Anyone who has spent much time in the U.K. knows the glory of savoury pies. Flaky pastry filled with gravy-rich meat or creamy veggies – it’s a delicious staple that hasn’t quite made its way to North America, with the exception of the ubiquitous chicken pot pie and, if you’re lucky, a French Canadian tourtiere. For those who regularly visit Calgary’s various farmers’ markets however, Simple Simon Pies have made the humble savoury pie a common weeknight meal.
Simple Simon started in 1987 when founder Bob Whitworth, who had previously tried his hand at a couple of other food-related ventures, started making pies in his home to sell at local farmers’ markets. The pies were a hit and Whitworth kept on with the business, which grew along with Calgary’s market scene. Today Simple Simon sells more than 10,000 pies a week, at the Calgary Farmers’ Market (which Whitworth helped found), the Crossroads Market, the Symons Valley Market, the Market on McLeod, and all Calgary Co-op locations.
Whitworth, who hails from the U.K. himself, said he was inspired to do pies when he noticed a gap in the local market. “There were lots of people doing burgers and lots of people doing pizzas, but there was really only one other company in town doing pies,” he says. “And I just find them the perfect go-to food, when you want something but don’t want to go to a lot of trouble making it. You just pop it in the oven and make some salad on the side. It’s a handy go-to food, but it’s not really a fast food. It’s not something you eat with one hand.”
Whitworth sees pies as basically being “a meal in an edible container,” and he and his team are fairly creative with the fillings they put inside his pastry. Current Simple Simon savoury flavours include classics like Shepherd’s Pie, Steak and Kidney Pie, Tourtiere, and a variety of quiches, as well as more adventurous offerings like Butter Chicken Pie, Taco Pie, and Jamaican Beef Curry Pie. There’s a lot to choose from, but when customers shop at the farmers market, they get to take advantage of Whitworth’s primary advertising tactic: hands-on sampling.
“The trick is getting them to try it,” Whitworth says. “And that’s where my sample regimen comes in. The amount of samples I give away is outrageous – I spend over a quarter of a million dollars a year on samples. That’s my form of advertising. There’s something very immediate about giving someone a sample. If they like it, they’ll probably buy it. If they don’t like it I shouldn’t be selling it to them.”
Despite the name, Simple Simon isn’t just about pies. While the savoury pies are definitely Whitworth’s signature product, the company also sells a wide selections of soups (which Whitworth says are almost outselling the pies), as well as prepared meals, including stews, curries, and lobster mac and cheese, plus dessert pies and cheesecake. Many of the soups and meals are available at Co-op locations, with the full array sold at the farmers markets.
While Whitworth isn’t involved in the administration of the Calgary’s Farmers’ Market anymore and his distribution with Calgary Co-op has expanded his market significantly, he’s still a very strong believer in the farmers’ market model. Every year, Simple Simon sells a large quantity of product via fundraising drives for schools and community groups, but while Whitworth says that charity is a partial motivation for his fundraising program, he also used the campaigns as a way to raise awareness for the farmers’ markets. Whitworth encourages groups to set up the program so that supporters can buy pre-paid vouchers to redeem for Simple Simon products at the markets, and those who haven’t experienced shopping at the markets can then get a feel for it.
“I like the whole activity and entertainment aspect of a farmer’s market,” Whitworth says. “There’s a completely different atmosphere than when you go to a supermarket. They’re usually owner-operated, so when you go to a farmers’ market you expect to have answers to your questions about all the little things about a product that people are curious to know.”
Simple Simon has grown to the point that production is in a large facility and he’s constantly adding staff, but ultimately, he’s still attracted to the simplicity of selling pies through old-fashioned taste-test sampling, directly to his customers. If hecan deliver a product that most home cooks don’t feel they have the time or the skills to make from scratch, and provide them with a healthy, hassle-free dinner, he’s happy.
“Why would somebody go to all the trouble of making pastry from scratch when you can have somebody making it for you?” he says. “People aren’t going to go to the trouble of making a pizza at home if they’ve got a great pizza parlour down the street. It’s the same with the pies. All you have to do is go to the freezer, pop it in the oven, and in half an hour you’re good to go.”
Elizabeth Chorney-Booth is a Calgary-based freelance writer, and co-founder/co-editor of RollingSpoon.com. She enjoys exploring the connection between music and food through interviews with musicians and chefs.
Photo by Ingrid Kuenzel