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A most savoury endeavour

Aucklander Gareth Hughes had worked in the States for a few years but returned after 9/11 wanting to recharge and find a business in NZ or Australia that would transplant well on US soil. When he realised his passion for pies far exceeded the norm, he took a crash course in pie making in Auckland and with an American chef friend sold his first pies to the NZ Consulate for its Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King premiere party in New York in 2003.

Owner Gareth Hughes and the DUB Pies Pie Truck

DUB Pies (which stands for Down Under Bakery) first opened its doors in Brooklyn in 2005. Idealog covered DUB Pies’ Kickstarter campaign which helped launch The Pie Truck in 2014 and it had an immediate impact on business, being named among the top food trucks in NYC in Time Out New York, Business Insider, Gothamist and NY Post. As well as 10 savoury pies on the menu, there are sausage rolls and dessert pies, complemented with great coffee and Kiwi bonhomie. We procured these tasty morsels of advice from Gareth about his Stateside experience.

Idealog: Why did you decide to start a specialist NZ pie shop in New York? What opportunities did you see?

Gareth Hughes: The initial concept was to avoid a retail operation. I wanted to sell a massive numbers of pies to pubs and restaurants, and even started off delivering hot pies to bars. However, while the City of NY regulates cafes, bars and restaurants and wholesale bakers are regulated by the State of NY, when you create products containing meat and chicken your regulatory body is the federal government – the USDA. The advice I’d been given by the City was based on making sweet pies; they didn’t grasp that my pies were meat. So a couple of years in we had a visit from the men in black with gold badges (Feds) who instructed me to stop selling wholesale or face the consequences. We re-invented ourselves (quite literally) overnight as a retailer by taking over a cafe that our then landlord was operating in Red Hook, Brooklyn. 

The opportunity I saw was the large number of British, NZ, Australian, South African and Irish expats in NY who have pies at the centre of their street and sports food landscape. I focused on making DUB Pies known to all groups and gatherings from any of those populations and settled in for the long haul. Our plan had always been to serve pies to those who love the pie already and have them carry the concept to Americans in general. 

Twelve years later we’ve moved the cafe to better location, we have a food truck (which is essentially a marketing campaign – a moving bill board – that brings additional catering work), we ship our pies nationwide, we have a growing catering division and a growing wholesale business since partnering in 2011 with another Kiwi who has the ability to co-pack our product in a USDA production environment. 

We’ve reached multiple levels of proof of concept. We make a great pie and Americans love it – the savoury pie suits their palate.

DUB Pies, Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, NYC

What challenges/obstacles did you have to overcome?

The most significant challenge has been breaking down the paradigm held by most Americans that a pie is something sweet. Our strategy is to make it as easy as possible for people to try the product. To that end, retail has been essential to our longevity in presenting the pie at street level, i.e. a corner store cafe, a food truck, catering etc, and focusing sales on the expat communities in order to have them spread the word about the product. Also, by opening our Brooklyn cafe in the neighbourhood that I live in and working hard to be an important part of that community, it has given us roots before looking to expand into areas where our brand has less recognition.

When I started making Downunder-style pies in 2003 there were two other businesses nationwide doing something similar – now there are at least 70 locations. The plan had always been to operate a business that paid its way and stuck around long enough to be well placed when the savoury pie finally broke through and became an accepted food category in its own right. The momentum has been very gradual and there’s been plenty of low points, but we’ve seen the acceptance of savoury pies grow and grow.

Did you receive any mentoring from NZ investors or organisations? 

My decision to start a business of my own was based on the absolute need to not be working for anyone else and to take some risks to see what could be achieved. I had little formal knowledge of running a business. My concept is based on a Ray Bradbury quote I once heard – that sometimes you simply need to “jump off the cliff and learn how to make wings on the way down.”

With what I now know I probably would advise new entrepreneurs to find mentors, but not to make having one a prerequisite for taking that jump. My lack of mentors meant I’ve regularly re-created the wheel – and I would like to have avoided some of those mis-steps – but I don’t regret the experience garnered from forging my own path. A happy balance between those two positions would have been nice though.

Kea NZ, Kiwi Club, NZTE and Australian equivalents have all been helpful in their way over the years – but I can freely admit, despite being a very social person, networking and leveraging network potential have not been my forte.

In lieu of mentors I have had wonderful assistance throughout the years from a group affiliated with the US Small Business Administation known as SCORE – a bottomless well of experience and knowledge in the form of retired entrepreneurs eager to share what they’ve learned with new businesses.

DUB Pies Pie Truck and pie fans

What’s the key in getting noticed in a big marketplace – what’s worked for you?

Sheer, singular, focused bloody-mindedness, determination and belief in the product and idea.

What advice can you give to other Kiwis looking to start businesses in the US? 

Find mentors that can help you on your path. Listen and learn but don’t get bogged down in learning – eventually you have to simply get started. If you’re not passionate, don’t do it. Find something you are passionate about.

Understand that you’re going to encounter a thousand reasons to stop every single step of the way and that you have to know before you get started that you’re not going to let that stop you – otherwise they most definitely will.

One of the best pieces of advice I was given by a manager in my first corporate position was to “never lay blame, deny or justify” – and when I figured out what the hell that meant and how to work with those concepts in mind I know I became a far better employee and manager.

Americans love Kiwis and are fascinated by us – use it to your advantage. America is so big there are many cultures at play. I was drawn specifically to NYC – less so “America” as a concept. Density of population here makes NYC a great proving ground for many ideas, not just food-based ones.

Flat white and a DUB pie – a classic Kiwi experience in New York

How’s business? What are your long-term projections and objectives for the market?

The pies are a low-margin product and we need to spend a lot of money/time/effort on carving out a new food category in a massive economy with very little money – but we do make gradual headway and our brand recognition is growing. We focus on offering quality products and that’s what has kept us moving forward – we make really good pies. They’d fit in the upper-mid level of NZ pie quality overall. I think it would be a mistake to make a world-beating pie at this point in time – but once the pie market breaks open, flexing our pie-making muscles with the very best pies possible will be a lot of fun.

Once we became a retailer we realised it had to be more than simply about the pies, so now we offer a more rounded Kiwi cafe experience – such as excellent flat whites from well-trained baristas. We want to be more involved in bringing Kiwi culture to the USA – for instance, we sponsor NZ Music Commission initiatives at CMJ and SxSW. We plan to open more cafes, and possibly a sidewalk-based pie cart in Manhattan.

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