Pies: A reason to celebrate

by Charlotte Atchley
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By tying existing pie products, such as a red, white and blue fruit pies, to various holidays or seasons throughout the year, bakers can grab some extra sales and not just during the November and December peak period.

Nothing seems capable of slowing down dessert sales. With the current atmosphere of health-and-wellness pushing the food industry, it would seem a safe assumption that desserts would be falling out of favor with consumers. The numbers, however, suggest otherwise. According to data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, dollar sales for the pie and cake categories for the 52 weeks ending Aug. 7 saw 15.5% and 7.4% growth, respectively, from a year ago.

According to Mintel, Chicago, total retail sales of prepared cakes and pies reached an estimated $11.6 billion in 2015, and the research firm expects this growth to continue. During the recession, these dessert categories could not be kept down because they positioned themselves as affordable indulgences. With health-and-­wellness concerns threatening sales, bakeries shifted gears and ingredients to offer cleaner labels and high-quality fruit and chocolate. After all, despite people watching their waist lines and reading nutrition labels for their snacks and breads, life goes on and still needs to be celebrated. And what better way to celebrate life’s triumphs than with dessert — pie in particular?

“Pies have always been event-oriented or holiday-­oriented where people are buying them for a specific purpose to go to a specific event or family gathering,” said Mark Van Iwaarden, director of marketing, Legendary Baking, Denver. “In terms of sales for the pie industry, if you look at the numbers, it’s pretty consistent year-round, and at the holidays it jumps up.”

Now pie bakers are latching onto this link between pies and holidays to create opportunities for sales growth throughout the calendar. Through larger sizes and new flavors, pies can keep consumers celebrating all year round.


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While the rest of the dessert world may be shrinking down to make money — mini cupcakes, mini sandwich cookies, bite-sized brownies — pie bakers are seeing an opportunity in supersizing their products. The nature of pies to be an event- or holiday-oriented dessert means they often need to feed many people. A 12-in. pie in lieu of a traditional 8- or 9-in. pie can grab consumers’ ­attention as they look for the perfect treat to share with a large gathering of family and friends.

“As you get toward the end of the year, a lot of retailers will bring in the larger sizes to supplement their everyday offerings,” said Mark Grandinetti, president, Rocky Mountain Pies, Salt Lake City. To meet this need, Rocky Mountain Pies offers its Four Seasons fruit pie in a 12-in. format. The larger pie features equal sections of Apple, Cherry, Peach and Berry pies under a lattice pie crust. Despite being a fruit pie, this particular product has seen success during the end-of-the-year holidays.

“Obviously, you’re going to buy a pumpkin pie, and you’re buying for all these other people, and you may not know what they like,” Mr. Grandinetti said. “So you buy a Four Seasons, and you have four pies in one 12-in. pie.”

Because these larger sizes are often bought for entertaining and sharing purposes, they can see the most success with more traditional flavors. “People buy pies with the intention to share,” Mr. Van Iwaarden said. “Flavor-wise, the big pies tend to skew to the standard normal flavors. The really inventive flavors, people shy away from those because they are looking for crowd pleasers that appeal to the masses.”

Pumpkin Chiffon puts a new spin on a traditional pie and expands the pumpkin pie reach to new consumers.

Celebrating year-round

End-of-year holiday season is the obvious time of year when pies get a boost in sales. Traditional flavors such as pumpkin, pecan and sweet potato are intimately linked with Thanksgiving and Christmas. The opportunity for bakers is to find ways to entice consumers into purchasing pie all year round. While people associate pies with the end of the year, that certainly isn’t the only time people celebrate holidays or family events. Bakers are finding ways to engage these other holidays throughout the calendar.

“It’s not just thinking of the holidays as Christmas and Easter but also Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Fourth of July,” said Susan Bond, director of R&D, Legendary Baking. The bakery has diligently been linking flavors to these holidays and seasons, as are other pie bakers.

“A good example would be our Red, White and Blue pie,” Mr. Van Iwaarden said. “It’s a really good pie year round, but it’s oriented toward a holiday.”

For Mother’s Day, Legendary Baking played with chocolate and strawberry pies. Bakers also cash in on a chocolate pie at Easter. And of course, St. Patrick’s Day had to be tied to a green pie, in this case a Mint Brownie pie.

Rocky Mountain Pies also has gotten creative by linking flavors to seasons and holidays in the hopes of boosting sales throughout the year. “That’s really helped grow our business on the front side of the year,” Mr. Grandinetti said. Flavors inspired by summer-themed beverages such as raspberry lemonade and strawberry margarita tie nicely in with Cinco de Mayo. Sea Salt Caramel Chocolate, a flavor profile created to take advantage of consumers’ obsession with sea salt caramel, does well for Valentine’s Day and Easter.

