Sara Hayden always knew her mom’s pie-crust recipe was something special.
These days, it’s distinctive enough to be the basis for a line of liquor-dappled pies sold in the thousands across Minnesota.
About five years ago, the now 45-year-old entrepreneur began rolling out and filling her own version of the tasty pastries while mothering her five children. At first, she made all her products herself and marketed them online, at farmers’ markets and through an Oak Park Heights bakery.
Over the years, she turned her baking acumen into a full-time retail, food-service and corporate-catering enterprise — Sara’s Tipsy Pies — that’s on track to double its revenues this year and to continue double-digit growth for several more. The company’s pie volume has similarly doubled each of the past few years; in 2017 alone, Hayden's business will bake up some 50,000 pies, including frozen versions sold in scores of stores statewide.
In a major coup three years ago, the family-financed business gained a highly coveted spot at the Minnesota State Fair, beating out some 400 other contestants for the privilege of serving pie to thousands of hungry fairgoers each day. The booth has been a fair staple ever since.
Crain recently asked Hayden for an update.
Q: Where are you producing your pies?
A: For the past year, I’ve had my own [commercial kitchen] in Stillwater.
Q: What kind of help do you have these days?
A: I have three employees for production and two who help with wedding delivery and setup. Most important, I have a business partner: Hugh Williams, a former General Mills brand manager. He oversees my business as general manager and focuses on my frozen-retail accounts.
Q: What retail locations now carry your pies?
A: Restaurant outlets include Revé Bistro in Stillwater, Selma’s Ice Cream in Afton, Marine General Store in Marine on St. Croix and Fulton Brewery in Minneapolis. Our frozen packaged pies are in about 70 grocery stores [throughout] Minnesota.
Q: What’s been the greatest challenge of selling at the Minnesota State Fair?
A: Logistics. It's hard to find storage before and during the fair for the large number of pies we need to have ready. We are still learning how everything works as a business at the fair.
Q: How many pie flavors have you developed through the years, and what are some of the top sellers?
A: Maybe more than 30 [flavors]? We keep creating new alcohol partners. Top sellers overall are Finnegan’s Salted Caramel Apple and Boozy Blueberry. Of the frozen varieties, best sellers are Razzy Raspberry Apple and Woozy Whiskey Pecan.
Q: To what do you attribute your success to date?
A: We work very hard. We keep visible by demo-ing pies in stores. I'm selling at events. We are dedicated to social media. We keep our product consistent. We partner with great collaborators that promote us, as well. And in crust we trust. All these things add up.
Q: So far, what's been the greatest challenge of growing your business? And the greatest reward?
A: When we grew too fast after the [first time at the] state fair, it was financially hard to keep up with the demand. Greatest reward: Realizing that we were keeping up with the demand and that people really are attached to our brand. We feel very loved and supported.
Q: What's been your greatest regulatory challenge?
A: We are launching savory products next; this will get tricky. Meat requires a hazard analysis and critical control points — or HACCP — plan, which will mean time-consuming paperwork and will be costly, as my current facility might not accommodate all [the equipment] it might need. We are sticking, for now, to direct sales for those reasons.
Q: If you could start your business over, what might you do differently?
A: Create a product that has a shelf life and is shippable.
Q: Any advice for others in Minnesota wishing to pursue production of a great food idea?
A: Slow and steady. Branding is so important. People need to know not only your product but also you. Tell them your story. Be genuine. Why are you doing this? What motives you to create? It's a perfect storm of awesome product, backstory and a little bit of luck.
Q: What's in your five-year business plan?
A: We'd like to be a nationally known product in stores, restaurants and taprooms. We’ll stay at the state fair. The goal is to sell to a larger company that could take the business to a whole other level, but I'd love to continue as the Pie Lady and maybe mentor a new startup. I've been so blessed with amazing business mentors; I hope to give back in that way someday.