Week in Review

A smaller slice of the pie

The classic pie is in short supply and jobs are on the line as bakeries all over provincial and urban New Zealand feel the impact of the lockdown, reports Jim Kayes.

Who ate all the pies?

We all did. Or at least, we used to.

Kiwis wolf down about 66 million meat pies a year. We buy them on the go at petrol stations, from the local dairy or bakery, with mince and cheese a clear favourite, and the humble sausage roll the next best seller in bakeries.

But those days are gone and may take a while to return. For some, they won’t.

Pie sales at some of the big producers are down – significantly, according to Auckland-based Dad’s Pies – and the lockdown is threatening at least 15 percent of the bakery industry.

Dad's Pies continue to roll out during the lockdown, though production is significantly down. Photo: Supplied

The casualty rate will only increase the longer lockdown goes on, says Baking Industry Association of New Zealand president and owner of Gilbert’s Fine Food in Dunedin, Kevin Gilbert.

“I know that there will be bakeries that simply won’t be able to open again,” he says. “The hospitality industry won’t look even vaguely like what it used to and bakeries will be a part of that.

“There will be redundancies within hospitality and within bakery specifically. Some will lose their homes because their house is tied up in the loan for the bakery, and some that do re-open, you have to ask at what cost, because they will have to take out new loans, second mortgages to do so.”

Gilbert, who has been in the bakery and hospitality industry for 30 years and president of BIANZ for four, says there is a misconception that bakers make plenty of profit. But steady increases in the price of flour and dairy have trimmed margins, with bakers having to absorb the increases.

“We operate on very slim margins and it’s not helped when you go to a supermarket and look at the price they can sell bread at,” Gilbert says.

There are about 1200 bakeries in New Zealand – an exact figure is impossible because some bakeries call themselves cafes and some cafes operate as bakeries.

Whatever name they use, for some the crust is about to break.

“We are hopeful it will be only about 15 to 20 percent of businesses that are forced to close,” Gilbert says. “We don’t want it to go higher but it depends how much longer the lockdown goes for. The reality is, the longer it goes on, the higher the percentage [of closures] will be.”

Jimmy’s Pies were first baked in Invercargill not long after the end of World War II, with Jimmy Kirkpatrick shifting the business to Roxburgh in Central Otago in 1960.

Jimmy's Pies general manager Bernard Kirkpatrick. Jimmy's Pies were first made soon after the Second World War. Photo: Supplied

It’s still there, and on a normal day they’d bake 350 dozen mince pies and the same again for mince and cheese. That’s fallen away dramatically with about half that number sold over Easter and sales dropping by about a third overall.

“We’re chugging along,” general manager Bernard Kirkpatrick says of a business that’s been in his family for three generations. With 25 permanent staff, 14 are now working.

“With the new spacing guidelines that’s about the perfect mix of staff and pies,” Kirkpatrick says.

Patrick Lam is the undisputed King of Pies, having won the national pie competition seven times. His three stores – two in Tauranga and one in Rotorua – are closed, but he hasn’t had to lay off any staff thanks to the government subsidy.

“I’m confident we can get back to normal because bakery food is affordable food and hopefully people can still afford to buy from us. So we should be okay.”

The exact number of pies sold in New Zealand each day is impossible to know because most pies aren’t sold with a barcode, so can’t be tracked.

But in 2017, Food Standards New Zealand said Kiwis ate about 15 meat pies per person, each year. That’s about 66 million pies and doesn’t include vegetarian or fruit options.

Irvines and Big Ben pies are regarded as numbers one and two, with Dad’s Pies, based in Silverdale north of Auckland, probably third. At least, third in the North Island as some of the southern pie makers are quick to suggest.

Eddie Grooten started Dad’s Pies in the back of his dairy at Red Beach in 1981. Since then it’s grown from his humble pots and pans operation to a company that now employs 110 staff and exports pies to 14 countries.

It’s still a family business with Eddie’s son, Ben, head of sales. He won’t say how many pies roll out of the factory each day but concedes the number is “significantly down”.

One big reason for that is we’re not in our cars as much. Dad’s Pies, like all pies, are popular in petrol stations, but with people not out and about in their cars, sales have plummeted.

What’s helped steady the fall is an increase in supermarket sales, Grooten says. “Supermarkets need producers to produce products so they can sell them and stay open so we have become an essential service.”

And who would argue that the pie isn’t an essential service?

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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