Saturday, February 2, 2013

Interview with Zeke Mandel, The Savory Pie Guy

Creating Barriers to Prevent Competitors
Interview with Zeke Mandel
The Savory Pie Guy
Yonkers, NY

Interview by Jeff Yoskowitz, Jessie Riley and Kathryn Gordon

 Jessie:  Can you give us some information on your background and how you started producing “artisanal hand held savory pies?”

Zeke:  I had completed 2 MBAs, at Columbia and the London Business School and I knew I wanted to have a food related business.  I originally started in raw chocolate, but kept hitting a wall with investors because I didn’t have a “food background.”  So I enrolled at ICE (Institute of Culinary Education) in the pastry program to get that credential.

In the process, I realized there was an opening in the market for savory pies.  I believe that if you can identify a vacuum in the market you should run in to fill up that gap. Essentially, for me pies are “a widget.”  I hope to make this business profitable and sell it within 5 years.  

Kathryn:  Zeke, we’re surrounded by flip chart papers in your office area, with your competitors, brainstorming business names, etc.  Can you tell us about that process, before we go tour the plant?

Zeke:  I worked with 2 branding people.  The charts are from the second person – she made me put down on paper what was in my head.  It was a 2 day process.  But I decided not to work with her anymore because she was rather downcast.  I’m more upbeat and we weren’t compatible.

Jeff:  How was her approach different from the first marketing people you worked with? 

Zeke:  The first were very methodical, and slow.  We used color boards and swatches.

Kathryn:  I know that Jeff helped you formulate your dough, so it would still be flaky after being produced, frozen, shipped, pressed, crimped, fully baked, packaged and frozen!   And it is, remarkably flaky and an all butter, natural ingredient dough.  What have been your other biggest challenges?

Zeke:  Figuring out the production.  For example, with the business growth I needed to outsource the dough production.  The first co-packer never called me back after making 1,200 pounds of dough.  I had warned him it was significantly heavier than the cookie dough he was used to running on his machines, but they didn’t listen and one of their carts went sideways and they lost about 500 pounds of the dough on the floor.  I’ve since found another co-packer who is able to make my pre-portioned dough to my specifications and ship it to me.   They had to have the right die to portion exactly how many grams I need for each pie.

 Kathryn:  Why is it so particularly heavy, as doughs go?

Jeff:  It has to perform a lot of functions, and it has a lot of eggs, water and butter.

Zeke:  It’s an amazing dough and gets rave reviews, and has lots of flavors from the herbs and spices in it. 

Preportioned frozen dough from the copacker

Jessie:  Who were your first customers?

Zeke:  I started working with soccer bars.  Their customers “know savory pies” and this fit the demand. At the same time I also had to be able to make an all-natural product that would appeal to the American market, with the dough “less doughy,” easy to eat, flaky, and good tasting.
 I currently package up units of 4 and deliver in 2 refrigerated trucks to about 15 bars.

Jeff:  And your current production level?

Zeke:  It’s been about 1,500 pies in a week.  It only takes me about 3 hours to produce and package 600 pies. 

But that’s about to change, since I am opening in D’Agostinos this Monday.  So that’s why I’m working with a co-packer in Pennsylvania, who can produce 1,000 pounds of my dough at a time and portion it correctly for the size of the tops versus the bottoms of the pies

Kathryn:  How many flavors of gourmet pot pies to you sell now?

Zeke:  6 flavors.

Jessie:  And how did you get into D’Agostinos? 

Zeke:  It was a long process.  Last February, I met with my brother’s future father-in-law’s contact who’s a principle in a food brokerage company.  They’re the ones who brought Stonyfield yogurt to the market, and have a regional New England focus.  They liked the pies and said we can do something together.  They wanted to work with a big enough store to generate volume and get some cash flow. 

Jeff:   Are you working with other stores, now that you’re production logistics have been worked out?

Zeke:  Yes, last summer I got 2 leads at Whole Foods.  They were also looking for a savory pie program with “prescribed meat” meaning humanely treated animals and produced meat. 

Kathryn:  That must have a higher price point!

Zeke:  Yes.  The mark up on the beef is ok but the chicken is 2 times the price.  But I want to work with Whole Foods because it’s a great marketing strategy, generates steady volume and is frankly, an entree for getting into other outlets.   I’m also talking to Fresh Direct now on another project.

Jeff:  What are the numbers you think you can produce here given this kitchen facility?

Zeke:  I’m expecting to do 15,000 pies a week with 2 people per shift, and we could go to 2 production shifts a day if necessary.

If it goes over that, I’m also looking to outsource my meat production.  A co-packer can cook 500 pounds of filling at a time, vacuum seal it in useable production units and deliver it frozen to me.

Kathryn:  Overall, this is a very big facility. Why did you choose one so large?

Zeke:  You have to look at your production location and ask:   can you scale it to survive your own growth?   Because if you get the demand once you get going, and you can't produce, it will kill the business.   

At first, my business partner was a savory pie guy in Brooklyn who also wasn’t a baker, and was really holding together his business with paperclips and bubblegum with very little space.  Now, I am working with someone who had extra space in his Irish meat production USDA regulated facility.   He has helped me tremendously, even with sourcing my equipment.

Jeff:  What’s been your biggest learning curve?

Zeke:  How to work within the federal regulations.  All USDA rules are “interpreted.”  All the inspectors know how to do production, but they are not lawyers.  I’ve learned to “call Nebraska,” their  headquarters.  They want to know if I’m an attorney, because of the questions I’ve been asking!  There are two phases of getting started with USDA oversight.  The first step is experimental, and if you’re only giving out samples, you have to follow the USDA procedures but you can’t sell them.  Once you start selling, then you’re in full production and have daily USDA Inspector visits.

Jessie:  Can you talk more about the USDA oversight process?

Zeke:  My inspector comes whenever he wants to come.  I provide him an office, and that is required.  So is the strict cleaning regimen and food safety assessment.  My inspector was really helpful, and although it wasn’t his job – he really helped me with the paperwork and led me in the right direction, tweaking stuff I hadn’t yet thought of and making production suggestions.  It was a huge learning curve.  And legally – anyone selling anything with meat has to be USDA certified, even if it’s food for pets and not humans. There are very severe penalties if you do not adhere to the guidelines.

Jeff:  What do you think is good advice for other entrepreneurs?

Zeke:  Once you identify a vacuum in the market, the key to success is creating a barrier to prevent competitors.  Here, my barriers are:  USDA certification/oversight, the cost of the speciality and custom equipment, and funding.  Otherwise, once you’re successful, everyone else will notice and want to also compete within that vacuum, and you do not want them to be able to do what you’re doing.

Jessie:  Thank you Zeke, and thanks for showing us around the facility!

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