Founded by Mr. Jon Simon and Mr. Tristan Hogg in 2003, Bristol-based Pieminister has become an internationally recognised brand, famous for its top quality pies that use only the very best ingredients from across the UK. EatSleepDrink speaks to Mr. Simon to find out more about this truly unique company.
Feeling that the British public deserved more than the usual bland offerings, Pieminister found, and successfully exploited, a gap in the UK market for delicious, flavoursome pies. Indeed, since opening its first pie and mash shop in one of Bristol’s most run-down areas, Mr. Simon and Mr. Hogg have built Pieminister into one of the UK’s most refreshing and dynamic food companies. By placing such a strong emphasis on quality and innovative marketing, the company has been able to maintain its ever-growing customer base, while remaining true to its ethical roots.
In 2002, the founding duo of Pieminister formed a plan: to create the most delicious and wholesome pie the British public had ever tasted. Combining Mr. Hogg’s formal chef training and Mr. Simon’s experience of running successful London pubs – alongside the added bonus of being brothers-in-law – the two set about perfecting what would become the company’s first range of pies. From a lowly basement in heart of Bristol, Pieminister was born, as Mr. Simon fondly recalls. “Tristan and I first met when I was at dating his sister at university. After I graduated, I took a year out and travelled to Australia. I was really excited about the way that pie and mash was served over there – basically an upside-down version of pie and mash in the UK – and thought it might be popular back home.
“Tristan also visited Australia and came back with similar enthusiasm for their pie and mash, and actually came up with the name ‘Pieminister’ while he was sitting on Bondi Beach,” Mr. Simon remembers. “At the time, we felt that having a good name and a good idea was half the battle, so we set about building Pieminister into a viable brand. I sold a couple of pubs that I had opened in London to put up the capital for the business, with the intention of starting up a pie company in Bristol with Tristan. When we first started, we spent quite a lot of time working out how to make our pies taste as good as they did in small batches, but on a more industrial scale.
“Once we had worked out successful recipes, we decided to test our pies on some of the most quality-conscious demographics in the UK – the WI (Women’s Institute),” he affirms. “The WI were fantastic guinea pigs for our first pies and gave us invaluable feedback about the taste, flavour and textures, so we set about refining our recipes. In 2003, after we had agreed on the final pies, we bought ourselves a little shop in Bristol – I worked the tills and Tristan made the pies in the back kitchen. In the first week, we made about 100 pies whereas, today, we make around 90,000 pies per week, so it’s been quite a steep learning curve!”
From such humble beginnings, Pieminister has built itself into not just a national brand but one that is recognised all over Europe, as Mr. Simon continues. “At present, we have five Pieminister cafés, with two in Bristol and one apiece in London, Oxford and Trentham. Indeed, one of the biggest turning points for us was being invited to open a stall at London’s Borough Market, which gave us the break we needed to really take our pies to a much wider customer base and broaden our brand identity. Today, our pies are also available nationwide through a number of supermarkets, including Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, while our website features a mail order service that delivers chilled fresh pies direct to the door”.
Given the remarkable growth that Pieminister has achieved in just over eight years of business, it also comes as little surprise to learn that the company’s pies can be found in the UK’s best delicatessens, food halls and farmer’s markets. In the coming months, there will be a new Pieminister café in London’s vibrant Shoreditch, as well as the company’s first European outlet, scheduled to open in Amsterdam. The company also has its fair share of celebrity fans, with Kate Moss, David Beckham and John Cleese all reported to be advocates of Pieminister’s wholesome fare. As a testament to their quality, every single one of Pieminister’s pies is an award-winner – all contain only fresh, responsibly sourced, free range, natural ingredients, many of which are sourced locally from the West Country.
Yet despite its prodigious growth, Mr. Simon remains refreshingly level-headed about Pieminister’s success. “Initially, we were quite lucky to stumble upon a genuinely exciting market niche. Indeed, we were the first company to use innovative marketing to sell very high quality pies. In 2003, the move towards ethically produced food was really starting to take off in the UK, and we happened to be in the right place at the right time. When we started eight years ago, our competitors just weren’t using British meat and were filling their pies with all kinds of additives and preservatives. Today, the market has levelled off considerably, but we were the frontrunners of the movement and continue to lead the sector in this sense,” he confirms.
“In this respect, being the first company to introduce such things as free-range meat and responsibly sourced ingredients really endeared us to our customer base and has ensured that we have grown with our initial customers still on board,” Mr Simon tells us. “Even when we made our pies in the back of our first shop, we were always striving to use the best-possible ingredients and we have been able to add value and quality throughout our product range as Pieminister has grown”.
