KANSAS CITY, MO. - After months of panic shopping and extreme grocery stock-ups, we’ve begun to settle in to embrace the comforts of home. 

Where convenience once reigned supreme, consumers now have time and more inclination to make meals at home. Considering pies have always been a vehicle for a variety of foods both sweet and savory, the medium is the perfect tool for making the most of already available ingredients.  

“Pie taps into feelings of comfort, family and celebration and will continue to do so,” said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator for the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA), Madison, Wis. “People are still gathering in smaller numbers or virtually and they appreciate being able to spend time with their family and friends. Pie offers the instore bakery and deli a lot of opportunity moving forward around comfort food.” 

Right now, the category of pie couldn’t be in a timelier niche, particularly as the holidays quickly approach. The sweet or savory offering provides a way to make the most of seasonality and for making the most of what you have, supported by a range of crusts or wrapped in a pastry shell. A favorite for gatherings large and small, the category is not known for innovation, with most consumers content to have it be a symbol of comfort and familiarity, a point acknowledged by Mark Boyer, president of Tippin’s Gourmet Pies, Kansas City, Kan.  

One thing pie can be relied on for is bringing delicious things together. Founded on the mission to preserve the all-American tradition of baking and enjoying pie, The American Pie Council, Bonita Springs, Fla., is seeing multi-generational pie making with the revival of “secret” recipes and pies that incorporate the ingredients found in handcrafted cocktails, such as fine bourbons, and even craft beer. 

For others, this means pies featuring seasonal berries and tart cherries followed by a shift to apples, pears and nuts later in the fall. Some of the most popular mixed fruit pie favorites include blueberry and peach, blackberry and lemon and apple and pear, according to Stratas Foods, Memphis, Tenn. But don’t think of two-fruit combos as the limit. Some manufacturers are upping the bar with up to four fruit filling combinations.  

Instore bakeries looking to create a buzz around seasonal varieties could benefit from a collaboration featuring local products and/or local producers, according to IDDBA. Such a pairing might feature a local supplier’s seasonal berries, cherries, nuts or apples, similar to what a consumer might encounter at a local farmer’s market. The use of a local product offers the opportunity to convey freshness and the cache of local that’s particularly attractive to younger consumers who might not yet be frequent pie consumers. 

“Know who your audience is,” Richard recommended. “Many consumers are looking for something more creative with the option to buy smaller sizes and grab-and-go options. By building buzz around a product, you’ll get others to try new products, making the department a destination.” 

With this in mind, Tippin’s challenged its fruit suppliers to come up with different fruit combinations for pie as cited in the IDDBA What’s In Store 2020 report. Those efforts discovered difficulties sourcing exotic fruits in the necessary quantities needed but found innovation can often be easier with cream pies. One of Tippin’s newest flavors is its Peanut Butter Chocolate Silk pie. The flavor is one of many that will be featured in the company’s new instore turnkey pie program created to remind consumers there’s always something new instore. 

“Fresh” attributes 

The discovery of something new may be as easy as combining what’s available in the refrigerator or pantry. A variety of factors have elevated curiosity for pantry-style or depression-era cooking, including new interest in no-bake refrigerator pies, according to Marie Ostrosky, a food stylist and recipe developer. 

With an emphasis on the home kitchen, more consumers are comparing an ingredient list to what they might find in the contents of a home cupboard, pantry or refrigerator, meaning increased awareness of products free from HFCS and added sugars.  

“At Tippin’s, our main innovation has been in cleaning up our ingredients to look a lot like you would find in your cupboard and refrigerator at home,” Boyer said. “We make everything from scratch, and we no longer use artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.” 

Cleaner label initiatives include reducing or eliminating saturated fat in the pie crust. To provide pie shells with a clean neutral flavor and a firm set-up in the pie dough, Mitch Riavez, C.M.B., senior national accounts manager for Stratas Foods, recommends bakers choose a good all-purpose shortening containing hi-oleic oils. For those who prefer a mix of margarine and some shortening, he suggests mixing the company’s Primex Stratas All Purpose shortening with half Buckeye Margarine. “The consumer knows that the fresh baked product may contain more healthy choices when it comes to the basic ingredients used,” Riavez continued. 

Nutritious nuts 

Healthy choices become easier to make with delicious ingredients, and nuts are an addition that can be nutritious and indulgent. Two of those go-to nuts include walnuts and pecans. 

