8th Jan 2014
Pie and mash company Pieminister began as a small cafe in Bristol in 2003. Since then, the company has expanded to several more outlets, pubs, and supermarkets across the UK.
In the third interview in a series profiling great British businesses, Dan Martin meets co-founder Jon Simon to discuss how his company was inspired by a trip to Australia and why being British has played a key role in its success.
This series is sponsored by .co.uk, the number one domain for British business.
How did you come up with the idea for Pieminister?
In 1994, while studying at university, I went to Australia and came across a pie and mash stall in Sydney. It made a huge impression on me as it was such a popular place full of cool, young people. There was nothing like that in the UK at the time which was a big revelation and I thought it would be a good concept to launch here.
I went back to college, finished my degree and ended up in the pub business. While I was there, I met chef Tristan Hogg, who came to work for me in the pub. We discussed food concepts and after he also went to Australia and had a similar experience, he came back and said 'let's do it'. He thought up the Pieminister name while on Bondi beach! Once you’ve got a name and a concept under your belt, that’s enough to kick it off.
What challenges did you face when setting up your company?
We were naïve about food manufacturing and thought we could just set up a pie and mash shop and sell the pies wholesale if we wanted to. In reality, making one product over and over again and getting the consistency right is very different to what you might do in a small commercial kitchen with one chef.
We launched the company in a little shop in Stokes Croft in Bristol. It was a basic cafe with a very small kitchen. Tristan was out the back making the pies, I was out the front selling them and my wife Romany was upstairs doing basic book-keeping in between looking after our new baby.
We set the company up as you would a normal domestic kitchen and started making pies. That gave us a hugely artisan feel which has since become our biggest strength. We were using the kind of quality and organic ingredients you buy at farmers' markets which you never really found in food production at the time we launched. Our pies were expensive because of the ingredients and because we made them by hand rather than with big machines. It was a very different product to what was available on the high street.
Since we launched, our biggest challenge has been to maintain that quality and artisan approach to making food that's not intrinsic with mass manufacturing.
How have you grown the business?
Marketing and design are big for us and we spent a lot of time in the early days getting the branding right and making sure it was something that appealed to our demographic of young people in their 20s. That was very different to what was going on in the pie market at the time with most companies aimed at a much older generation.
It caused a stir in the food industry and that's what started to sell it. People noticed our unique branding, liked what we doing and asked to try our pies.
We soon started winning lots of awards and getting calls from delis and pubs who wanted to stock our products. It made us realise that there was a wholesale market, so we started speaking to the big names in the industry such as Harrods, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. We also secured an outlet in Borough Market which in my opinion is the best collection of artisan food producers in the UK, if not the world. We got listed in all those places and that was a huge tick in terms of third party accreditation. The business grew from there. Throughout our journey the product has been the hero and has stood up to our claims about taste and quality.
How do you use being a British company in your marketing?
Pies are traditionally a very British product and we're a very British brand. We only use British meat from British farmers located as close to our kitchens as we can find it. Although we have overseas flavours such as Thai chicken, we are actually reflecting British culture.
Britain has a huge diversity in terms of food because we're a multi-cultural country. We have great curries, great Thai food and great Mexican food. All of those combinations are available in ways they’re not available across the rest of Europe. To have all those influences and to be able to put them into pies using British ingredients has been a huge benefit for us and made it exciting for the customer.
What role does your website and social media play in your success?
Our website has played a huge role from day one. In the early days, we invested a lot of time and pulled in a lot of favours to get the site up and running. It was a very cool website and an important way to get our brand message and company ethos across. Using a .co.uk domain as opposed to a .com was a very conscious decision. It’s important that people know we’re a British company and .co.uk says that. It’s a key part of our online strategy.
Our online estate is becoming more and more important day by day. Our Twitter account, our Facebook account, our blog, our website, our YouTube account and our Pinterest account are very interlinked. We try to drive traffic between them and as much traffic as possible to the website. That's where people get the big Pieminister experience other than walking into one of our stores. It's our virtual shop window and having that platform to communicate our company messages in a clear, concise and fully branded way is vital.
Our website is also important from an internal point of view. One of the induction activities for new recruits is to spend an hour or two going through the website and finding out things about the company. It's where we document everything and is the most up-to-date thing in the business. We are about to launch a new website which is our third generation site and will be fully mobile responsive because of the rise in tablet and smartphone users.
What business advice do you offer to other entrepreneurs?
Choose something that you’re passionate about because you're going to spend an awful lot of time immersed in it. If you’re not passionate, people will see through it. That’s why a lot of the big manufacturers fail when they try to launch brands because they do it purely from a commercial perspective. It's just a lot of people trying to make money off the back of a social trend. It’s very different when you get an entrepreneur starting something because they truly enjoy it and they translate that into their business story. That's something the bigger brands can't buy.
Also in the series: