Pie combines predictability and nostalgia to create a delicious way to showcase seasonal ingredients and regional tastes.

The words “comfort in a crust” go a long way to understanding why pie continues to be a crowd pleaser. As a treat synonymous with indulgence and gatherings, pie provides tried-and-true comfort, offering traditional flavors along with infinite possibilities for customization, regional flourishes and sparks of innovation.

Standard flavors such as apple, cherry, peach, blueberry, pumpkin, key lime and pecan compose the majority of sales, demonstrating pie is a reliable vehicle for authenticity. Despite its continuing popularity, Circana found all flavors show unit decline except for key lime, which is flat in unit sales.

Blackberry doubled in sales, but this is very small from a unit perspective, according to Melissa Altobelli, client insights principal for dairy and bakery vertical, Circana, Chicago.

Additionally, nostalgia remains a key driver in helping consumers connect with the flavors and formats of their childhood, with Baby Boomers and Gen X having the highest affinity for pie, according to Catherine Wisloski, manager insights and customer experience, Dawn Foods, Jackson, Mich.

But don’t exclude younger generations as potential pie lovers just yet. The heartwarming return of neighborhood pie shops in larger American cities signals pie is successfully wooing new converts and pie continues to hold a spot on one out of four restaurant menus.

Expanding the definition

True pie lovers understand something so good doesn’t always require a flashy calling card.

The humble dessert has long been deemed a delicious, if predictable, dessert option. But with new desserts always competing for the attention of consumers, it can be difficult for the pie category to assert itself when there’s always something newer and more Instagrammable on the horizon.

Pie manufacturers are looking to change that mindset by offering consumers new ways to think about when and where pie can be consumed. Gardner Pie Co., a 75-year old pie manufacturer located in West Newbury, Mass., is known for pushing boundaries.

With an eye toward the future, the company is expanding upon the ‘what and when’ of pie. This includes offering frozen pies with unique flavor combinations, including colonial and a topped pies, a range of savory vegetable pies, mixed berry and smaller pies and South of the Border traditional fruit pies with a hit of spice. Its South of the Border Cherry Lime Chipotle flavor is an American Pie Council award winner.

At Tippin’s Gourmet Pies, Kansas City, Kan., traditional apple and cherry remain the favorite fruit pies, but during the holidays, these selections take a backseat to pumpkin as the company’s top-selling pie. The holiday pie is known for its puree, which is aged two years to enhance the natural pumpkin flavor and provide a slightly darker color to the filling. Its other seasonal pies include chocolate walnut, pecan, pumpkin cream and sweet potato.

Capitalizing on the popularity of the smooth cream pie filling of its best-selling French Silk pie, Tippin’s developed a new line of LTO Celebration Silk pies. The silk pies feature rich scratch-made fillings and rolled, flaky crusts in flavors such as Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Confetti Birthday Cake, Grasshopper, Butterscotch Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Malt and Orange Dream – available in select stores this fall.

Tippin’s is also making strategic decisions designed to focus on bringing a younger consumer demographic to the pie category, according to Robin Venn, president of Tippin’s Gourmet Pies. The company welcomed a new mascot, Tippi, to help introduce younger consumers to the pleasures of eating pie. Tippi, who debuted at the IDDBA show in June, also serves as the head taste tester for Tippin’s Pies and is ready to lend a hand with baking, slicing or tasting pie at any time.

Sharable options

Concepts like Tippi highlight the idea that pie is a social and sharable dessert. Therefore, it’s no surprise the top-selling pie sizes are 22-24 ounces, serving approximately six people.

Retail tends to focus on 9-inch pies and foodservice on 10-inch pies. Consumers shopping at club stores can find even larger pies such as Costco’s new Four Berry pie with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and cranberries. The pie weighs approximately five pounds and serves 10 generous slices.

Whole pies show strong unit sales growth, up 8.8% and accounting for 72% of sales with private label and store brands accounting for 76% of sales. Circana anticipates continued unit growth in whole perimeter pies. While sales of perimeter pies look to be declining overall in unit sales, there’s an uptick driven by single-serve individual pies.

Pies designed to serve 1-2 people have seen more than 50% sales growth in the past year. Tippin’s six-inch pie caters specifically to smaller households and single servings. The company is also expanding its retail-ready Heartland Pies, which include the four top-selling holiday pie flavors and six fruit pies. The 8-inch pies are pre-labeled and ready for ambient display instore.

Smaller sizes can also offer affordability and portion control, reduce food waste and encourage the sampling of new flavors, dovetailing with the global trend for smaller, more frequent indulgent treats.

A survey conducted by The Hartman Group, Guilty pleasures: The balance between indulgence and wellness, found that consumers view a healthy diet as one that includes some degree of indulgence and 50% consider indulgent foods and beverages as part of a healthy, balanced diet. 31% seek indulgences with functional benefits, according to The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash.

Reasonable reductions

While indulgence remains the modus operandi in pies, there is some interest in the desire for sugar-free pies with the continuing popularity of the keto diet, according to Melissa Trimmer, corporate executive chef, Dawn Foods. Conversely, negative health aspects surrounding the use of aspartame have reinforced a negative view of non-nutritive sweeteners among consumers.

But the reduced-sugar trend is not yet creating a major impact on bakeries. Sugar reduction remains more popular in CPG and home recipes, according to Dawn Foods. While offerings for reduced-sugar pies remain limited, companies like Tippin’s supply supermarkets with ready-made, reduced-sugar options in French Silk, apple and cherry.

While sugar reduction may not yet be a top-requested attribute, other ingredients must be on trend and ready to meet the expectations of more discerning customers, according to Tom Cavanaugh, vice president sales and marketing, Gardner Pie Co. These expectations are similar to others across the bakery segment, with pies free from artificial colors and flavors, unpronounceable ingredients and HFCS.

“Younger generations have grown up with products touting a reduction in sugar and have come to expect indulgent flavor with a reduction in sugar,” Cavanaugh said. “This is essentially better-for-you without sacrificing taste.”

Functional additions

Options for plant-based additions also continue to grow slightly. Gardner Pie is receiving more inquires for allergen-free and plant-based options as consumers, retailers and foodservice look for ways to expand the definition of pie.

One way pie makers can meet the demand for great taste and better-for-you is with pies that contain functional benefits. Nuts such as walnuts and pecans can be used in pies as meal for a crust, chopped as an inclusion and as a full-size garnish. Containing a buttery, nutty flavor profile, walnuts complement chocolate, fruit and vanilla applications along with hearty and savory ones, too.

Considered a nutrient-dense food, walnuts also deliver key nutrients as a source of good fats and alpha-linolenic acid, plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and protein, according to the California Walnut Board, Folsom. This makes walnuts a reliable ingredient for permissible indulgence and an allergen-free alternative offering a range of nutritional benefits.

”Accommodating dietary requests is a great way to offer consumers more options, while staying true to their dietary preferences,” Trimmer said.

Looking ahead: pie trends to keep an eye on 

Pie offers plenty of delicious reasons for permissible indulgence throughout multiple dayparts, especially as pie makers look for ways to redefine how and when pie is served.

“Looking at the next 12 months, pie sales should remain stable while trends such as local, seasonal flavors and ingredients that suit conscious consumers bring innovation and excitement to this traditional favorite," said Catherine Wisloski, Dawn Foods.

“We expect to see more in the way of exciting flavor inclusions to keep the pie category fresh and appealing for instore bakery consumers," said Robin Venn, Tippin’s Gourmet Pies, LLC

“There will be a continued push for hand-held, smaller portions. More convenience will open up where pie can be sold, and prebaked pies can offer continued labor savings. There will also be offerings of broader, more innovative flavors and continued movement toward better-for-you options," said Tom Cavanaugh, Gardner Pie Co.

“Pies are nostalgic themselves and everyone has a memory of pie that bring us back to happy times in our past. But new flavors and forms of dessert outside of pies are a threat to the category as there has been limited innovation in the space over the last four years," said Melissa Altobelli, Circana

A Google survey conducted on Pi Day (March 14) found that apple pie is the most popular pie in 27 of the 50 states. Pumpkin pie was the second-most searched.

The majority of pie sales occur from 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. or from 4:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.

This article is an excerpt from the September 2023 issue of Supermarket Perimeter. You can read the entire Holiday Pies feature and more in the digital edition here.