Why a P.E.I. chef ditched her menu to focus on handpies

Why a P.E.I. chef ditched her menu to focus on handpies

A P.E.I. chef has had such success with her portable pies that she has changed her business to focus on handpies.

"It's portable and it's a comfort food, everyone knows pie in some variation," said Sarah Bennetto O'Brien, chef and owner of The Handpie Company in Gateway Village in Borden-Carleton.

The handpies were inspired by the Outlander series of books by Diana Gabaldon. Bennetto O'Brien is a huge fan and heard of a chef who created a stuffed pastry as described in the novels. 

Bennetto O'Brien, who came to P.E.I. to take the applied degree in culinary operations program at Holland College, decided to try making her own. 

Hot seller

The handpies became a hot seller at Scapes, Bennetto O'Brien's first P.E.I. restaurant, at the same location.

She decided to take the leap into handpies full-time while taking part in P.E.I.'s Food Xcel Program. Participants had to choose one product they were already making and come up with a business plan based on manufacturing that product.

At that point, handpies were 30 per cent of the total sales at Scapes.

"As soon as I saw the numbers on paper, it made sense," she said.

"I knew that we'd been turning down business because we have a very, very small kitchen and we couldn't do large batches while we were keeping up with the rest of our menu."

When Scapes shut down for the winter, the transition to The Handpie Company kicked into high gear.

"We fully made the switch, we're in production and we already have four interested stores on P.E.I. that are looking to retail the frozen ones," said Bennetto O'Brien.

Surprising stuffings

The shop features about a dozen varieties for now, including three vegetarian options.

"We have a roasted beet, corn and goat cheese handpie that's our number one seller overall," said Bennetto O'Brien.

"It's a staff favourite and not just because I have two vegans and one vegetarian on staff."

There are others, for meat lovers, including braised beef and mozzarella, barbecued pulled pork, Acadian tourtiere and bacon cheeseburger.

Some loyal customers are hoping for a breakfast handpie, but that's been a challenge.

"There have been a few things that haven't lent themselves well to freezing," said Bennetto O'Brien.

 A new line of fruit-stuffed handpies is also in the works.

Handpie high five

Melody Dover, founder of Fresh Media in Charlottetown, is a fan.

"What's lovely about handpies is you can hold it in your hand and it's filled with so much delicious local ingredients," said Dover.

Dover also points to the fact that Bennetto O'Brien has been able to make her company work, based out of Borden-Carleton.

"As we know P.E.I. can tend to be a seasonal province especially in rural areas of the Island and I think she's proving that things are possible," said Dover.

Future plans

Bennetto O'Brien has ambitions for her handpies.

"I always joke about world domination."

She plans to stay in Borden-Carleton where she has a "three minute commute" but hopes to open a small year-round location in Charlottetown, a "pie hole", as she calls it.

Then she'd like to find a co-packer, another food factory, that could take the recipes and mass produce them.

"Then we could go Canada-wide, that would be amazing," said Bennetto O'Brien.

"I think Anne of Green Gables needs to have a handpie cameo somewhere."

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