Pie sales have long been stagnant or down, but pie bakeries hope for a resurgence regardless of the latest numbers. Pie’s old-fashioned image fosters the nostalgia for better times now so strongly felt by many Americans. This contributes to the boom pie sales experience at the holiday season from October to December. Bakers are hopeful for a surge, but the numbers paint a different story. If pies are in for a comeback, it is definitely slow to start.

According to the research firm Mintel, Chicago, IL, shelf-stable pies experienced a 12% increase from 2005 to 2010, but once the numbers reflect inflation, the category showed flat sales for the 5-year period. A short burst of 8% sales increase between 2009 and 2010 was quickly followed by a 2% decrease between 2011 and 2012, according to SymphonyIRI, Chicago, IL.

Pie bakers, however, remain optimistic, seeing their sales grow consistently during the past four years. Bakers attribute this rise to pie’s status as a nostalgic comfort food and its homemade image, which benefits from a consumer movement toward all-natural foods. To keep pace with other indulgent categories, pie bakers are developing new ways to make their products more appealing to the health conscious through portion control, low sugar content and more natural fruit fillings and other healthy ingredients.

Remembering grandma’s pie

Pies have a way of reaching back into people’s memories to visits to grandma’s house and simpler times. At least that’s what Connie Campbell, Golden Boy Pies, Inc., Shawnee Mission, KS, said she believes is the driving force behind the company’s growth during the past four years.

“Pies bring back the fondest memories from childhood,” Ms. Campbell said. “Pies go back to that time.”

Golden Boy Pies began seeing sales growth back in 2008 when consumers were hit hard by economic recession, so it’s easy to see how pies would benefit from a resurging demand for comfort food. Confirming this trend, Mintel reports that pies are most popular among older adults who enjoy pie as a timeless indulgence. Golden Boy Pies, which sells pies to food service outlets, finds this to be true in its own business: One of its major customers is an assisted living facility.

This old-fashioned image, however, can backfire because younger consumers might perceive pies to be out of date and boring. In the past, a lack of innovation and few new pie products, Mintel reported, did not help this category. The outlook for pie could be on the verge of turning around as more and more consumers become interested in homemade foods.

Michele Stuart, owner of Michele’s Pies LLC, Norwalk, CT, said pies are the dessert of 2012. Their homemade appeal and attachment to people’s memories bring them back into style. Although commercially produced pies aren’t technically homemade, they definitely can benefit from pie’s image as a homemade product. Bakeries can go the extra step and create a unique formula to take advantage of this perception.

“All of our double-crust pies, including pot pies, are hand-crimped,” said Wendy Achatz, co-owner with her husband, Dave, of Achatz Handmade Pie Co., Chesterfield, MI. “We feel this preserves the traditional feel of a ‘homemade’ pie.”

Golden Boy Pies has seen this demand for homemade from restaurant chefs. Chefs at fine dining restaurants focus on homemade foods without preservatives, said Ms. Campbell. Restaurant chefs looking for pies of homemade quality that they can dress up themselves have turned to Golden Boy Pies to supply their fine dining establishments.

For many, handmade equals quality, and despite the slowly recovering economy, consumers seem willing to pay for it.

Filling in with fruit

Hand in hand with the trend toward homemade is the trend toward food made with all-natural ingredients and, by extension, healthier options. Bakeries that make fresh pies with no preservatives are finding a boom in business from consumers wanting pies free from artificial flavors, preservatives and added sugar. Bakeries already on board this trend said the movement toward more wholesome products helps in the taste department as well, an area that often suffers when food manufacturers try to make indulgent desserts healthier.

“It seems that people are concentrating more and more on their health,” Ms. Achatz said. “We use only all-natural ingredients and no preservatives whatsoever. This makes for a better tasting product. Our cherry pie only has nine ingredients, and you can pronounce every one of them.”

In the pie category, healthy often translates to low, reduced or no added sugar. With the pie consumer base consisting mostly of older adults, many manufacturers developed these low-sugar pies to court consumers who might be dealing with health problems associated with age such as diabetes. However, as they move away from artificial ingredients, pie bakers are also moving away from artificial, low calorie sweeteners in favor of using a “no added sugar” claim on the pie’s box. Ms. Campbell attributed Golden Boy Pies’ drop in no-added sugar pie sales to this concern about artificial ingredients, particularly sweeteners, which Golden Boy Pies does use.

“There was a chemical scare where consumers didn’t want food with chemicals in it,” she said. “People wanted the natural stuff. Assisted living facilities stopped buying our low-sugar pies.”

In lieu of sugar or artificial sweeteners, naturally sweet fruit has taken over the pie category. Linda Hoskins, executive director of the American Pie Council (APC), said she sees the industry incorporating more nutritious ingredients, especially fresh fruit, to entice the more health-conscious consumer. Fruit pies appeal to consumers who shy away from sugar because fruit’s natural sweetness compensates for the lack of added sugars.

Ms. Stuart attributed some of her bakery’s growth not only to the homemade appeal of pies but also the company’s fresh fruit mentality. “We don’t overload our pies with sugar; we just use the flavors of the fruit,” she said. “People like our pies because they don’t have that much sugar. They are handmade at a commercial level.”

Experiment with size and flavor

To prevent the category from staling, pie bakers have had to jump-start innovation. Since 2005, the category has stalled because of lack of creativity to keep consumers interested. Much of the new product inspiration stems from the desire to tap into healthy ways to indulge: portion control.

Portion control doesn’t just mean traditional mini pies such as 5-in. styles that Michele’s Bakery sells on the shelves of local stores. Achatz Homemade Pie Co. also offers handheld pies, which Ms. Achatz said are gaining in popularity.

“It is easier not to overindulge when a pie is made in single-serving size,” she said.

The reinvention of classic pies or reformatting other desserts as pies offers interesting alternatives, according to Ms. Hoskins. At APC’s National Pie Championship last year, Ms. Hoskins found pie interpretations of red velvet cake, Boston cream pie, banana split and popular candy bars.

“I’m also seeing innovative ideas on old favorites such as bacon added to an apple pie,” she said. Not even pies could escape the bacon trend.

Achatz Homemade Pies Co. continues to experiment with sweet and savory combinations, according to Ms. Achatz who said the company’s R&D team is working on new flavor combinations to introduce this fall in time for the big holiday season.