Conversations with... Sally Carson of Clive's Pies

31st October 2019

We start our new Food & Drink series of 'Conversations with...' sitting down with Sally Carson of Clive's Pies. This series looks at the challenges businesses in the food and drink industry face, whether past or present. These stories are to be shared and hope to help up and coming companies in the sector. 

As we arrive at the tall and characteristic building of Hamlyn House, home of Clive’s Pies, we are welcomed with a beaming smile from the Managing Director, Sally Carson. This has been the home of the business over the years, but the firm will soon be moving to new premises which will allow more space as the company continues its growth. 

Upon entering, the first thing you notice is the relaxed but measured feel of a production team as they work away. Everyone seems to have a smile on their face and each person we meet takes their time to say hello until they scurry around us to get back to their tight schedule. 

Clive’s Pies have gone from strength to strength. An initially niche market, started by Clive in a small kitchen in Dartmoor. He baked around 100 pies a day, distributing them on his bike until being taken over in 2003, expanding the range.

Clive’s Pies were one of the trail blazers in the organic and vegetarian food industry. They still uphold the values that were passed down from the beginning. Even with a greater demand, the company still make their pies with fresh, local organic ingredients, which are hand prepared in their own kitchen.

We reach the office of Sally Carson and her mum, adding to the atmosphere of the family-built business.

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Sally, thanks for having us today. First we’d love to know how you got involved with Clive’s Pies?

“Well myself and my husband Chris, who is a Chartered Accountant both loved food and worked together in Singapore and London before deciding to come back to Devon with our family.

We came away thinking we both love working together and thought about a few ideas. We’re quite sociable so we thought maybe a pub or wine bar, but we had three small children, so it didn’t seem possible.

Then one day, someone mentioned Clive’s Pies. We had a tour and literally turned around to each other and said, “this is what we want”. It just felt right.

Being a vegan, we wanted to know how to eat better and everywhere I went there was nothing. Over the years we grew gradually and expanded our range of products and availability for various dietary requirements.”

What would you say has contributed to your growth?

“Over the last 6 months Veganism has exploded, which is fantastic for me as I’m a vegan myself. When you think about 35-years ago with Clive starting out and creating pies with chickpeas, lentils, beans and soya milk – there just wasn’t those kinds of items available in the day to day market place.

From our slow growth we have created a trusted name and helped with alternative food solutions. This has meant out customers have stayed loyal.

We’re not in it for a “quick buck”, we were way ahead and proud to be one of the founders of the vegan and vegetarian sector, all whilst keeping it very low key.”

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How does that change you as a business?

“Up until recently it was myself and Chris doing everything ourselves. Then suddenly it all cranks up and you’re working with Waitrose, Ocado and Avon Coll and their expectations grow meaning you can’t do all of those things on your own anymore.”

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Does that bring more accountability?

“It does, but we are very transparent. On our website we have clear information on all our policies including recycling, palm oil and using organically credited suppliers. From being clear, we are still a very trusted company.”

You touched on having to do a bulk of work yourselves starting out, was that one of the biggest challenges?

“Definitely. We were working in the bakery, recruiting staff, ordering the ingredients, speaking to customers and dealing with auditors. We had to literally juggle everything and still make sure the pies got out the door at their best quality.

You must be a jack of all trades, if the driver calls in sick you hop in the van and do the deliveries yourself for the day.

I don’t know how businesses manage without an accountant, because we wouldn’t have survived. Chris was on it every week, knowing where the money had gone. Often businesses that don’t succeed is because they don’t or can’t keep a handle on it.”

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Did you have to learn new skills?

“We learnt as we went on. For instance, I taught myself social media - Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Even our sons helped, with one doing it remotely. They have lived and breathed Clive’s Pie’s for years, so it was great. They always say ‘Clive’s Pie’s’ was mums favourite child.”

You have moved to working with large supermarkets. What was the decision to do that?

“Well the first national brand was Ocado around 6-years ago, which came from a food festival we’d attended each year. It was a brilliant event speaking to hundreds and thousands of customers excited to get a gluten free pie. Then one of those years Ocado came and approached us and said we’d really like to list your pies, and that relationship developed from there.

With Waitrose, we had just developed some beautiful tarts and Chris said “Waitrose should have these” so he just sent them off. A few weeks later we got a call and they said, “We want them in our stores”, which is amazing as the product just sold itself.”

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What was that transition like?

“It was okay, the only issue is that they can hook you in. You get put on a three-month trial and you need to recruit and train staff, whilst cranking up your supply chain. After all that and the three months are up, they say, “We love your product, but we need you to drop the costs.

That can be the tough bit.”

What about distribution wise?

“Getting our products across the country is a massive challenge. Our fresh items have a 10-day shelf life, so by the time it gets anywhere it’s already lost 2 days.

You get given time slots, so today we have been making our tarts and nut roasts from 5am. By 7am the pies get made and they are done by 9am to be packed and palletised ready to go at 2pm today. If we miss that 2pm deadline, we have no other way in getting them out.”

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I’m guessing finding the right supplier who deal with organic ingredients can cause difficulty.

“We choose our supplier by matching our ethos. We’re very fortunate to have businesses we use who do need to make a living, but at the end of the day it’s all about the food.

You must also remember when finding your ingredients that a harsh winter, or bad harvest can mean the ingredients dry up.”

How do you make sure that doesn’t happen?

“We don’t tie ourselves in with one supplier. 

There are challenges in being organic and people have asked “Well what’s the big deal on being organic?" the answer is it’s a big deal. We need to look after agriculture, land and resources so we’re absolutely sticking with organic. Those challenges are always there, they just change.”

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With Brexit are you stockpiling?

“Yes, we are, and the only problem right now is our produce. That sort of stuff might throw us into a spin and need sourcing elsewhere.

We’re fortunate enough with our customers that they know being vegan and organic can mean a variation in fresh organic vegetables. We will always make sure that even with an element of slight change, that our products taste fantastic every time.“

Where are those items stored?

“Our fresh product is okay as it needs to be dispatched the day of being made but were not seeing an increase in the want for frozen items, which means more storage needed. Currently we don’t have any in house storage, so it means everything we make must go as soon as it’s ready to go.

Our new site will have masses of frozen storage, which is exciting.”

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Roll forward 5 years, where would you like the business to be?

“As a vegan I feel like I’m compromising a lot when going out to eat. I will go to the same place and eat the same small dish, whilst others are eating big meaty dishes for the same price.

So, I think we will be focusing on the food service and getting the product out to those places.”

Finally, if you had to give a business starting out any advice, what would it be?

“Having someone look after your numbers is key and don’t grow too quickly. We have seen a hike over the last 12-months due to customer need, but prior to that for 15-years our growth has always been steady. 

If you grow too quickly; changing things and training your team without clear policies and process – you make mistakes.

Grow gently and don’t try and do it all overnight.”
 

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