While the meat pie may not be as American as its apple-filled cousin, one quick-service entrepreneur is betting on the Australian street-food staple to become the next big thing in U.S. quick service.
Wayne Homschek is CEO of Pie Face, a meat-pie concept that opened its first location in Sydney, Australia, in 2003 and now has 72 locations Down Under. The first U.S. Pie Face opened in January in Midtown Manhattan, and five more are scheduled to open before the end of the year. By the end of 2013, Homschek plans to have 16 Pie Face locations up and running in New York City.
And he says that is only the beginning.
“Right now we’re focusing on the high-pedestrian traffic, [the] time-poor, convenience sort of customer,” Homschek says. “We could [open] 100 locations in New York City based on the density of, say, Starbucks or some of the other chains.”
Of course, Starbucks’ gamble on specialty coffee was less of a calculated risk than Pie Face’s bet on meat pies, which are largely unknown in the U.S.
The meat pie—in its traditional form, nothing more than a hand-sized pie filled with meat—does inspire strong emotions in other parts of the world, however. New South Wales Premier Bob Carr once claimed it to be Australia’s “national dish,” while New Zealand also considers it part of its culinary heritage. The hearty, self-contained meal traces its origin, like Australia, back to working-class England and is usually sold in mom and pop bakeries or at street vendors at all hours of the day.
Pie Face isn’t the first meat-pie purveyor in the U.S. Tuck Shop, which has three Manhattan locations, debuted six years before Pie Face. Co-owned by Lincoln Davies, a native of Melbourne, Australia, Tuck Shop offers a range of meat-pie flavors, including options like the Thai-spiced pie and the barbecue-pork pie.
Despite Tuck Shop’s success, Davies isn’t as convinced as Homschek that a meat-pie chain would work on a national scale in the U.S.
“It’s not something I aspire to,” he says. “Nor do I think it’s something that the world needs, mass-produced pies being flung out there.”
At least one industry watcher shares Davies’ attitude. Kathy Hayden, a foodservice analyst with market research firm Mintel, is skeptical that meat pies will challenge burgers, pizza, or burritos in the quick-service space anytime soon.
“As far as a potential meat-pie franchise explosion, I think it’s just one guy running with it,” Hayden says. “I don’t see any other potential chains ramping up.”
Still, that “one guy running with it” is confident he can find a mass audience for his meat-pie brand.
At first glance, Homschek may not come across as a likely ambassador for Aussie street food. He grew up in Atlanta and eventually moved to New York City to pursue a career as an investment banker. In 1989, Homschek visited Sydney for a training program and stayed put, leaving his banking career behind. After trying his hand at selling designer fashion, he hit on the idea of capitalizing on the Australian love for meat pies.
“We came upon the meat pie,” Homschek says, “because it’s a product that everyone in Australia knows about and eats to some extent, and it was one we didn’t believe was being done very well as a business model.”
Quick to give culinary credit to Sydney’s independent meat-pie masters, Homschek says none of the existing shops had succeeded as a chain concept. So in 2003, he and his business-partner wife, Betty Fong, opened the first Pie Face with the goal of expanding the concept through franchising. Today, 80 percent of the 72 Australia locations are franchises.
While Pie Face expanded in Australia, Homschek kept an eye on the American quick-serve sector, looking for hints that it was the right time to bring the concept to his homeland.
“From the moment that we came up with this idea, I was going to bring it back to the United States,” Homschek says with an adopted Australian accent. “That was my whole intention from the start.”
Eventually, Homschek says, he began to hear “murmurings” about savory pies catching on in the U.S., and he decided “it was time we got in gear and got ourselves over here.”
Pie Face’s branding is what Homschek describes as “quirky, irreverent, cool,” with an emphasis on high-quality food. The name of the company alludes to actual faces drawn in gravy and baked onto the surface of its pies. The pies’ various smiles, Homschek explains, let people know what is inside; a V-shaped smile, for example, marks a vegetarian pie.
The brand’s quirkiness was an acquired taste for Aussies who grew up eating traditional meat pies, Homschek says, but that hasn’t been the case in New York.
“In Australia, we had to reinvent the perception of the meat pie,” he says. “In the U.S., it is novel … so we can create whatever sort of perception we want.”
Whether the world needs meat pies, Homschek is intent on bringing meat pies to the world, and early signs suggest he might be on to something here in the U.S. Pie Face’s 450-square-foot Midtown Manhattan store is already the chain’s highest-grossing location, with $39,000 in weekly sales in its first six weeks and an estimated $2 million in estimated annual revenue. The next two locations are scheduled to open this summer.
It may be a far cry from Starbucks’ Big Apple ubiquity, but it’s a start.