Par Grandinetti, president of Rocky Mountain Pies, Salt Lake City, is the first to say that Rocky Mountain Pies is not trying to be like one of the “big boys.” The company prides itself on a high-quality pie with handmade touches. While the pie producer has all the most important trappings of a large manufacturer — parameter controls and lot tracking, food safety and sanitation, robust quality control — it prides itself on its hand-laid lattice, product innovation and the relationships built with both customers and suppliers. Rocky Mountain Pies is committed to being true to itself.

“We decided to be different and go after the accounts that want to grow incremental sales and have a more upscale program,” Mr. Grandinetti explained. “That’s been our mission statement: to be different and work with customers to create something with vision and quality.”

Mr. Grandinetti’s passion for the pie business is palpable, and he comes by it honestly. The company is the third iteration of his vision. First there was the direct-store-delivery pie sales out of the back door of the 16 Marie Callendar’s restaurants he co-owned and operated in the 1970s and ’80s. Then there was Western Country Pies in the 1990s in which Mr. Grandinetti and his team cut their teeth supplying pies to in-store bakeries.

After selling that business, Mr. Grandinetti and the team couldn’t stay away and decided to fill the gap they saw for high-quality in-store bakery and restaurant pie programs. Taking all the lessons they learned — the “things we’d do differently” — from Western Country Pies, they opened Rocky Mountain Pies in 2006 in the same building: 75,000 square feet of pie processing, packaging and office space but with more efficiencies. A tunnel oven, automated loader and unloader, and an automated meringue and cream pie line have helped the company reach its current annual sales of $50 million. But there are certain processes Mr. Grandinetti sees as critical to Rocky Mountain Pies’ success.

Lattice, for example, is hand laid. This requires slowing down the line for lattice assembly, but it’s an important point of differentiation. Cooked fillings are pumped out of troughs only 10 feet rather than stored in a tank and pumped 50 feet. This helps maintain fruit integrity.

“We slow it down to create that quality on purpose,” he said. “I know we could save money and go faster, but that’s not what we want to be.”

Craig Kirmer, the company’s continuous improvement manager, has found places where Rocky Mountain Pies could benefit from automation. The company invested in an automated caramel Fritsch Spritzmatic GMBH drizzler from Erika Record and a Bakon USA egg wash applicator, both of which have been delayed due to supply chain issues. Making the decision to invest in automation is a balancing act when positioning the company as the next best thing to grandma.

“For the caramel drizzler, we are saving on waste we’re incurring with the current method, and we’re reducing labor while still getting the same result in the finished product,” Mr. Grandinetti explained. “The same result is always our goal while reducing waste, labor and saving on costs, so that’s how we find that balance.”

He stressed, however, that automation cannot come at the cost of quality. The company has yet to find equipment that will replicate the handmade look of the company’s lattice pies, for example.

“We’re a hand shop, and that’s what gives us a point of difference,” Mr. Grandinetti said. “But we knew there was a way to streamline our process, clean up the place, organize it and make it easier on our people.”

Rocky Mountain Pies is also well-known for its creative new products. While the bulk of pies are sold during the holiday season, Mr. Grandinetti keeps the business competitive year-round with pie flavors that make the dessert relevant, like its Strawberry Margarita and Raspberry Lemonade for summer.

[Related reading: Rocky Mountain Pies grows by pressure]

A lot of innovation has also come from looking at how to make customers’ jobs easier. With the loss of skilled bakers at in-store bakeries, the company developed several products and customized its packaging to make things easier at store level. For those in-store bakery programs that still want to bake in-house, the company developed a par-baked program. As Mr. Grandinetti pointed out, pies don’t bake well in convection ovens, which is what many in-store bakeries have.

With the par-baked pie program, in-store bakeries can still bake the pie in their ovens, following customized instructions.

“It won’t add color to the crust, but it will freshen the pastry and clear out the starch profile in the fruit, while getting the aroma going in the bakery and give the illusion of a fresh-baked pie,” Mr. Grandinetti said. “It’s goof-proof.”

The company has a robust thaw-and-serve pie program to eliminate the need for baking all together. To add to impulse purchases, Rocky Mountain Pies also developed a line of shelf-stable cream pies. They’re verified by a third-party lab and food safe-certified. These pies typically outsell their refrigerated counterparts four-to-one, according to Mr. Grandinetti, just by virtue of being more visible.

Probably one of the simplest but most important ways Rocky Mountain Pies supports its customers is through the investment in packaging.

Going from providing fresh pies daily to restaurants across Utah to distributing frozen pies to in-store bakeries came with its own learning curve. Pie, a delicate product to begin with, had to not only be baked correctly but also now frozen properly and packaged to withstand the rigors of distribution and storage.

“I’ve learned over the years that food has memory,” Mr. Grandinetti explained.

As temperatures vary slightly throughout frozen distribution and storage, pie fillings will crack, evaporate, dry out and shrink. Pies arrive to their final destination on their sides and sometimes even upside down.

“After all that abuse, that pie has to sit on the shelf and stop a shopping cart,” he said. “And we all know that there isn’t a person on earth who walks into a store from January to September with pie on the shopping list, so it has to be an impulse buy.”

To protect the pies, Rocky Mountain Pies developed a crust saver package with its plastic packaging supplier. The pie crust snaps into the plastic base that is molded around the pie tin. With a clear plastic shell on top, the pie can be turned upside down without budging.

This attunement to customers’ needs speaks to the foundation of Rocky Mountain Pies’ success: its relationships. The sales team at Rocky Mountain Pies works closely with customers to develop pie programs to execute their vision and drive incremental sales. And they are keen on communication. Before every truck leaves Rocky Mountain Pies’ frozen warehouse facility, customers are alerted to what is on the truck for them, and if the order is short, which has unfortunately been the case the past year, the company includes an action plan of how it intends to make things right.

“If you communicate and let them know that you have a solution plotted, then we’re standing shoulder to shoulder, and I believe in the end our relationship will be stronger because we went through this together,” Mr. Grandinetti said. “But you have to communicate; you can’t just run and hide.”

This article is an excerpt from the November 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Rocky Mountain Pies, click here.