A bridge too far

03 July, 2009
Pie and mash retailer Square Pie is now firmly back on track, following a hard lesson in overstretching, as Andrew Williams reports
Page 25 

Trying to fit a square pie into a round hole is all well and good if your intended aperture is a mouth, and not an ill- fitting retail concept. Square Pie's star was rising throughout the past decade, nimbly transferring its pie and mash food-to-go brand into shopping centres, markets, department stores and travel. Feeling they could do no wrong, they did just that, and stretched the brand too far by launching a sit-in restaurant three years ago.

"A very expensive mistake," shudders MD Martin Dewet. "It gives me nightmares still. We tried it in an area with destination restaurants, in Russell Square, London, but we need high footfall, daytime-orientated locations. Most people who develop a concept have to go through a period of learning and you have to make a few mistakes. We did, and we won't be doing it again!"

A travel outlet, opened with only a two-year lease, compounded the folly; this was not renewed, and the shopfitting capex went down the drain. "Basic mistakes," he frowns. "You look back and you think how stupid could I have been? You get carried away, excited. But now we're back with a profitable business and looking to grow."

Having secured investment from "good business angels", Square Pie has turned a corner and closed a troubling chapter in its history with a stated aim of four to five new outlets in the next year.

"We're going to sit back and hone the business. [Securing funding] hasn't been easy, but we've managed it by people believing in the brand and the product," says Dewey. "And having gone through a few problems, we're in a much better position as a business than we were two years ago. We now have a tight template of what works - gourmet food on the move - and what doesn't, and that's what we'll be using for the roll-out of the brand."

A self-confessed "bit of a hobo", Dewey had stints managing a reggae band, working as a consultant in the city and on various internet ventures before starting Square Pie in 2001 as a kiosk in Spitalfields market, after he "couldn't buy a decent pie". Popular demand prompted the introduction of mash on to the menu, and 90% of pies are now sold with mash.

The market underwent a massive revamp last year, and Square Pie moved into a fully-fledged unit. The red tiling, Carrara marble and feel of the shops nicely links into London's history of pie and mash.

A ringing endorsement comes from one quintessential EastEnder, who knows a thing or two about career highs and lows - Michael Caine. He regularly pops into the Selfridges concession to buy unbaked pies on promo (the fourth is free). "Pie and mash is a great British institution - we've just taken it into the modern world with a variety of flavours and a higher spec," says Dewey. "We've developed a style of pie that is an alternative to pasty, and I think there is a big market for us to exploit."

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=== Square Pie, Spitalfields Market, London ===

Major costs: redeveloping a listed building, walls, floors. "Planning has been a pain - it took 12 months longer than expected due to landlords and planning consents, all out of our control," says MD Martin Dewey

Shopfitters: CADA, 150,000-200,000; the build took six weeks

Lesson learned: "I've always used an architect in the past and we've over-spent; this time we used our shopfitters to design and build it. But for this site it was the wrong thing to do, because it needed formal submissions and we would have benefited from having professional advice from the beginning. The bureaucracy on modern builds is unbelievable."

Equipment: Eurofours ovens from Beam Baking Systems; Rational Combi-ovens for steaming mashed potato; Williams refrigeration; La Marzocco 2-group coffee machine

Products: 15 types of pie in two sizes; all pies available unbaked for take-home (in-store and via Ocado); new torpedo pie launched for eating on the move; sausages and mash and jacket potatoes newly launched; monthly pie specials; baker on-site bakes fresh cakes and muffins; supplies Virgin Atlantic

Increasing spend: Building a breakfast trade with bacon baps, porridge and high-quality Monmouth Coffee. "Coffee is not something that has been easy to sell in a pie shop, but we're beginning to get a reputation for doing fantastic coffee, and I spend a lot of time training the guys up to make it well"

Plans: Five new outlets; expansion of the grocery retail business





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