Tell us a little bit about yourself—who are you and what do you do?
My name is Patrick Blessing. I own a pie business here in Toronto called The Pie Commission. My background is not in food but in banking: I worked in the UK for most of my twenties, and that’s where I fell in love with pie.
When I moved back to Toronto eight years ago, I realized I couldn’t find a good pie anywhere. As I approached my forties, I decided to quit my job and go in to business with my high school buddy, Mike Dahm. We created a nice product—a pie with a true homemade feel—and we launched a business on the back of that product.
What is the essence of a good pie?
It’s all about the pastry and crust. What makes a phenomenal pie is that flaky, buttery, almost crispy, tenderly delicate pastry.
It’s also the most difficult thing to do well because pastry can be very finicky to work with.
It’s very scientific in terms of temperature and humidity control. At the same time, it still has to retain that homemade feel and quality. You need to treat pastry really delicately. If you over work it, it turns into bread. So trying to get that consistency perfect is the hardest thing.
Of course, what’s inside a pie counts, too. But the reality is that you can make almost any kind of filling imaginable go well with a pie given the right amount of sauce and moisture. One of the things I noticed in Toronto was the absence of non-traditional fillings in a pie. We love testing the limits of what can go in a pie. At this point, we haven’t done anything that hasn’t worked.
What does the Pie Commission do especially well?
A homemade pie.
We make our pies in very small batches. The biggest compliment I get from customers is that our pie tastes just like the pie their grandma used to make, and that is exactly what we’re trying to accomplish. We make anywhere from 500 to 1000 pies a day, but each one tastes like it’s individually made because we make them in very small batches. But we’re upping the game with our fillings; we bring gourmet, non-traditional fillings to all our pies.
So the pastry itself is completely authentic, and what you bring to the table are innovative, non-traditional fillings?
Totally. I think that’s what resonates with people. I had no idea how many people loved pies, even one of non-traditional ones like the butter chicken pie, people say,”Wow, this is amazing, I can’t believe I had never thought of this before.” We’re bridging the gap between the traditional pie of yesterday and the comfort foods of today.
You mentioned earlier that the pie scene here in Toronto isn’t that big—what is the scene like and what does the future have in store for it?
I see it as similar to the burrito craze of ten years ago, or the poutine craze that started five or six years ago.
I think we’ve come to a point where people don’t want to go to a place that claims they do a hundred different things well. We claim to do one thing really well and that’s making meat pies, and that’s all we want to do. In a way, it’s similar to how Smoke’s Poutinerie or Burrito Boyz were successful with their businesses. I think people really appreciate the fact that you have expertise in delivering one product at the highest level possible.
I’ve heard of a few pie shops opening up recently in Toronto. I think the scene will continue to grow and grow, which is great. There’s a lot of room in the market for pie. The ones who stick to delivering the highest quality product will succeed. But, no matter how much The Pie Commission grows, we want to maintain a top quality product that will be as good tomorrow as it is today. The meat pie is our heart and soul, our everything.
How has Toronto’s multiculturalism and diversity influenced the flavours you experiment with?
We’ve done so many flavours inspired by Toronto’s ethnic diversity. We have a Japanese pie called the Yakisoba Pie; our butter chicken pie is inspired by East Indian cuisine; and our jerk chicken pie has a Caribbean influence.
I think our pies reflect the cultural mosaic that is Toronto. As Torontonians we’re so spoiled: we have so many different ethnic varieties of food available to us at our fingertips. I love it because we can put all of those into a pie! We’ll put our little spin on it, of course, but we want the pie to reflect the authentic flavour of our influences. Honestly, possible pie combinations are endless. We have probably a hundred different varieties we discuss, and the ones that make the cut are simply the ones that taste good. It’s as simple as that.
You mentioned your background is in banking. What initially affected your decision to get into the pie business?
I was having a mid-life crisis. As you’re approaching your 40s, you start to reflect on a recently successful business career. I think it’s important at that point to reassess what you want to do with your life. Do you want to create something of your own or not? I was always a person who wanted to own my business, and to create something special and tangible. It’s obviously difficult setting up a small business, as it has to be right from a financial point of view, a business point of view, an everything point of view, but for me the timing made sense.
What were the greatest challenges you faced starting a small business from scratch?
It’s really the unexpected nature of business that was the biggest shock. You have a business plan that you write before you launch, but, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve looked at mine since I wrote it. You have to be opportunistic, and you have to be reactive to situations, real estate opportunities, hiring opportunities and so on. I think it’s about being flexible because stuff comes up constantly that you don’t expect—both good and bad. You have to have the personality type that can deal with situations where you seek opportunity even when things are not going according to plan. The most important trait in owning a small business is definitely the ability to react well to unexpected circumstances.
What advice would you give to either yourself when you first started out, or someone interested in entering the restaurant business in Toronto for the first time?
Be prepared to work. If you have the will and the desire anything is possible, but nothing can replace hard work. Our business has been moderately successful since we launched, and it has nothing to do with skill—I don’t think I’m ‘smarter’ than anyone. But I’m willing to put the time and hours to make it right. I think if you have that attitude going into the business—that you will do whatever it takes to make it work—then you’re well placed to succeed. It’s the secret sauce to success.
What’s next for The Pie Commission? Are you looking to expand your business?
Definitely. Our Queensway location is horrendous, but we love it because people get a real kick out of it (laughs). Our location is so bad that it becomes a quest of sorts for our customers; the majority of phone calls we receive during the day are people phoning us, trying to find the place. If we had a choice we probably wouldn’t be in this bizarre location.
At the same time, I think it’s a good draw for us in terms of getting publicity, and also because people think “Well, if they have such a bad location and I see people lined up outside, they have to be making a good product!” I would never have imagined the location would work, but, in hindsight, it has been wonderful for us. The goal now is to stay where we are for a long time, but I’ve also been looking at real estate for many months in downtown Toronto for expansion opportunities. It’s really difficult getting the best high-demand spots in Toronto, but as we get more time under our belts and more positive press out, it’s hopefully going to get easier.
Words by JJ Wong.
Photo by Dylan Leeder
JJ Wong is a contributor to Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter.