Gardner Pie's four-pound Colonial Apple sees 80 percent of its sales around the holidays.
For an industry that relies so heavily on holiday sales, the retail instore pie business faces a bit of a conundrum: the holidays mean indulgence, but American consumers are more and more concerned about what they put in their bodies.

Fortunately for Akron, Ohio-based Gardner Pie Co., fans of its pies can indulge with a little less guilt, says Tom Cavanaugh, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing. “Holidays are a time where people indulge but eating better is now a part of people’s lifestyles,” he says. “When they indulge, they have an eye on indulging responsibly. So we talk that up as much as we can.”

And for Gardner Pie, when they talk it up, thMeey’re not blowing hot air. The company has established its clean-label bona fides by baking pies with no high-fructose corn syrup or artificial flavors. “Why should you start eating something where you can’t pronounce half the ingredients just because it’s the holidays,” Cavanaugh says.

Indulging responsibly also can mean smaller portions, and Gardner Pie now sells just as many, if not more, half-pies than it does whole pies, Cavanaugh says —whether it’s the holidays or not. Much of that can be attributed to smaller households, but health-consciousness also plays a central role.

The surge in half-pie sales does not, however, mean that people are eating less pie, Cavanaugh says. “I don’t think we’ve seen a negative correlation between dessert sales and people’s desire to eat better. Manufacturers have figured out ways to deliver products that taste great and are indulgent yet are cleaner,” he says.      

Gardner Pie of course sells plenty of pumpkin, pecan and sweet potato pies when the fall and winter holidays roll around, Cavanaugh says. But the company also differentiates itself from its competitors with special pies no one else has, like its homemade Colonial Apple Pie.

You can tell there’s something special about the 4-pound Colonial as soon as you look at it. The pleated crust folds up and in, unlike with traditional two-crust pie. “It has a real unique look, almost like a fluted top, and works very well as a gift,” Cavanaugh says. “One of the keys to its success is that it has a very special appearance.” Gardner Pie sells Colonial Apple year-round, but Cavanaugh estimates that 80 percent of sales are generated around the holidays.

 The pie is a part of a series of Colonial pies featuring the unique pleated look; others include Apple Black Raspberry, Apple Cranberry, Apple Raisin and Apple Red Raspberry. “With holiday time indulgence, you want to put your best foot forward with your family and friends,” Cavanaugh says.

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Tippin's says its French silk pie is the most popular of its holiday offerings.
Beyond pumpkin and apple

Pumpkin, French silk and apple are the top three holiday pie sellers for Tippin’s, a division of Kansas City, Kansas-based Balls Foods, which ships its pies to grocery stores in 14 states, says Mark Boyer, Tippin’s president. French silk, because it’s priced higher, actually is “neck and neck” with the venerable pumpkin when it comes to dollar sales, Boyer says.

“If you asked 100 Tippin’s customers, 80 would say French silk is our signature pie,” he says. “No one comes close to our French silk. They take three days to make.”

Pecan, sweet potato and Dixie (similar to pecan but with chocolate) are among the other Tippin’s pies that shine at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Full-size pies are the big sellers, but the fastest-growing segment for Tippin’s is 4-in pies, and 6-in pies also sell well at the holidays, a reflection of today’s smaller families, Boyer says. 

Another top seller at the holidays for Gardner that’s outside of the pumpkin/pecan/sweet potato/apple group of usual suspects is the company’s Very Berry Pie, a four-berry pie — strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries —that fits into the “rich, indulgent” paradigm many people associate with the holidays. Available in 8-, 9- and 10-inch formats, Very Berry is a long-standing customer favorite, Cavanaugh says. “There’s just a richness about it that screams ‘special.’”

Tippin’s, like Gardner Pie, has responded aggressively to consumers’ desire for an ingredient panel they can understand and feel good about. All of Tippin’s fruit pies are clean label, and the company is “getting close” to clean label for the rest of its pies. And it hasn’t had to raise prices on any of its clean-label versions, he says. That could be a challenge, however, when it comes to clean-label cream pies, Boyer admits.  

A clean-label pumpkin, Boyer says, has been a challenge because of shelf-life issues. “From a merchandising standpoint, we felt some pressure that pumpkin needs to be merchandised longer.”

Two years ago, Tippin’s joined forces with a local gluten-free baker to create a gluten-free pumpkin pie for the holidays, Boyer says. You can’t taste the difference between the company’s gluten-free and regular versions, he says, and they sell out quickly —if Tippin’s had the capacity, it would make more of them. “We’ll make about 2,500 this year,” he says.

Tippin’s also is considering adding gluten-free versions of French silk and apple.  

Holiday sales, year-round prep

Easter and the Fourth of July are holidays where Gardner Pie sees nice sales bumps. But Thanksgiving, the winter holidays and Halloween — or “fall harvest,” as Gardner Pie tends to classify the October selling season —are unsurprisingly the heart of pie season, Cavanaugh says. “Sixty percent of any pie company’s sales are going to be late September through December. If you don’t do well then, you’re going to have a problem. But it’s like a 12-month preparation for it. We start getting our holiday forecasts from retailers in late April.”

And that’s true, he says, regardless of the variety of pie. “We see that with traditional holiday pies as well as with special ones.”

Tippin’s does about 40 percent of its business in the fourth quarter, Boyer says. Pies typically account for about 6 or 7 percent of an instore bakery’s sales, he says. At the holidays, it jumps to 30 percent. “They can hardly put them on the tables fast enough.”

Like Gardner, Tippin’s starts planning for the end of the year many months earlier. “We have to start making pies well in advance to be able to capture the sales we get” at the holidays, he says.

The problem is, retailers want a pie that’s as “fresh” (in the pie world, that means one that’s been frozen for as little time as possible) as it can be. The general rule is that a retailer wants its pies delivered when they still have half of their shelf life left, Boyer says. Pumpkin pies have a shorter frozen shelf life than other pies, he says —about six months.

That means customers want their pumpkin pies for the holidays delivered just three months before the peak traffic kicks in. That might seem like a long time, but given the volumes at stake, Tippin’s has to hustle to get orders out in time, Boyer says. “That becomes our bottleneck,” he says.

While Tippin’s traditionally hasn’t considered Halloween to fall into the holiday mix, the popularity of Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes and other foods and drinks that contain pumpkin — items that typically go into production long before Halloween —has carried over into the pie world.

“One of our clients told us they wanted to start putting pumpkin pies out in September,” Boyer says. “And they had 42 percent more sales. Starbucks and others have put pumpkin in people’s minds.” As a result, he says, September and October are now very strong months for “holiday” pie sales.

The fate of traditional holiday pies can be dramatic once the peak season ends, Cavanaugh says. “On January 1, pumpkin sales drop off the face of the earth,” he says. But not all traditional pies suffer the same fate. “Pecan sales used to be more seasonal. Now we’re seeing more year-round acceptance —certainly regionally.”

Gardner Pie’s varietal mix hasn’t change significantly in recent years, Cavanaugh says. Fruit pies have probably seen the most changes. Fruit blends, for instance, have become more popular, he says. In addition to its holiday top-selling Very Berry, Gardner Pie’s offer includes Apple Berry Delight, Apple Cranberry, Apple Raspberry, Peach Blueberry and Strawberry Rhubarb.

A little further off the beaten path, Gardner Pie has also begun selling a Hatch Green Chile Apple Pie in a bid to ride the wave of popularity for New Mexico’s hot vegetable export. Combining something trendy with the venerable apple is a can’t lose, and it hearkens back to a pie industry truism. “The more apple pie you sell, the more pie you sell in general,”  Cavanaugh says.