Whenever we hit red soil, the hankering for our favourite on the go meal kicks in. The warm flaky pastry enveloping flavourful fillings made with local ingredients is just too tempting to go past. But hey, a quick stop in never hurts, especially when The Handpie Company is conveniently around the corner from the bridge. It truly is the perfect portable meal.
To find out a little more about these handfuls of deliciousness we chatted with owner of The Handpie Company Sarah Bennetto O'Brien to find how her business came to be.
Sarah moved around a bit before venturing over to PEI to take an applied degree in culinary operations at Holland College. While studying here, she fell in love with the Island and, in turn, an Islander and decided to settle on PEI back in 2010. Fast forward almost 10 years and you’ll find Sarah residing close to her store in Borden-Carleton with her family by her side and loving Island life.
Sarah was kind enough to let me get fire some questions her way so that we could get to know the lady behind PEI’s portable pies.
Sarah can you tell us a little bit about your background – what did you study and what path led you to what you're doing today?
I guess the pertinent education would be a Culinary Arts Diploma from Cambrian College in Ontario and then an Applied Degree in Culinary Operations from Holland College, with a Red Seal Journeyman's Certificate in between them. Two organic farming work experiences also steered me towards sustainable sourcing, and having cooked professionally across Canada a few times taught me the basics of culinary skills but also that I'm very suited to the entrepreneur lifestyle rather than having several layers of bureaucracy above me.
What’s on the horizon for The Handpie Company?
World domination! But really, we're inching towards our first goal of having a handpie within a 30 minute drive of every islander, with six shops across PEI carrying our frozen product and a couple more waiting in the wings.
What made you decide to go from running a restaurant to specialising in handpies?
I participated in a business program called Food Excel put on by the Food Island Partnership in the winter of 2017 and had the opportunity to really take a step back and work ON the business rather than in it. Focusing my thoughts on manufacturing a product rather than running a restaurant, and working out the financials for this idea, really just made everything fall into place. We'd always been making handpies for our menu at Scapes but now we would rebrand a put all of our collective energies into manufacturing these items for both hot and frozen sales.
How many varieties of handpies do you make?
We have nine core flavours of savoury handpies, with four limited edition varieties available at the moment, plus a rotating selection of smaller sweet handpies that are only available hot.
Where did you start your career?
At YMCA John Island Camp in Northern Ontario as a dishwasher and prep cook for a remote island camp that regularly fed over 200 people three meals a day.
What’s your top seller?
It really depends on the weather and the season, but our PEI Pasty is always up there. It's our take on the traditional Cornish Pasty from the UK, made with local wheat, butter, beef, potatoes and Canadian turnip.
What has been your greatest challenge and how did you overcome it?
I feel like there are daily challenges in business and I thrive on that. Keeping focused and determined and enthusiastically optimistic in the face of these daily opportunities for growth is how I roll.
You’re a true lover of embracing all things local, why is this such a passion for you?
My experiences on organic farms taught me first hand what actually goes into producing ingredients, and I'll never lose respect for that process or those people. I strongly believe that everyone in this career needs to spend at least 6 months working with a primary producer. Besides that, community is necessary in business and in life.. and there's no better way to build it than by supporting each other. Walking the talk is core to my values.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Sarah *laughs* - there isn't much that's typical around here! As a growing business with staff and many moving parts, my days often include working the front counter at the shop through the slow season and working on emails/ order/ shipping and receiving between customers. In any given day I might also be involved with recipe development, retailer communications, wholesale distribution agreements, process development, researching bakery trade show events, new equipment sourcing, packaging design, shelf life testing, scheduling and payroll, bookkeeping, social media management, being witty on signage, fixing plumbing, snow shovelling, the list can go on. I'm not directly involved in the day to day production much as I've built an amazing culinary team that I trust and adore.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone looking to open a small business what would it be?
Just one? Sign up for an HST number before you think that you need one, and hire a bookkeeper early.
And last but not least if we opened your fridge at home right now what would we find?
My home life cooking revolves around my son's school lunches and quick suppers, so there's always a solid amount of dairy and fruit.. plus I always have eggs for crepes/waffles/pancakes/straight up fried eggs. We're big believers in breakfast for supper. It's rare that I get to cook an elaborate meal at home, but when I do I usually shop that same day for perishable ingredients of awesomeness.
You'll find The Handpie Company at 1788, Route 115, ALBANY, PE.
Hot handpies are $8.50 + Tax and come in a variety of delectable flavours including. Bacon Cheeseburger, BBQ Pork, Beet Corn & Goat Cheese, Curried Chickpea, Organic Chicken Pot Pie, PEI Pasty, PEI Potato with Cheese and Onion, Braised Beef and Mozarella, Pork Tourtiere and their latest flavour Chicken Broccoli.
You can also purchase frozen pies which make for the perfect freezer filler for a cozy meal in. Frozen pies are $8 tax free and are available at: KJL Select Meats & Market, Riverview Country Market in Charlottetown, Kent St. Market in Charlottetown, The Evergreen Cafe in Souris, and Food Basket in Kensington. Soon to be found "up west" as well! Stay tuned to our social media channels for that update.