The bakery’s American Flag Box pie program continues to do well throughout the summer months. Rocky Mountain Pies offers retailers four different varieties in pie boxes decorated with the American flag. All four pies come with different price points and are launched in stores for Memorial Day and available until Labor Day. “This program helps retailers build their displays,” Mr. Grandinetti explained. “It helps them build their promotions. It decorates the area for them because of the flag box, and the display says patriotic. It says BBQ; it says Fourth of July; it says picnic; it says all of that, and it really creates good momentum for our customers that way.”

This year’s major flavor innovation for Rocky Mountain Pies was its two S’mores pies, a refrigerated variety and a shelf-stable one. Hoping to play off the s’mores craze, the bakery marketed them heavily as a summer pie offering.

“We try to create some excitement in our pie program, especially between January and September when nobody has a pie on the shopping list,” Mr. Granidetti said. “It’s more of an impulse buy, so we try to come up with ideas and products that, during that front side of the year, will grow the overall count toward the business that way, and it’s been successful for us.”

Inventive flavors can be less risky when based on already successful flavor trends and combinations.

Making flavors fly

Innovating with pies from a flavor standpoint is another easy way bakers can grab consumers’ attention. The category is so often associated with nostalgia and tradition that out-of-the-box varieties can shake up shoppers’ perception of pies as an end-of-year-only treat.

Shaking up such a category so entrenched in tradition isn’t without risk, however. This is where the trend toward smaller sizes can come in handy for snatching up impulse buys and getting people to try interesting flavors. “The 6-in. and smaller pies, where you are going to eat it yourself or share it with one other person, that’s where you can experiment more because you’re just pleasing yourself,” Mr. Van Iwaarden said.

These single-serve pies encourage people to not only buy on impulse but also try multiple flavors at once. “People can get two or three varieties instead of one or two, and they don’t throw part of it out because the pies were too big,” said Dennis Dipo, president, Fresh Foods Corp. of America doing business as Cyrus O’Leary’s Pies, Airway Heights, WA.

Another way to get creative while still ensuring success is relying on pairing successful individual flavors to create something new. Legendary Baking did that with its Peanut Butter Banana pie and is experimenting with Coconut Banana and White Chocolate Key Lime. “That’s where the experimentation comes in,” Mr. Van Iwaarden said. “You don’t want to take it too far outside the norm, but you can take two friendly flavors and combine them to make something different. Everyone likes banana, and everyone likes peanut butter, so that’s pretty benign when looking at whether or not people are going to like it as a pie.”

Rocky Mountain Pies relies on flavor trends and finding inspiration in other food categories when innovating with its products. “We followed the sea salt trend a few years ago, and that’s become one of our best-selling products in our entire product offering, and it continues to be strong a couple years later,” Mr. Grandinetti said.

Raspberry Lemonade, Strawberry Margarita and S’mores pies are results of the company looking beyond traditional dessert flavors to get creative in its product development.

Cyrus O’Leary’s R&D department also looks to wider food trends to inspire its latest flavors. Chocolate Banana, Hazelnut Creme and Coffee Toffee are some of the company’s latest products. The next big thing is constantly on the minds of the product developers, according to Mr. Dipo. “We’re constantly looking at different food shows, and one of the first questions that gets asked is, ‘What do you have that’s new?’ ” he said.

The American Pie Council’s National Pie Championship is another place where new ideas can be found and tested. Not only does this contest see old-standby flavors such as apple, peach and pumpkin take home prizes but also more inventive varieties such as PB&J and Caramel Mocha Almond Latte. “We’re involved in the National Pie Championships, and we like to see what other people have come up with to get an idea of what’s out there,” Mr. Dipo said.

Rocky Mountain Pies is also developing new pie flavors and offering consumers options at the major pie-centric holidays by reinventing classic pie flavors, namely its Pumpkin Chiffon Pie. “There are a lot of people who don’t like pumpkin pie because of the mouthfeel, so we had the request from our customer base to create one of these pies, and it’s been quite successful.” This pumpkin pie alternative has been so successful that Rocky Mountain Pies launched a second version with a caramel drizzle top.

Legendary Baking also has found success tweaking existing pies to make them new. “Our customers seem to be more interested in unique ways to present fruit pies such as going back to the lattice top look or a crumb top, adding caramel to an apple pie, just adding something a little unique to something that’s familiar to people,” Mr. Van Iwaarden said. “It’s a familiar flavor with a different look or top to it that people are really gravitating toward.”

Making the familiar new is the strategy for growing the pie category, and one that appears to be working. For a category so attached to the holidays, bakers are expanding what that means and reinventing their products to make pies a celebratory dessert for the whole year. Whether that’s attaching pies to holidays not traditionally associated with the dessert or selling consumers on the idea of mini pies as a daily treat, pie bakers are finding sales all year round.

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