Inside the bakery department of Westborn Market, a four-store gourmet grocer that operates in the Detroit metro area, a featured display of Achatz Pies showcases 6-inch and 8-inch pies for $6.99 and $11.99, respectively, in multiple flavor options like Achatz signature Michigan 4-Berry (blackberry, blueberry, cherry and raspberry). A similar scene can be found at more than a dozen other supermarkets and grocery stores in the city, and Achatz Pies are carried at prominent local restaurants, as well.

“The gourmet markets in Detroit stand out. These markets are where we got our foothold,” says David Yono, director of operations for Achatz Handmade Pie Company, which, in addition to wholesale, runs six retail bakeries and a central bakehouse in the northern suburb of Chesterfield, Michigan.

Achatz Pies celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2018, and the family business continues to grow in a multitude of directions: wholesaling to supermarkets, retail, mail order, and third-party vendor Goldbelly.com. Retail sales continue to be brisk (Achatz Pies retail stores sold 35,000 fresh pies in three days this past Thanksgiving), and their mail-order business is up 5% since a year ago. And Achatz Pies have been available on Goldbelly.com (a curated online marketplace for regional and artisanal foods) for the past three years.

“There’s so much competition today. We are always willing to try new things,” says Wendy Achatz, who founded Achatz Handmade Pie Company with her husband, Dave, in 1993.

It is for this reason that retail bakeries are wise to examine the supermarket sector for opportunities to grow their businesses, particularly by offering signature, one-of-a-kind items that cater to a specific niche of the ever-changing consumer marketplace. It is no secret that today’s consumers are hungry for higher quality products that are convenient and have cleaner ingredient labels.

“It is wonderful that the American public is starting to understand high quality,” Wendy says. “We source ingredients locally wherever we can, and we use unbleached pastry flour. We feel a responsibility to do the right thing.”

Sustainable business strategies

As consumers aim to incorporate more environmentally responsible practices into their lives, they have begun to expect the same from the companies they buy from, including retail food sellers and restaurants, according to a new Mintel study. Diners depend on food retailers and restaurants to draw on environmentally friendly business practices. This creates an opportunity to become a guiding force that can enable consumers to feel good about the decisions they make, including where they buy food.

“With more restaurants adopting environmentally friendly practices, sustainability will become the new normal, and operators will need to take more innovative steps to stand out. Expect to see restaurants make changes to the way they operate in 2019, including partnerships that put the greater good above competition and circular economies that benefit the environment and the people involved in the food systems,” says Amanda Topper, associate director of foodservice research at Mintel.

The same is true in the grocery sector, which is embracing local bakery products at an accelerated pace. Key trends identified by Mintel include the heightened demand among consumers for full disclosure on how, where, when and by whom food is grown, harvested, made and sold. In addition, another Mintel trend worth noting involves increased emphasis on food texture that engages all senses and provides opportunities to share experiences in-person and online.

This is the white space where local retail and intermediate wholesale bakeries perfectly fit into the equation. Achatz Pies exemplifies a company that is committed to premium quality products made with natural ingredients. It is no wonder that prominent supermarket operator Whole Foods Market carries Achatz gourmet pies.

Growing up on her family’s small farm created wonderful childhood memories for Wendy, whose husband is a second cousin to Grant Achatz, one of the most celebrated chefs in America. A commitment to culinary excellence runs in the family. “We had a milk cow named Jersey, lots of chickens, geese, rabbits, horses and a pet pig,” Wendy fondly recalls. “We drank milk that was only a few hours old that we had to shake before pouring because the thick layer of cream rose to the top. We gathered eggs every day and shared with the neighbors.”

Dave Achatz learned at an early age from his mother, Irene, to preserve and store vegetables from the garden. He still cans numerous quarts of tomatoes from the family garden every summer. “Dave and I both know what purity tastes like, and our farm life taught us hard work, dedication, and patience,” Wendy says. “This deep experience is what helped to establish our core values here at Achatz Pies — from teaching our next generation of pie makers and passing down traditions, to purchasing and using pure, all-natural ingredients from many local Michigan farms.”

In 1993, Wendy and Dave began selling pies at local farmers markets and quickly learned that they could barely keep up with demand. Business was booming, so they bought a nearby apple orchard and opened their very first pie shop. Achatz Handmade Pie Company was officially born.

