AMERICAN PIE

As the mercury rises, so does demand for that favorite summertime dessert -- pie. Sales typically build in summer and peak around Thanksgiving, but in-store bakeries are adding a variety of options to the pie mix to make this versatile dessert a year-round destination item.According to the most recent edition of What's In Store, published by the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison,

As the mercury rises, so does demand for that favorite summertime dessert -- pie. Sales typically build in summer and peak around Thanksgiving, but in-store bakeries are adding a variety of options to the pie mix to make this versatile dessert a year-round destination item.

According to the most recent edition of What's In Store, published by the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis., pies rank second only to variety bread and white bread in the percentage of self-serve sales -- 94% -- and many retailers consider pies one of their fastest-growing categories.

In-store bakeries are entertaining a plethora of options -- from custom pie shops to manufacturers and restaurants -- to meet this growing demand.

At Alfalfa's Market in Boulder, Colo., a division of Wild Oats Markets, bakery manager Maribeth Stilwell works under strict guidelines to create all-natural pies from scratch.

"We use all organic flours and butter for the crusts," she said, "and the fillings are 100% natural -- no additives or preservatives, and no added sugar."

Alfalfa's in-store bakery offers a year-round standard selection of pies and adds specialty flavors to the menu at certain times of the year. Stilwell said customers would always find cherry, apple, blueberry and cherry berry in stock, but in the summertime they could also choose strawberry/rhubarb and peach; the fall brings pumpkin and pecan to the mix.

Alfalfa's also offers custom-order pies to accommodate special diets and unusual tastes.

"Outside of our standard selection, we really don't have a menu," Stilwell said. "The customers tell us what they want."

With just 24 hours' notice, Stilwell said, the bakery can make anything. In fact, it recently created a rutabaga pie for a customer with a long list of allergies.

"We try to cover a wide market of needs," she said. "We have quite a few customers with dietary restrictions and we do whatever we can for them. But if someone comes in looking for a no-holds-barred, sugar-and-butter-laden pie, we can do that, too. Nothing is impossible."

Customers here often select items as they travel through the store and arrive at the bakery with lists of ingredients they want in their custom pies. Stilwell said it wasn't unusual for these pies to leave the store piping hot from the oven.

"Customers have actually told me they plan to take the pie home and tell their guests they made it themselves," she added.

Whenever possible, the bakery uses in-store items to fill the pies. At a recent competition, Stilwell took the American Pie Council's prize in the professional category for her apricot-ginger-raspberry pie made with fresh fruits from Alfalfa's produce department. [see Publix, Wild Oats Pies Take Cake at Competition, SN, 3/8/99].

Bonnie West, executive director of the APC, based in Boulder, said demand for fresh fruit and vegetable pies is on the rise.

"Consumers feel as though they're eating healthy when their pie is filled with fruit," West said. "Lattice-top fruit pies are especially popular because consumers can see the fruit center and it's reassuring for them."

Stilwell stocks her bakery's shelves with 9-inch pies that serve eight to 10 people and cost $10.99 to $15.99, depending on detail and filling. There is also a 5-inch pie she said was perfect for two people.

Another option being considered by many stores is outsourcing production and selling the finished products in the bakery department. And there are more choices.

Some retailers, like Star Markets Co., based in Cambridge, Mass., have turned to manufacturers; others, like A&P, Montvale, N.J., source from the restaurant industry. Each program has been successful.

At Star, not only have Gordon's Pies, based in Londonderry, N.H., impressed the customers, but the company's marketing tactics have won over store executives.

Gordon's Pies are the brainchild of Gordon Weinberger, founder and chief executive officer of Top of the Tree Baking Co., the manufacturer that follows Weinberger's great-grandmother's recipes for homestyle pies.

"Gordon is a marketing machine," said Cindy DeLuca, bakery category manager at Star. "We book him for store openings and community events because of the attention he stirs up."

Weinberger brings his line of pies and an unusual marketing routine. The company's "PieBus" travels to the stores it supplies, blaring disco music, and performs five-hour, high-energy demonstrations that involve the employees, the customers and, of course, the pies.

"Gordon makes a lot of appearances at our stores," said DeLuca. "He really gets the customers and employees fired up. Customer response has been very good. It's really a very good product."

Star carries Gordon's apple, no-sugar apple and blueberry pies in 9-inch and 4-inch sizes. The 9-inch apple and no-sugar apple retail for $5.99; the blueberry is $6.99. The 4-inch pies all sell for 99 cents.

