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The Whole Pie
Written by Betsy
Monday, 25 April 2011 12:48

With much fanfare, the U.S. food critics and trendspotters have noted the passing of the consumer cupcake fetish in favor of a pie frenzy. Seemingly, this “trade” would be in keeping with a return to comfort foods seen throughout the recession. Kevin Gross, Owner of Culinary Sales Support Inc. in Chicago, noted that consumers are indeed cocooning and comfort foods are a means of connecting with the past. Moreover, he stated, “Promotional activity is centered around bundling and dollar menus, meaning lower cost per serving trends in foodservice,” and forcing even greater competition among foodservice dessert manufacturers. The NPD Group reported that Americans ordered up 12 million more slices of pie at restaurants in 2010 than they did in 2009. Mr. Gross noted that Schwan’s, Sara Lee and Sweet Street Desserts have fine-tuned the pie to such an extent that these mass offerings are of high quality and likely served by a large portion of leading foodservice players. With food margins held notoriously low in foodservice, these manufacturers have stepped up the quality aspect over the years in order to deliver a product that pleases both the palate and the budget.

Yet it is the smaller scale players – who are likely shut out of the restaurants due to pricing models – that might be attracting the most buzz. Mobile food vendors in cities including Houston and D.C. report dynamic sales with no sign of a slowdown. In Chicago, arguably a comfort food mecca, Hoosier Mama Pie was selected by chef Graham Elliot as a featured vendor for Lollapalooza in 2010.  Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Brooklyn is a culinary darling that sells out of its $35 Salted Caramel Apple Pie supply on a daily basis. Both Hoosier Mama and Four & Twenty Blackbirds operate out of single – and somewhat locationally-challenged – shops, capitalizing on the foodie loyalty and industry press in becoming pie destinations. However, tying in with the comfort food aspect rather than trendiness could more safely generate sustainability over the long term, suggests Roberto Seif, President of Horizon2, a food innovation and strategy consultancy. The anatomy of food concept trends tells us that translating this gourmet (and typically boutique/niche) brand buzz into high volume will prove extremely challenging, with the more likely result being major gains by the Sara Lees of the world as the mass market takes notice of pie, first in foodservice and then at the retail level.



To what extent has the trend already permeated retail? It seems that mass sales have definitely increased. According to Supermarket News (Article) pies accounted for 13.2% of dessert supercategory sales during the 52 weeks ending Sept. 25, 2010. Nationally, pies averaged $608 per week per store, a 2.2% increase from the previous year. Pies' contribution to the bakery department was steady, accounting for 6.2% of dollar sales. As food trends go, it is expected that the expanding presence of premium pie shops and infiltration of pie on top restaurant menus will bring more niche/specialty options to grocery retailers. An example: distribution of Achatz Pie through Whole Foods and Treasure Island stores in Chicago. Once again, these gourmet brands face several challenges, including narrow appeal. One needs only to look toward a more commoditized example for support: “Pizza, for example, is a staple product,” notes Mr. Seif. “You have seen several rounds of re-invention, but it never ceases to be pizza. When it comes to embracing novelty flavors, the  average U.S. consumer is less adventurous than you would think.” Thus, the goal may rest more in developing unique twists on the concept. “In the foodservice corner, you have new concepts that change the game, like Homemade Pizza Company,” continues Seif, noting that there exists a narrow line between these new twists on the concept and the familiarity that drove the purchase in the first place. Interestingly enough, even game-changers in pizza – such as the aforementioned Homemade Pizza Company – eventually resort to more standard expansion measures at the retail level, such as seeking key demographics/high traffic in securing store space, a potential lesson that any cupcake monger or pie purveyor should be following in order to secure long-term sustainability, particularly if foodservice distribution and/or grocery retail contracts are not in place.

There also exists the issue of occasion. With pie, one must ask whether it could take on a more-than-just-dessert role without these aforementioned “new twists”. The U.S. consumer has never quite embraced savory pies in the manner of European counterparts; yet, the sweet pie has limitations when it comes to occasion.

Ironically, the rise of the pie and comfort food in general comes at a time when the health and wellness trend is stronger than ever…and the profile of pie aficionados closely matches the prototypical health and wellness consumer. Mr. Seif notes that this disparity is really just a typical example of the trend/countertrend relationship seen in numerous food concept case studies.

History tells us that mass appeal can equate to long-term popularity, yet it is the gourmet-ing of a concept that inspires revitalization. Will pie rise to staple status, or is this a passing fancy? Appealing to select consumer segments when the category as a whole does mass well could be a mistake, believes Mr. Gross, unless the goal of niche players is merely brand awareness among those particular segments. In an age where value speaks volumes in foodservice, discounting the mass consumer could prove costly.

Last Updated on Monday, 31 October 2011 01:40