The concept behind the Pittsburgh Pie Guy is simple: Make good pies that people want to eat.
The business plan was simple, too, if a little unusual. Two philosophy students, Louis Butler and Wren McGalliard, had $300, no formal culinary training and no business experience.
To translate into pie vernacular: Their plan to make dough looked a little flaky.
But less than a year later, the Pittsburgh Pie Guy has turned a profit, has regular customers and Mr. Butler is now employed full time by the still-mobile business.
“It has been a very convoluted journey,” he said with a chuckle. “Having studied philosophy prepared me mentally to go into this, I think. We’re not really in it for the money, we’re in it to make pies.”
The journey began in a Duquesne University philosophy class in 2008, where the two shared a vision of running “some kind of food business,” said Mr. McGalliard. “We fantasized about it: We would just make very few things, with one or two options, but we needed to start somewhere and pick one thing we really liked.
“So we decided on pies.”
While they weren’t sure about a lot of things, they were sure about what they did not want. “I didn’t want to get a bunch of money, and find a space and all of that,” Mr. Butler said. “That didn’t make sense to us. I wanted to simplify, and make the minimal initial investment, and still sell food that I love to make.”
In 2011, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study in Germany, which meant putting the business idea on hold for a year. With aspirations of being a philosophy professor, he accepted the scholarship but soon decided academia was not the path for him.
While in Europe, he did gain valuable, practical insight while working in a kitchen in a small restaurant in Italy for a few weeks. “The owner was very passionate about his food, was always changing the menu,” Mr. Butler said. “He saw my eagerness to start a food business and gave me a lot of good advice, almost like an apprentice.”
The would-be partners continued to develop their business plan, so they could hit the ground running when he returned. First, though, they had to test whether they had a market for their wares.
Mr. Butler felt confident the fruit pies he had been baking for friends and family for years would sell — after all, that was how he got the nickname, “Pie Guy.” He was a little nervous about trying different kinds of pies, but wanted to experiment and see what worked.
Their first public venue was the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership’s Night Market in September 2012, part of that group’s pop-up marketplace project. Their pies were priced at $20 for a 10-inch pie and $6 for the smaller five-inch pie.
Mr. Butler said he learned from the event to always bring a knife to cut pies into smaller pieces: At the Night Market event, they sold 30 ten-inch pies by the slice for $3 each. “We had a line around the block, and sold out the first day,” he said. “It was crazy.”
The most popular pie the partners make is the chocolate pecan, Mr. Butler said, but his preference is for their fruit pies. He was experimenting with a new pie for the holidays: Christmas custard.
As they continued to sell pies at farmers markets over the summer, the Pittsburgh Pie Guy operation got all its permits, licenses and found a rental kitchen at Earthen Vessels Outreach Center in Friendship. They made wholesale connections in preparation for the end of farmers market season, and now sell pies at DJ Butcher Block in Bloomfield, Constellation Coffee in Lawrenceville, and Dobra Tea in Squirrel Hill.
Using locally-sourced ingredients was part of the plan from the beginning, Mr. Butler said. During the summer, they got fruit from farms in Monongahela and Butler. They source other ingredients like milled flour and demerara sugar from farms in Saxonburg and Lancaster.
The local ingredients helped cut down on expenses, as well as helping the small business connect with other small companies, Mr. Butler said. He’s trying to expand that community via another venture he calls the Pittsburgh Gastronomy Club.
Eric Swift, an instructor with Duquesne University’s Small Business Development Center, said the Pie Guy business is working not in spite of the unorthodox approach Mr. Butler and Mr. McGalliard took, but because of it.
“One of the things they did, and what we’ve encouraged a lot of clients to do this year, is not go the bricks-and-mortar route,” Mr. Swift said. “If you can do something non-traditional and not invest a lot of capital upfront, it helps to keep costs down.”
Mr. Butler attended some programs at the SBDC, which was how Mr. Swift became familiar with the Pie Guy and their concept. The secret ingredient, Mr. Swift said, is Mr. Butler’s ability to pitch his idea.
“Louis is a good storyteller, and when you talk to him, it doesn’t come off like he’s marketing his product,” he said. “It’s just like he’s telling you a story about how he likes to make pie crust, and why he wants to do what he’s doing.”
In general, Mr. Swift said, the SBDC counsels people against starting a business when the would-be entrepreneurs don’t have experience in the industry they want to enter. “We encourage them to get some experience, or work with a mentor,” he said. “But I think in this case, since they started small and have a small-risk situation, they could afford to take a leap.”
Even though the business plan doesn’t look promising on paper, Mr. Swift said the SBDC considers the Pittsburgh Pie Guy a success story. “If you’re generating revenue in your first twelve months and you have created employment for yourself, that’s successful,” he said.
To date, Mr. Butler estimates the Pittsburgh Pie Guy has sold 1,200 pies, and that doesn’t include last-minute Christmas orders.
As the business continues to grow — there are plans to open a cafe in East Liberty in the spring — Mr. McGalliard, who also works at Carnegie Library in Oakland, looks forward to joining the business full time as well.
He said he prefers the behind-the-scenes parts of the Pie Guy company. “I like refining the recipes, helping with the extra busy work, the accounting and those sorts of things.”
His hope is that any changes to the business model focus on making it more efficient, without compromising the things it does well. “It’s time consuming to make the pie crust by hand, but we have this great recipe,” he said.
“As long as it’s just the two of us, so far it seems to be working out, but I think it might get more complicated when we’re looking to hire someone to bake for us or whatever. But any changes to the process we would have to test and make sure it was up to our same standards.”
Mr. Butler said the to-do list includes getting a better website and making the business run more smoothly. “One thing I’m finding is that there are things you can’t plan for when you’re starting a business, that there are paths that open up as you go along.”
Even if they settle into a bricks-and-mortar location, Mr. Butler thinks the driving principle will remain intact.
“The most important thing to me,” he said, “is to make the best pies possible.”
Kim Lyons: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1241. On Twitter: @SocialKimly.