Production efficiencies

Today, inside the 20,000-square-foot bakehouse where they make thousands of pies in small batches each week, the production cycle begins in the dough room where they pre-process different sizes of pie shells. The pie doughs are rested for several hours. All crusts are vegan.

An automated depositor drops fruit filling into each pie as product moves along the conveyor belt, while workers carefully place a top crust on these double-crust pies that are being produced on this particular day. Achatz fruit pies are made with double crusts or crumb crusts.

“What is great about doing so many pies at once is the consistent quality control,” says Zack Achatz, who is Dave and Wendy’s son and helps manage the bakehouse and the overall business.

Yono points out an important point that their facility is SQF certified — “this holds us to the highest standards of the food industry.”

Pies are cooled to ambient temperatures, and the bakehouse uses a blast chiller to freeze pies that are shipped to wholesale accounts.

There is a well-executed boxing operation, and boxes are coded for traceability and sent through X-ray machines to ensure quality control. Achatz pies are distributed to hundreds of grocery stores and restaurants across the United States and Canada.

Yono says they are exploring new ways to easily ship fresh pies to their six retail stores that will result in less environmental impact. The business also employs a recyclable program for metal, tin and paper. “We are all about putting as little waste as we can into the trash,” he says. “Wendy is very big on sustainability.”

“Sustainable packaging is our goal,” Zack says.

Wendy says they started shipping pies online 20 years ago and learned valuable lessons along the way. The golden rule is don’t overpromise and don’t underdeliver. They affectionately call their online sales business “pies that fly.”

“We really thought it through. What would the pie look like on the other end when the consumer received it?” she says.

“We include a paperboard box with a breathable window, in case (consumers) want to store it. We include instructions for toasting it up to re-crisp the crust, because nothing is worse than a soggy pie crust. It’s important to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. We package pretty well.”

Innovations in product development

Another key factor involved in expanding your retail and intermediate wholesale bakery business is new product development.

Zack and Dave work together to fine-tune their menu development, examining what’s trending and what’s new.

They might explore whether apricots are popular right now, or perhaps figs. Zack says that Southern pies and regional pies are trending. Also, they are looking into health and dietary restriction trends related to the popular keto diet. “We have a new wheat-free pie (available in apple and 4-berry),” he says.

They also might create a one-of-a-kind pie flavor like their new French Silk & Pecan Pie topped with ground bits of coffee. They work with Dark Matter Coffee in Chicago. “It’s a caffeine rush,” Zack says of this special pie. “If it is a specialty pie, we sell it at our retail stores.”

Achatz pies are even a popular way for wedding couples to make their special day even more memorable. Brides can choose a variety of award-winning pies like the signature Michigan 4-Berry to the decadent Banana Split either as a complement to the dessert table or as an alternative to the traditional centerpiece cake.

Achatz pies have been featured in USA Today, The Detroit News, Bon Appetit, Food and Wine and on “Good Morning America,” and their wedding pies were featured as the No. 1 pie on an episode of Food Network’s “Top 5.”

The pie maker offers 10-inch, 3-pound gourmet pies in party pie sizes, serving 24 to 36 guests, as well as 3-inch mini-pies in a variety of flavors. The desserts can be displayed on elegant glass stands or silver tiers for a unique table presentation or as an affordable centerpiece. The pie centerpiece allows dessert to be served right at guests’ tables or may be saved for later as special thank-you gifts for those who deserve extra appreciation.

On the wholesale side, Yono says they come up with certain pie flavors based on customer requests. “In some cases, it is customer driven,” he says. “We’ll come up with something that suits their needs.”

Seasonal selections are very important, especially in the pie business, which has become more popular year-round.

In addition, Achatz Pies offers savory pies and quiches, including beef pot pie, chicken pot pie, lobster pot pie, spinach pot pie, broccoli & cheddar quiche, and Mediterranean quiche. Savory pies appeal to a growing number of consumers.

Looking ahead, Yono says they want to expand the business at a healthy growth rate. “We have goals and metrix,” he says. “We are definitely looking to grow.”

What the family business won’t do is compromise on quality. “Can we make it faster, maybe? But that goes against everything we stand for,” Zack says. “Everything is about quality here.” Adds Wendy, “We’ve worked really hard to get where we are.”