April 1, 2019
THE HIGHWAY OF PIES
The first person to complete both the Food Xcel and Food Propel programs through PEI’s Food Island Partnership, Chef Sarah Bennetto O’Brien of The Handpie Company is rapidly expanding her already thriving business. O’Brien credits both programs as key to her success. “I can’t put a monetary value on the growth they've given me,” she says. "We now have a handpie within a one-hour drive of every Islander."
Food Propel has inspired her to focus on the management side of business. "The mentoring has provided the most value," she says. "I bring my growth challenges to three amazing mentors, and they give me a ton of perspective." As a result, she's refined her packaging to suit the demands of her bulk frozen handpies -- part of the reason they're now in nine retail locations across PEI, two of them “hot-serve”and the remainder selling pies in “take-and-bake” form. This summer, The Handpie Company will grow to thirteen staff members; she maintains a full-time team all year round.
O'Brien recently visited Mrs. Dunster’s Bakery in New Brunswick with owner/mentor Blair Hyslop, who operates four production facilities employing more than 240 people. “It gave me perspective into large-scale production and distribution,” she says. “If we continue to grow, I know what it will look like.”
While there are certification regulations to satisfy before O'Brien can distribute her meat pies off-island, with characteristic inventiveness she's decided to offer a new line of vegetarian handpies she's created and hopes to sell throughout the East Coast in the next two years. She's developed an exclusive distribution deal with ADL and always has her eye on the future. “My mentors have given me fresh perspective on distribution and scaling-up, as well as helping with behind-the-scene things like batch-code and record–keeping in good order.”
Five years from now, besides aspiring to Canada-wide distribution, she hopes to spend time in Cornwall, England -- the motherland of handpies -- cultivating partnerships with people who've been creating them for hundreds of years. But, O'Brien is also firmly planted on PEI. “Local communities and food producers have been incredibly supportive, which I'm thrilled about. Sourcing and being connected locally is at the core of who I am, and what I’ve always wanted this business to be.”
By Magner Ink (www.magnerink.com). This is one in a series of articles on the P.E.I. Food Cluster.