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Kiwi pies filling gap in Chinese market

Olivia Fowler started out cooking all the pies by herself.

Craving a classic meat pie in Shanghai, or the perfect flat white in the Philippines? In this series, the Asia Media Centre speaks to Kiwis who are running successful food and beverage businesses in Asia.

If you’re ever in China and find yourself hankering for a pie, one Kiwi couple has you covered.

Olivia Fowler and Ryan McLeod, originally from Wellington, are the founders of Tuck Shop Pies, a Shanghai-based business which distributes gourmet pies made from premium New Zealand ingredients to supermarkets all over China.

It all started when the couple moved to Shanghai in 2013, and found themselves desperate for the savoury Kiwi snack after a night out on the town.

“It’s funny the things you crave when you leave,” Fowler says. “I barely ate pies in New Zealand — but that’s all we wanted.”

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They decided to try and make a batch of steak and mushroom pies themselves, selling the leftovers to an American friend who owned a café so the ingredients wouldn’t go to waste.

“They kept ordering them, and we thought it could be fun. So it kind of naturally happened. A year later, we wrote our business plan.”

Though Fowler was doing all the cooking herself initially, eventually they decided they needed to manufacture the pies on a larger scale. They partnered with an established Italian food factory, and part of the deal was that they would help get Tuck Shop Pies into 250 supermarkets throughout China.

“It would have been hard for us to make those connections on our own without heaps of investment, so it was a really lucky partnership.”

Meat pies are a foreign concept for most Chinese.

Fowler says the majority of their customers are expats, with most Chinese having “no idea” what a pie is. When it comes to the local market, they are reliant on the draw of premium New Zealand meat and dairy.

“We’ve been doing lots of tasting promotions in the supermarkets to get them hooked. But it’s been pretty tough to get the Chinese market into it.”

Though Fowler had a degree in marketing and international business, she said China was a “whole different ballgame”.

“Just trying to wrap your head around their social media platforms, the tone of voice you need to use in your marketing… the culture is so different. You have to relearn marketing, almost.”

On navigating China’s massive social media platforms, Fowler says: “We’ve recently decided that social media isn’t the best place to send your money. Everyone’s still trying to figure out how to use WeChat and all the users are so savvy and so against in-your-face marketing now, they just ignore it.

“Our strategy is more to focus on instore promotions and events, like cooking classes.”

Fowler, who has just had her second baby, says Tuck Shop Pies will continue to focus on supermarkets for the foreseeable future, but they’ve recently gotten their products into 11 7-Eleven convenience stores in Beijing as well.

“We want to have them ready-to-eat in the heating displays, like you see in New Zealand petrol stations.”

In the meantime, Tuck Shop Pies will be continuing its single-handed mission to educate Chinese on the classic Kiwi pie, Fowler says.

“About 10 years ago, pizzas were non-existent in China. Then because of Pizza Hut and Domino’s popping up, they became really popular. But pies don’t really have that luxury — there aren’t any chain restaurants to help us with the work. So we’d probably welcome some competition.”

By Siobhan Downes, Asia Media Centre.