates his company’s Cornish pasty from those sold in the supermarket, which are rope-edged. Last year, Shire Foods launched a square premium steak pie with butter-enriched French puff pastry, which is going down a treat with butchers. “It has a very high meat content and it comes with the EBLEX quality standard mark. Our pies typically contain 30% meat content and sausage rolls 65% pork content – the same as that of premium ranges sold by supermarkets,” says Newey.

Another bonus offered by Shire Foods is that its pies come with a unique clean-label declaration, which is becoming increasingly important to consumers. “It means our pies are free from preservatives and additives, and only use English steak,” says Newey. “We use the EBLEX logo on our vans, as we have had the EBLEX quality standard now for two to three years. A couple of months ago EBLEX carried out an audit of our factory.”

Walter Smith moved into bake-off to allow it to produce as many or as few pies as needed – and in rotation each day, says Yorath. “We also thought it would give us more control and the option of providing our customers with a better-quality pie.” However, he admits that his chain of independent butchers’ shops has not used the EBLEX quality mark as a promotional aid to date. “The quality mark just ratifies that the pies are of a high quality to us.”

Some Walter Smith shops do make their own pies. These outsource pastry-making, but specify it is made to their recipe. “We outsource it, because not all the shops have space, facilities or labour to make it. Bake-off makes sense for us, because we have our own ovens for traditional cooked meats and the rationale is that we might as well use them to bake,” explains Yorath.

However, unlike butchers, Yorath will not contemplate going into the bread market. “We tried it many years ago and found it competitive. For anyone who wants bread, there is usually a good local source that specialises in it.”

Sweeter business

While Walter Smith shops focus on the savoury bake-off market, Scotts of Carshalton also makes sweet bake-off products. The move was a natural progression after it read about Unifine’s one-day patisserie masterclass in last year’s MTJ Extra, which three of its staff members subsequently attended. Scotts boss Alan Dye believes it has helped the company broaden its product base, with sales now at around 60% meat and 40% bake-off. “I loved doing the masterclass, because you actually got the feel of the stuff and it costs so little, in time and work space, to set up. It was well worth the trip.”

On the day, Unifine showed potential buyers how to make a citron tart, muffins and little fruit tartlets. “We didn’t want products that looked like those you find in the supermarket,” says Alan. They were also a hit with his customers, as he found out when he recommended a citron tart as a dessert for a dinner party of eight. “The response was, ‘That’s very nice.’” Alan says the Unifine products are ideal for his business, which includes a substantial amount of outside catering. “We started getting pie fillings, pastry cases, muffins, lemon tarts and then dried fruits.”

Alan says it is worth spending a little more to ensure quality. “Ingredient prices are rising all the time, but I think it’s a mistake to cut down on quality,” he says. “Customers are feeling the pinch, too. They need to know that they are getting quality and value for money, otherwise they just won’t come back, will they? We have the added advantage of being a family business. It’s a rare thing these days.”

One butcher who is into bake-off in a big way is Terry Tarrant, who owns Manydown Farm Shop in Basingstoke, Hampshire. He bakes off crusty bread and bread rolls, as well as pies. He started making pies 12 years ago, as he wanted to utilise the whole carcase. “We use the forequarter meat in our pies. We have gone from making a couple of dozen pies a week to producing 1,400 of them.”

Terry buys his pastry shells from South England Pastries in Wokingham. “I buy them in because of the labour element and because I am a butcher by trade, not a pastry man. We have to minimise cost and labour.”

He admits he could have made the pastry himself in the early days, but now, due to the sheer volume required, he buys in two different types of pastry shells, even though there is a cost factor. This has not affected the quality of his pies; he is the hot and cold pie champion in the Hampshire region and hot pie champion for the South of England. Terry also started baking-off bread seven years ago. “The ovens were sitting there in the morning, so we decided to prove bread. We buy it from Country Choice and bake it off in 12-15 minutes.”

Bake-off products not only boost his sales, but save his customers time, Terry says, as they don’t have to go from shop to shop.

Butcher to baker

John Brown, who set up South England Pastries in Wokingham 30 years ago, was a butcher himself by trade. Other butchers asked him to make them pies and this led to some asking whether he could provide them with ready-made pastry or pastry shapes and shells. Now, he has two operations – a factory employing 34 and a manufacturing plant staffed by 10 – and he produces 20,000 pies a week. Brown says butchers buy his pastry because it makes producing pies simpler for them, while others opt for pies that can just be baked-off because of the hygiene rules and space required to keep cooked meat separate from uncooked meat.

A great selling point for Brown is that he does not use animal fat in his pastry. “This means you can make and sell non-meat vegetarian pies, as well meat pies easily,” he says.

If you have thought about going into bake-off, why not give it a go? You might reap dividends more quickly through increased sales than you think.