Robert Kerr

Pie in the sky

We caught up with Robert 'Rab' Kerr about running a catering start-up after a career in cooking, catering and baking.

What kind of business takes off in the middle of a lockdown? Pies. That's right. Think about it: do you want another webinar about remote working right now, or a fresh pie delivered right to your door? We talked to Robert 'Rab' Kerr about his pandemic-proof catering business and its new lease of life.

Bobby: Rab, do you want to tell us how life is just now with the lockdown?

Rab: It’s interesting: business life aside and life in general just now is quite bizarre sometimes. You wake up in the morning and forget you’re living in a different era. But then it hits you when you start to plan your day in your head, particularly when you have children.

However the business side of things is going incredibly well. There was a lot of uncertainty when things started to come out first in the media. There were a lot of events already planned such as markets, food events, beer festivals with my diary planned right up until June with up to six events throughout the calendar month. One by one we were getting emails cancelling event after event. So it was a tough time as without that income I simply wouldn’t have had a business. There was a lot of places around us closing and paying people off and that seemed to be the expected way to go. But fortunately for me, people have had to change their shopping ways and how they're sourcing food.

Demand on supermarkets has been huge so people were turning to alternatives such as locally produced products. My sales have gone crazy and I’m now limiting how many pies I am able to sell. As a one-man band there is a limit what I can produce daily. I also have to take into consideration what can be stored safely in refrigerated conditions. Also I’m doing deliveries myself so I have to limit how much time I can afford to do that too. But no complaints here, I’m making money out of the situation but also offering a service and a product that people thoroughly enjoy, so it’s good.

Bobby: It seems that Zoom and Pie in the Sky are managing to make a profit just now. That’s good, don’t feel bad about it! So to sum up what you do Rab, you make pie!

Rab: Yes, I make pies. Individual Scotch pies with 9 or 10 different fillings ranging from steak to vegan variety. They’re ready made and just need to be bunged in the over to reheat and serve with chips, mash or another pie!

I focus on ensuring everyone is flavoursome and done properly. I don’t scrimp on the time involved also as the ingredients give the pie that unique flavour, I have complete control over them. I source locally beef for mince as well as vegetables. I have a butcher who supplies me with my meat and I supply him with pies who he sells on to his customers. I support local businesses and farmers. People want something where they get to meet the producer, they know the story behind the product, they can see the passion coming through and when they taste the product the flavour stands up against all that. It’s complete honest food. People have called it ’slow-food’ as its a three-day process and I think people appreciate the time it takes to produce the pies and the sales suggest this is the case.

Alma: What was your background before pies? 

Rab: Before this I was a senior coach for a training company covering most of the UK training bakers, fishmongers and hospitality staff for one of the large supermarkets. I was managing a team out in the field doing that. Before that it was hospitality and catering, chef for a while, baker for a while, so I always had a passion for food. I do a lot of cooking at home. I like to forage and grow my own vegetables and really get involved in the food production side of things as well.

I gave up the career job as my wife and I decided to change our approach to child care so I decided I would put my career on hold and stay home and look after the boys. That was going fine and then I decided for extra income I would make some pies to see at farmers markets. So it all started off as a part-time thing, it still is to a certain degree, I didn’t expect it to be quite as popular as it has been. Now every week I have things booked up and it has really taken off.

Alma: Are you still enjoying it?

Rab: I love getting to the market or the food event and receiving the feedback from the customers I’ve sold a pie to. I enjoy the production side of things even though it’s hard work. It can get tough at times when faced with 6 or 7 hundred pies to produce for an event by myself. Those occasions can feel like I’ve gone back to full-time work. It can become quite stressful between the financial investment made as well as people relying on you to being there, those moments take me back to the stresses of my previous career. It can get quick tricky sometimes but on a whole I absolutely love it. Being able to do a job that allows me to look after my two boys is fantastic. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Bobby: On the subject of hard cash, did you risk much money in it or did you start off with low overheads and then build it up with farmers markets?

