The evolution into retail for the alcohol-infused pies made famous at the Minnesota State Fair
In 2015, Sara’s Tipsy Pies made waves at the Minnesota State Fair with their boozy pastries. Their signature fruit pies infused with Minnesota-made beers, wines and spirits became a not-to-miss stop for State Fair foodies.
Created by Sara Hayden, a Minnesota mom turned professional baker, the first tipsy pies started with her mother’s pie crust recipe. About five years before showcasing Sara’s Tipsy Pies at the Minnesota State Fair for the first time, Hayden was focused on figuring out the next chapter in her life as her youngest children started school.
“The opportunity pretty much just fell into my lap through a family friend who owned a bakery,” says Hayden. “He pretty much just brought me in and said let’s try to create a company for you that you could walk away with someday.”
Hayden took her love of baking into this shared commercial kitchen, where she learned to transition homestyle recipes into large batches of baked goods to sell. Adding alcohol to the pie fillings was just an unexpected bit of inspiration taken from a recipe she discovered with a beer-based filling.
Hayden’s recipes allowed her to build relationships across Minnesota with some of the state’s premium alcohol makers including Lift Bridge Brewing Co., 7 Vines Vineyard and Saint Croix Vineyards. She then launched the “Pie with a Purpose” campaign, a cause inspired by her daughter Madi, which donates a portion of the proceeds from all pies made with Finnegans Beer to The Down Syndrome Association of Minnesota, the Valley Friendship Club in Stillwater and Jack’s Basket.
By the time Hayden applied to sell pies at the State Fair, the business had grown to a point where she felt she had reached the edge of her business expertise.
Transitioning to Retail
The year Sara’s Tipsy Pies debuted at the Minnesota State Fair, a social media post sparked a connection between Jerry’s Food and Sara’s Tipsy Pies, eventually bringing four of the company’s dessert creations to retailers in the Twin Cities. The product lineup included their Boozy Blueberry Lemon, Carousig Caramel Apple, Irish Whisky Pecan and Razzy Apple Raspberry pies.
“I met with the Jerry’s reps and had no idea what I was supposed to do. I just put it [the pie] in a bag and heat sealed it and put a label on there with nothing that was necessary. I mean, it’s pretty awful now,” says Sara Hayden. “There wasn’t a nutritional panel on there, just an ingredient list and that was it.”
To accommodate the business’s growth Sara reached out for help, eventually finding her current vice president and general manager, Hugh Williams. A former General Mills employee, Williams spent the previous 15 years working mostly in marketing and brand management for the Fortune 500 company.
“I’ve always known my strengths and weaknesses and the whole numbers game is not mine,” says Hayden. “It’s not my thing at all, so he [Hugh] was definitely that numbers person and had such amazing experience with General Mills.”
At the time, Hugh was working as a consultant for small to mid-sized packaged food and beverage companies. He was looking for an opportunity that allowed him to have a larger stake in the game and to act on ideas instead of just providing advice.
“It’s not easy to find someone where you believe in their products, their brand and most importantly in them as a leader, and that person has to believe in you as well,” says Williams. “After meeting with Sara I think we saw the potential for all of that, but you never really know until you start working together. So we said let’s not worry about a contract right away, let’s just work together for a while and see if it’s a good fit. I was impressed with her work ethic and integrity. She must have felt similarly, and over several months we formalized the agreement in writing.”
As a company officer, Hugh jumped in by tackling the retail business, specifically the products selling at grocery stores. Hugh and Sara figured out that turns were not where they needed to be, distribution was at risk and some changes had to be made. Packaging was completely redesigned, the pies were up-sized for better value, and the State Fair’s best-selling flavor, Boozy Blueberry Lemon, was brought to retail.
Turns improved dramatically and distribution grew as a result. By late 2020, Sara’s Tipsy Pies could be found in over 130 grocery stores in the Twin Cities including Cub Foods, Lunds & Byerlys, Jerry’s Foods, Festival Foods and County Market.
Incorporating Clean Labels
Transitioning Sara’s Tipsy Pies’ products to clean labels was the next step in their evolution in retail.
“There were a couple of initiatives that we were looking at where we needed some technical help or food expertise,” says Williams. “And first was on our dessert pies, which are the products that we have in grocery stores now. We wanted to make some progress in cleaning up our label.”
A consumer-led trend, a “clean label” is generally understood to provide transparency of a product’s ingredients. For a clean label, the product requires ingredients that are easy for consumers to identify and may be perceived to be healthier or more natural alternatives to traditional ingredients like additives, preservatives, emulsifiers and sweeteners. For example, a clean label baked good might contain raisin juice concentrate instead of propionates or sorbates to inhibit mold growth.