Risk brings reward
To accommodate the growing demand for its gourmet pies, Pieminister moved to larger premises in 2008. The company’s product portfolio now includes real sausage rolls and mini pies (pieMINIsters) – for those with small appetites – and sweet pies. “When we first moved in, we were quite shocked by the amount of new space that we had and it was probably the most testing time for us financially because of the initial outlay. Although things were precarious for a while, we managed to overcome it and we are now using all of the available space, such is the popularity of our products around the UK. Wherever possible, we try and source our ingredients as locally as possible – this was a real challenge initially, as suppliers just didn’t want to deal with such a small company. As we grew, we were able to pick and choose our suppliers, which meant that could source the best of the best.
“In the very early days, getting a stall at Borough Market in London was a massive fillip for us, because it gave our products the kind of quality accreditation that we were really after,” he testifies. “Going to our first Glastonbury Festival in 2003 was also a massive leap of faith for us – we had no idea what to expect, but we filled up an articulated lorry with our pies and went for it. This was a huge gamble for us but it paid off and we had massive queues of people lining up to buy our products, which was a great affirmation as to the quality of our goods. Our success at Glastonbury brought with it the realisation that the festival market was a potential gold mine for Pieminister, primarily because of the younger demographic we were aiming at.
“Subsequently, we set about exploring other festival opportunities, so, the following year, we attended a handful of events – this year, I think we catered a total of 60 festivals,” he explains. “I would say this decision was a real game changer and even today the majority of people I speak to about our products say that they first tried a Pieminister pie at a festival. The general level of exposure at these kind of events is incredible. Because festivals tend to be full of people from around the UK and, indeed, around the world, it presents a fantastic opportunity to increase brand visibility”.
Outshining the competition
When asked about Pieminister’s major strengths, Mr. Simon was keen to point out the company’s unique approach to business – a policy that continues to facilitate impressive growth, year-on-year. “There are very few people in the bakery industry that are our age, which means that we have a completely different take on how to run a bakery business. When we started, we were very young and, without realising it, our policy was unique in comparison to the competition, and it remains that way now. Indeed, our ethos and understanding of pie-making is probably massively at odds with a third-generation pie-maker. This was actually a stroke of good luck as it gave us the opportunity to take a very fresh approach to the industry, without being restricted by age-old recipes and business practices.
“This kind of approach has always allowed us to have lots of fun with pie-making and I think that this filters down to our customers,” he affirms. “We have always been very popular with students and young professionals – in an industry where the traditional consumer tends to be from the elderly demographic, this popularity is a testament to the humour and uniqueness of our marketing and ethos. Because, my degree was in product design, I have always had lots of contacts in the design world, which enabled us to create some pretty innovative and eye-catching branding. At first, it was a challenge to draw people’s attention to the quality of our products, so this kind of brand innovation really made a difference to our sales”.
The advent of digital communication, particularly over the past five years, has also been of great benefit to Pieminister’s fortunes, as Mr. Simon eagerly illustrates. “Our website, (www.pieminister.co.uk), showcases the kind of ethos that informs our entire company. Although we don’t generate a massive amount of online sales, the site is invaluable for the brand identity it communicates. We do a massive amount of online marketing – around 25,000 people a month visit our website and have around 15,000 people on our mailing list, which is growing at five percent every month. Similarly, we are the first result on Google (www.google.com) for ‘Pieminister’ and we have more than 5,000 followers on Twitter (http://twitter.com/#!/pieminister), as well as nearly 8,000 followers on facebook (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pieminister-pies/182166784545). We particularly enjoy being able to communicate with our customers directly on the internet and take their feedback very seriously”.
Looking forwards, Mr. Simon is unsurprisingly confident about Pieminister’s fortunes, as he concludes by explaining. “We have a pretty simple strategy: make our pies available to as many people as possible. At the moment, we are looking at increasing our distribution around the UK – we want the whole region to be able to enjoy our products and we’re always looking at ways of boosting our exposure. We also want to carry on doing what we’re good at, which is making really good pies – we have found that if people try our pies, they will come back and buy them, time and time again. Ultimately, the more cafés we open and the larger our distribution network, the more people can sample our pies. Based on previous results, this means more happy customers and more business for us”.
With the launch of its Shoreditch café at London’s Boxpark (http://boxpark.co.uk – the world’s first and only pop-up mall, built entirely in 60 shipping containers) in the near future, Pieminister is continuing with its fresh approach to the bakery industry. If the past offers any indication of what the future will hold, business has never looked better for Pieminister and its uniquely British pies.