Rab: Yes I started with very low overheads, I had some equipment to buy, fridges, ovens. I also had to get some advertising and banners made but all very low budget in the area of £2,000 - 2,500 in all to get started. I was lucky as in Derry there is an indoor market where I’m based who promote start up companies. You can launch your product in the market, they charge a low daily rent. I was initially setting up on Friday and Saturdays. I was happy to make this investment to see how it would work. If it didn’t work I could park the idea it wasn’t a big investment, it was low risk. 

Towards the end of last year, things were going very well and I can to a crossroads where I went down the road of applications for business loans and grants. I was considering putting a food truck on the road, the next evolution to the business plan. But I put the brakes on it around February as it looked like full-time work again. The pressure would be on to work to meet loan repayments. So I though maybe this isn’t the right time for that. My youngest son is 2 years of age and the reason we had done this in the first place was to be there for the boys. So I’m glad I didn’t proceed with that as I would be in a very different situation today. I’d have a food truck sitting in the drive. It would be a different picture. My overheads, week to week, are just from producing the product. Profits are good, costs are low and sales are increasing. I think there will come a time when we decide now we take the next step but that time is not now.

Bobby: Did you use or need an app or website for when you were building the Pie in the Sky business?

Rab: Just facebook. I don’t really spend much time on the technology side of thing. My wife if very good at that. We started off on Facebook. People were coming into the farmers market. They were going onto facebook and pressing like. The following was starting to grow. We are now seeing around 950 followers and likes on facebook. We are also on Instagram - I don’t bother with Instagram too much.

It’s been phenomenal! Facebook is incredible - for communicating with existing customers and potential new customers. Word of mouth is no longer a chat in the pub it’s a chat on Facebook instead about different events. I find Facebook incredible for that. I would like to just use it a business platform as particularly now there is just so much information that is nonsense. But for promoting the products and the business its absolutely priceless. It’s fantastic!

Bobby: "How has Coronavirus affected your business" - but we’ve already discussed that. You said earlier on, people are having difficulty sourcing food, that’s the case in the local supermarkets in Glasgow just now. Shelves were empty. Are people sourcing your pies because there is a demand just now on lots of types of food or do people see your pies as a treat item?

Rab: I think it’s convenience. Where perhaps before people had time to shop and plan out their menu for the week then head to the supermarket to purchase what they wanted, now they are slightly knocked off sync by what’s happening just now with there not being as much food choice as before. Also with children at home all day long, maybe Mum and Dad don’t have so much time to spend in the kitchen as they need to occupy the children more so. 

There is a treat element with the pies. They are only for sale on Fridays and Saturdays. People have been buying them regularly since I started selling them. I was saying to my wife “People are going to get fed up with pies surely” but she said “no, you don’t get fed up with fish and chips, Chinese, pizza, whatever your take away of choice is. This is another take-away option”. You just bung it in the over and it’s ready. It's also healthy. I have had the nutritional value broken down for the pies by the local tech centre and actually they are incredibly lean and healthy and full of good stuff. They are low in salt and saturated fats and people are aware of that. I’ve told them that.

So there is an element of them being a treat but also I’m coming around to the fact that people just enjoy them because I focus on the flavour and the quality and the balance between pastry and filling is spot on. I work in quality control as well as production so I have the pleasure of trying them all!!

Alma : You mentioned there are nine different flavours, how did you decide on what fillings to go with?

Rab: Because I was making similar ones in Scotland when I was running a bakery and they were very popular. When I was making them here, I was thinking, what do people in Northern Ireland want in a pie. It was very difficult, I travelled the whole of the country with my previous job and I couldn’t find a good quality hand made pie. So apart from the supermarket’s chicken and mushroom or steak and kidney there wasn’t really anything. I wanted do something that made people talk about the product as much as possible. So I wanted to use ingredients that people were familiar with.

I started with Steak and Black Pudding. So for the people who like black pudding I chose to used black pudding they would most like to have. This was Clonakilty black pudding from Cork, Ireland. I am also going to do a chicken and white pudding pie. So when you mention Clonakilty pudding they automatically say how much they love Clonakilty pudding. So they know that’s going to work for them and it does, they are very popular.