For Sara and Hugh, the first step was seeking out the technical experts to help transition to clean labels.
“We have a crust co-packer, Gregory Foods, and they had made some progress with our crust formulation. A big challenge with pie is that it uses shortening in the crust, which tends to have some non-natural ingredients in it,” says Williams.
Along with finding a solution for removing trans fats from the crust recipe, Sara and Hugh wanted a clean-label solution that included the dessert pie fillings and toppings. They reached out to the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute’s (AURI) food team for assistance.
A couple AURI food team members, including Food Scientist Lolly Occhino and Business Development Director Jason Robinson, worked with Sara’s Tipsy Pies to find alternatives to ingredients.
“Our science-based approach helped to define an applicable set of product claims for Sara’s Tipsy Pies,” says Jason Robinson. “It is important to embrace where you are in the market and use the clean label to make the ingredients accessible to the consumer.”
It was important to remember that the pies landed within the comfort food market. Substituting too many ingredients had the potential to alter the end-product and degrade the culinary experience that put the pies on the Minnesota State Fair map.
AURI worked with Hayden to find appropriate ingredient alternatives that cleaned up the label and allowed Sara’s Tipsy Pies to add a label of “No artificial flavors, colors or preservatives” to their products. Robinson and Occhino also worked with Hayden and Williams to better understand the industry narratives around the different product ingredients so accurate marketing claims could be made to promote the clean label.
Introducing Savory Pies
Beyond the transition to clean labels for the dessert pies, Hayden and Williams wanted AURI’s assistance on their new line of savory pies.
“We sold our first savory pie four years ago at the State Fair. It was our Brown Ale Onion and Gouda pie and right out of the gate it was a huge success. We sold more Onion Goudas then all of our sweet flavors combined in that first year,” says Williams.
“We had made what we thought were enough,” agrees Hayden. “And by day two, we realized that we were going to be out by day three.”
The savory pie completely blew past the best sales numbers from previous State Fairs. Hayden and her staff started 24-hour production to meet the unexpected demand. At the end of the State Fair that year, Sara’s Tipsy Pies upgraded to a new location to reflect the success of the new savory pie.
“The State Fair is a great incubator to try out new flavors and see what sells. Once we saw the success of Onion Gouda, we could see the potential of savory pies as a line and we wanted to translate that into the retail environment,” says Williams.
AURI worked with Hayden and Williams to source ingredients and develop nutritional labels. Along the way, Occhino worked with Hayden to transition her recipes from a traditional baker’s formulation standard to a weight-based formulation standard.
“Changing the measurements of ingredients like blueberries from volume (i.e., tablespoons and cups) to weight (i.e., ounces and pounds) is part of the transition of products into professional food manufacturing,” says Occhino.
The system Occhino created included a spreadsheet that lists all the ingredients for each recipe broken down by volume measurements and weights that translate it into nutritional labels.
When it came time to find a copacker for the savory pies, this spreadsheet was a timesaver. It allowed the copackers to get right to work. Now, Hayden and Williams plan to launch the new savory pie product line sometime in 2021.
Continuing to Evolve
Working with AURI was a valuable step in Sara’s Tipsy Pies’ evolution into retail, but it is not the end. Beyond the new product line, Hayden and Williams hope to continue growing.
“We have a ‘handmade in Minnesota’ flag on our package and we pride ourselves on being a Minnesota company and being a force for good in the Minnesota community through charitable efforts, by selling other local products at our storefront bakery in Stillwater, and just by sharing our experiences with others in the community so we can all learn from each other,” says Williams.
Readers can find Sara’s Tipsy Pies in retailers around the Twin Cities, at the Minnesota State Fair, and at their store front location in Stillwater, Minn.
What is a ‘clean label?’
Today’s average consumer is more health-conscious than ever and desires an increasing amount of information around their food purchases. More than ever before, they scrutinize ingredient declarations on foods to avoid artificial ingredients and foods containing ingredients with long, chemical sounding names. Many consumers want products with ingredients that can be found in their pantries.
No universal definition of a “clean label” currently exists. Clean-labeled foods have been associated with a plethora of food categories or phrases including “natural,” “organic,” or “minimally processed.” However, there is no industry-wide definition of the term or regulation of its use.
So, where do you start and what are your options? The food processors’ number one goal should always be to create a safe product for human consumption. It is important to remember that taste is the main factor driving repeat purchases. Therefore, it is very important to keep in mind the effect alternative ingredients have on both the safety and taste of the product.
In the clean-label-ingredient marketplace, many alternative options exist for processors. Check out AURI’s “Clean Label Guide” for an overview of available substitutes at: auri.org/guides/clean-label-guide