Possessing versatile profiles, nuts are a great addition from the perspectives of size, flavor, presentation and form. Tricks such a lightly toasting just before incorporation can re-hydrate the nuts and make them more buoyant in a pie filling.  

Walnuts can also be precoated with gum or starch to help with suspension and even distribution. Adding a sugar or candy coating can preserve integrity and prevent oxidation by providing a barrier between the air and the walnut, especially if they are used as decoration on the tops of pie, according to Jennifer Olmstead, director of domestic public relations, California Walnut Board and Commission, Folsom, Calif. 

On its website, the California Walnut Board and Commission offers food professionals resources on how to add texture and presentation and highlight the nutritional profile of the nuts as a significant source of essential omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) with benefits for heart health, brain health and inflammation.   

“Because of their mild nutty flavor, walnuts are the ideal nut for everything from apple and berry pies to holiday favorites like pumpkin and decadent chocolate pies,” Olmstead said. “While walnuts are the go-to nut for sweet pies, they are increasingly used in savory pies, for example as a plant-based filling for shepherd’s pie or to add crunch to a savory phyllo pie.  

Another nut favorite, especially around the holidays, is the pecan. In their unroasted, unsalted form, pecans are a nutritious enhancement, containing more than 19 vitamins and minerals. To demonstrate new ways to include pecans into menu development, The National Pecan Shellers Association (NPSA), Atlanta, offers commercial and food service operations an online toolkit. The association also hosts a pecan summit for individuals from commercial and food service industries to teach them how to work with pecans. 

These events highlight the role of pecans in its culinary forms, including ways to work with particular nut sizes and incorporate the meal as an alternative flour. Ostrosky who works with the NPSA, is finding growing interest among food service providers regarding ways to highlight pecan’s nutritional qualities. 

“With more trends geared toward comfort foods with a twist, pecan meal in a pie crust can provide an interesting dimension of flavor and also meet the desire for alternative flours and gluten-free pie crusts,” Ostrosky said. “Other pie trends include the appeal of mash-ups such as Asian/Latino or two different foods combined such as banana nut cream pie or international flavors like dulce de leche.” 

She also shared that pies can be a way to help instore bakers and consumers alike reduce food waste. Pie can be repurposed by adding oats to create a cobbler or turned into an ice cream topping, a milkshake or smoothie. In the instore deli, pies with a savory slant can capitalize on consumer desire to experience new flavors and cuisines.  

“We see more creativity each year, whether that’s in pie size, pie flavors or the way pies are decorated,” said Linda Hoskins, executive director, American Pie Council. “Reinventing the traditional pie texture and experience by placing a pie in a cake or cake in a pie are on the scene, too.” 

Reinventing pies for health and nutrition could include incorporating protein, vegetables and other better-for-you ingredients, allowing consumers to look at pie in a new halo of health and wellness, according to Richard. It also grants the deli another option for experimentation and a timely platform to highlight how the department is reducing food waste. 

Holiday vs. everyday 

“If you really like something and you can enjoy it year-round, why not?” The question asked by Boyer is a reasonable one, and it seems more consumers agree a feel-good food like pie should not require a special occasion for consumption. 

Merchandised correctly, consumers will purchase pie year-round with holidays accounting for 40% of sales versus 25% the rest of the time, according to Boyer.  

Increasing pie consumption instore could include tapping into some pie research conducted by Tippin’s and the American Pie Council. Tippin’s analysis found pies are consumed mostly as part of a dinnertime meal but are also a popular choice to share with a cup of coffee. A survey conducted by The American Pie Council found many people like to start their day with a slice of pie for breakfast. 

When it comes to who is purchasing pie, demographic characteristics of the category found purchasers trend toward households larger than one person. Frequency of purchase increases in the mid-35 age range all the way up to 65. To make impulse purchase decisions more appealing to a growing number of customers, instore bakeries are choosing to package or re-package pie in smaller portions, ranging from 5- and 6-inch mini pies and half pies to pie slices and bite-sized cutie pies and pie shots. 

“Pie is such a great way to bring people together, and I think the category will continue to grow,” Boyer concluded. “Things like pie can bring people together to share, and when you think about it, most memories of pie probably include family or gatherings and fond memories. People value being together even more now.” 

This story was featured in the August issue of Supermarket Perimeter. Check out the full issue here.