The life of pie

Finbarr Bermingham speaks to Pieminister co-founder Jon Simon to learn how he turned a tasty lunch into one of the fastest growing companies in the country

We've got a lot to thank the Egyptians for. Locks and clocks, paper and buckets, makeup and medicine. And pies. Pies are often viewed as quintessential English cuisine, but the roots of this dish can actually be traced back to 9,500BC, around the time Britain's Ice Age was ending, shortly after Long Island became separated from the American mainland, and about 7,000 years before the pyramids were built. The Ancient Greeks improved upon the primitive oat-based wrapping used in Egypt, being the first purveyors of the pastry-based dish we know and love today. Thanks to the Romans, pies became commonplace across Europe, and were eventually incorporated into Britain's gastronomical tradition. It's an illustrious history, and provides food for thought the next time you're tucking into a pork pie in your local pub.

Charting the pie

Appropriately, then, the story behind Pieminister, home of the most delicious pies in all the land (we've tried them!), is equally epic. Jon Simon, co-founder, recalls the lightbulb moment many moons ago that was to change his life: "I was studying furniture and product design at Nottingham, which was a sandwich course. I didn't want to spend my gap year sitting in an industrial estate in Liverpool, so I went to Australia for a bit of a holiday and told my tutors I was working with aboriginal tribes making didgeridoos and boomerangs. It was good because there was no way they could contact the people I said I was working with!

"I spent most of my time in Sydney, where they had a little pie and mash outfit called Harry's Cafe de Wheels. It was a tiny caravan, and was always absolutely rammed. The pies were served with a dollop of mash on top, with a well of gravy on top of that. In England at the time, pies were eaten out of a paper bag, with the pastry dripping all over your face. I thought the Aussie concept would work really well in England, so I came back with an idea and a didgeridoo, which was enough to satisfy my lecturers. I even made it onto the cover of the prospectus for the next year!"

The idea was to lie dormant in the back of Jon's mind for years. After leaving university, his aim was to start a furniture design business. After struggling to get a bank loan, he managed to "pull together 15 grand" by participating in various television game shows - the most lucrative of which was a Channel Four programme called Wanted. By the time he'd raised the capital, his focus had changed, and Jon bought a pub in South London, inviting his girlfriend's brother, Tristan Hogg, to be his chef. Success swiftly followed, Jon acquired another couple of pubs, and Tristan was headhunted to cook for rock bands on tour, including the Rolling Stones and Jamiroquai. On these travels, Tristan spent time in Australia, at which point Jon encouraged him to check out the pies he remembered from his own time Down Under, years previously. Says Jon: "He was munching on a pie on Bondi Beach when the name just came to him. He came back and we decided that was enough to get going. I sold the pubs, moved to Bristol. Pieminister was born!"

The pair have been business partners ever since, with Tristan looking after product development, and Jon dealing with business and marketing functions. Despite the growth of its business from a single cafe in Bristol, to a multinational brand which sells its wares in Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Waitrose, Pieminister's mission statement remains simply to make the best quality product they possibly can. Jon explains the methodology behind it: "We knew immediately that it had to be focused on pies. We wanted to make the best pie you've ever eaten, but to do it in a really ethical way. We've always been careful to use free range meat and where we can, local ingredients. It was all about creating a really ethical, sustainable business that was delivering something really good. When we started the business, it was different from anything else on the market. There are people trying to do similar things now but, at the time, it was pretty revolutionary."

Jon and Simon have been careful to reflect the authenticity of their pies in their marketing. "Unless you've got a company that's being run by accountants," Jon explains, "brand winners tend to emerge as a result of the personalities that have built them up. So with a bit of help from a savvy graphic designer, the whole ethos and health of the brand is a reflection of me and Tristan. It's young, and cares what people are thinking and how it's perceived, but if the food isn't up to scratch, then the whole thing's a waste of time. So we have to build all those credentials into a package: food and brand. I think that's what makes us more interesting than the older, crusty pie companies."

A bigger slice of the pie

Pieminister's sales have grown by 45 per cent per year (up to 2010), and last year tipped the scales at £5 million. In 2010, Pieminister was ranked in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100, a table of the companies with the biggest sales growth over three years. But any entrepreneur who has overseen the growth of a business will tell you that an increase in scale brings a raft of new problems, particularly for one as brand-focused as Pieminister. "Being able to deliver the level of expectation we've built up is becoming a bigger challenge for us," admits Jon. "The reputation is built on trust and we have to be very careful about what we say, to make sure we can back up our claims about what our product is and does. We've tried to ensure that as we get bigger, the quality gets better, rather than worse."

It's a challenge Jon enjoys, and he's always looking for the next opportunity to take the company forward. He recalls the early Pieminister days, "literally hanging off the walls of an old factory, ripping off lights, salvaging equipment" in an attempt to kickstart production and operating a one-man market stall, thrusting pies into the hands of hungry customers. These days, he's more likely to be negotiating with national supermarkets, building a new store to add to the existing six (three in Bristol, one in each of London, Oxford and Stoke-on-Trent), or making a deal with a pub (bars up and down the country serve Pieminister pies). He's gone from the micro to the macro almost seamlessly, and the next target in his sight is the international market. The company already has a reasonable presence in Ireland, and have recently set up a small office there, with a view to opening a shop in Dublin. They've also tested the water in the Netherlands and Germany, and are keen to tell the continent "what good British pies are all about".

Today, the Pieminister menu boasts ingredients more akin to a Michelin-starred kitchen than your average pie shop. The Matador comes with steak, chorizo, olives, tomato, sherry and butter beans. The Pietanic is loaded with smoked haddock, salmon, pollock and parsley sauce. The Heidi Pie comes stuffed with goat's cheese, sweet potato, spinach, red onion and roasted garlic. Unsurprisingly, Jon says the best part of his job is still when someone comes up with an idea for a new filling. "It's probably very similar to what you'd imagine," he says. "We've got people working on new flavours and types of pie all the time. Sometimes it's successful and sometimes it's not, but the tasting sessions are always enjoyable. We all get together, sit down with a knife and fork and ask each other what we think. It's a good laugh."

All the best recipes have made it into Pieminister's first cookbook, A Pie for All Seasons, which gives fans the chance to replicate their favourites in their own home. It's the next step in the continual evolution of the company. From game shows, to the Rolling Stones, to the high street via Bondi Beach and didgeridoos, they've come a long way.