Gordon's are the only branded pies carried in the Boston Bread Co., Star's in-store bakery. And despite the strong sales of the products, DeLuca said it was not stealing any business from store-made pies, which come in a variety of fruit and cream options and are frozen and baked-off in-store.

"It is a totally different customer who shops for the bakery-made pie," she said. "Gordon's is additional business for us."

Competing with manufacturers for the grocery business are restaurants like Bakers Square, based in Denver, a division of Vicorp Restaurants Inc., a casual-dining concept with 150 restaurants in the western U.S. Over the years, Bakers Square has become famous for its pies, (pictured below), which are scheduled to appear on shelves in more than 500 A&P units by early fall.

The line was tested in A&P's Farmer Jack's and Cole's divisions, which carried both fruit and cream pies -- 12 varieties in all. The pies were such a success in these Detroit and Milwaukee locations, the chain decided to bring Bakers Square into its remaining units, co-branded under its Master Choice label.

"We identified supermarkets as a major selling place for our pies about two years ago," said Jim Donegan, vice president of sales and marketing for Vicorp. "We found many grocers did not address the opportunity for selling upscale, restaurant-quality pies."

The retail Bakers Square items are prepared at the same commissary and made with the same recipes as the pies served in the restaurants. Donegan said the gourmet 9-inch pies were a much greater weight than typical supermarket pies and, in the eyes of the consumer, a greater value.

"Sales of the Bakers Square pies have been very good and continue to rise," said Andy Carrano, A&P's vice president of marketing and corporate affairs.

The pies are packaged in dome-top plastic containers and shipped frozen to the retailers. The fruit pies sell for $6.49; the cream pies are $8.99 to $10.99.

"This is a specialty product for us," continued Carrano. "We continue to sell our in-house pies, and Bakers Square has not stolen that business, but rather brought in additional sales."

Expectations are high for the co-branded effort, according to Donegan, who said the customer's trust of the Master Choice line of products would extend to the Bakers Square pies.

"We're in the process of creating special packaging and labels for the pies that read Master Choice by Bakers Square," Donegan continued. "A&P's customers know the Master Choice label means quality, and this should increase our sales even further." "Good name recognition goes far," agreed Scott Samuels, managing partner at Horizon Hospitality Consultants, Overland Park, Kan. "If the customer knows the brand, it will naturally benefit sales."

Cross merchandising also works. Retailers have found pies can be profitable compliments to their delis and fresh meals programs.

Alfalfa's "pie table" is centrally located near the bakery, deli and fresh meals departments. Stilwell said about 60% of this display is filled with pies; cookies and pound cake occupy the rest of it. This location is ideal for impulse buys, she added; consumers shopping for a meal will buy a dessert, too.

Customers in for lunch are permitted to select pies from the table, bring them to the service counter and have slices cut for themselves. The rest of the pie is sliced and pieces are packaged individually and moved to the "Fresh and Ready" case that houses quick, grab-and-go meal items, Stilwell said. Slices sell for $1.99.

At Star, units with adequate space cross-merchandise Gordon's Pies in the fresh meals department.

"We have what we call a power aisle which includes the deli, bakery and [fresh meals] departments," said DeLuca. "Putting the pies on display here reminds customers that a dessert really completes a meal."

During his events, Weinberger acts as a promotions agent. He has helped "bundle" whatever items the stores have on sale, including barbecued chicken and cheddar cheese.

"Our supermarket hosts have lots more to sell than my pies," Weinberger said. "I love to give them a hand."

For the Thanksgiving season, the A&P test sites offered the Bakers Square pies with the fresh meals program. Some locations offered a $1-off coupon good toward the purchase of a pie; others gave a free pie with the purchase of a complete turkey or ham meal. The chain plans to add the pies in future promotions with its fresh meals departments. [see A&P Farmer Jack's Tucks Into Bakers Square Pies, SN, 11/23/98].

Across the board, everyone interviewed by SN said Thanksgiving was the top pie-selling holiday. Of the flavors available, pumpkin beat out all others except for apple, which is the year-round bestseller virtually everywhere, they said.

Alfalfa's Stilwell reported sales of approximately 2,000 pies last Thanksgiving season and said summer was strong as well, especially for fruit varieties.

"Fruit pies in the summertime is just a tradition," agreed Samuels. "People are just accustomed to eating them at picnics and barbecues and the like."

"There is a big push for fruit pies during the summer months," said West. "People seem to find them much more refreshing."

She added that APC had not noticed consumers gravitating to higher-end, better-quality pies. The three retailers who spoke to SN agreed.

"We're seeing a lot of growth in this area," she said. "More variety and more fruit -- that's what the people like."