Restaurants across Toronto are transforming into pie companies
Restaurants in Toronto have had to pivot in some of the most unimaginable ways this year, but one trend that's taking hold in the winter month is making portable, filling savoury pies that are easy to reheat at home.
It's been a great way for pubs, which are so reliant on atmosphere and drinking in large groups, to survive.
The Hole in the Wall is currently offering a pre-made frozen tourtiere, and new pub Bramble started selling a selection of frozen meat pies to take home, but two other restaurants have started their own full-blown pie shops.
They have pies like a Smoked Brisket Cornish Pasty or Wild Salmon and Leek Fish Pie, as well as a sweet peach cobbler.
"Eating pies has always been a passion of mine, so I figured making them would be a good way to feed that passion. It wasn't all a selfish decision though. Being English, we have a huge culture around savoury pies," Chef Ryan Lister of Liberty Commons told blogTO.
"Back in August, knowing that increased in-restaurant dining restrictions were inevitable, I figured what better way for our guests to experience Liberty Commons at home through the colder months than by eating food I'd love to eat too."
Chefs have had a huge struggle in dealing with one of the most uncontrollable factors when it comes to takeout, which is also one of the most important when it comes to diners enjoying their food at its best: temperature. Reheatable pies are a great workaround at this time.
"For me, the best thing about a pie is when it is fresh and hot. No only because of taste but the smell that fills your kitchen. That is why we decided to provide the pies frozen. Our pies are either par-cooked and ready to finish or available to cook from frozen," says Lister.
"This is so our customers could enjoy that moment when you take the hot pie, pastry or sausage roll out of the oven and smell the delicious butter pastry or mash potatoes. I didn't want to deliver them hot in a takeout box. Pies are a glorious food and they deserve to be enjoyed at their very best."
While Lister has been delighted that it turns out people in Toronto share his love of a good pie and as such hopes to continue serving them beyond the pandemic, he points out that the pie shop is no permanent survival method for Liberty Commons.
"The margins are tight and by no means is this making up for our lost revenue while being shut down, but it is at least something we are able to try out whilst still providing takeout options from our regular menu. One thing is for sure, it is better to try something new than attempt nothing," says Lister.
Jamieson Kerr went through a similar thought process over at his restaurant Queen & Beaver looking for a combination of great takeout and pandemic comfort food, though his idea for The Q&B Pie Co. had actually been germinating for a while.
"It was always something that I was thinking of doing, but the pandemic pushed it into gear relatively quickly. I knew that I had to produce a product that I could sell in volume and be proud of," Kerr told blogTO.
"I also wanted to produce a pandemic comfort food, and pies, during the winter months at least, looked to be ideal. Take-out was foreign to the Queen & Beaver, and although we did move quickly to online apps, it was never going to sustain us."
It's no surprise Kerr had been sitting on the idea for a while: Queen & Beaver is known for making some of Toronto's favourite British pies, and has been doing so for over 11 years.
"We took a few months to experiment and to create what we wanted, which was to produce bloody delicious individual pies. We kept with tradition, making classic English savoury pies, like Steak, Carrot & Stout, and Chicken, Ham & Leek," says Kerr.
However, he's experimenting with new fillings, and you can also buy condiments, wine, beer, apparel, and even a "Pub in a Box" with pies, beer, gravy, mushy peas and garlic mash to recreate the experience of his pub at home. So far, people have responded incredibly well.
"We have been fortunate to sell about 700 pies a week, which allows me to keep seven full-time employees including myself. The Q&B can produce about 1000 a week, so there is still room to grow and I think that will happen quickly. Once we are at capacity and the restaurant eventually re-opens then I will have to think about its future. That is a problem I will relish," says Kerr.
"We sell a lot of the pies to online markets and are in several grocery stores. I also have many customers whom I personally deliver to. I am on the road for about 4 hours a day, five days a week. Without the help of rent and labour subsidies and the fantastic understanding of my landlord it would be a different story, but the pie business has been really beneficial and a fun new venture and it has kept me busy."
Over at Cider House, a bar specializing in rare local ciders, they've pivoted with a special menu made up exclusively of hand pies, which unlike the frozen pies at the other shops are hot and ready to consume instantly out on the street.
"As of now we offer cheeseburger, butter chicken, and chana masala pies, with rotating chicken pot pie and curry potato cauliflower.
We started doing pies as a quick way for customers to grab and go," owner Sasha Steinberg told blogTO.
"As Roncesvalles can be quite the walking street, we found it was easier to grab attention with something that was hot and ready, instead of having to wait for takeout. Furthermore, we found having our kitchen open and waiting for take out orders with our full menu was too costly. Our chef comes in in the morning, makes the pies and then leaves."
Steinberg found the response to the hand pies was great, saying "it's all about pivoting" and that Cider House was lucky to have a table oven left over from their participation in the local annual Polish Fest which they could use to pull the idea off.
"We're still getting used to this concept but we are finding it is working. When our bottle shop was open we offered grab and go baked goods. And found people gravitated to that instead of our menu because it was ready available, no wait time. We still wanted to offer hot food that was convenient, hence the pies," says Steinberg.
"I'm not saying this is saving our business. Sales are still extremely low compared to what we once were. But hopefully it will pull us through until we can open back up again."
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