The first thing I learned from Damian Parker is that pies are sexy.
He’s not the only one who thinks so either: Disney, Google, and the US Military are just some of his customers. The Telegraph named The English Pork Pie Company the Best British Shop in the World three years in a row. Even Gordon Ramsay is a fan of Damian’s products.
Not too bad for an English expat making meat pies in South Buffalo.
My dad loved pork pies. He used to eat them with these powerfully bitter pickled onions that he brought home from Marks and Spencer when I was growing up in Canada just outside of Toronto. I know that meat pies aren’t usually considered a kid friendly snack in the States (and I have a hard enough time trying to get adults like my girlfriend to even try one at first) but they’re a little more common in Canada, and for me sharing one of those pies with my dad was a special treat when I was young (and a very fond memory of mine since he passed away a few years ago). I owe a lot of my adventurous palette now to my family introducing me to a lot of different food back then. Things like head cheese, liver, and paté were pretty normal for me, and there was always something unique being served in my house.
One day not so long ago I was buying some beer at one of those gourmet craft brew stores that seem to be popping up everywhere when I came across something that excited me – a round pie wrapped in humble white paper labeled “Stilton Pork Pie.” The logo that joined the British flag with the ubiquitous motif of a buffalo that so many businesses around here use in their branding caused a sort of pattern interrupt in my brain; I was more than a little confused to realize that someone was making pies like this – right here in Buffalo. With a combination of skepticism and reserved excitement I bought one and walked calmly to my car, trying to look natural (I was acting like I had just negotiated some illicit deal and was trying too hard to play it cool) unwrapped the pie, and cautiously took a bite… then a less cautious one… and finally devoured the rest of it like a man who hadn’t eaten in a month. It was perfect.
I went right back into the store and bought one of every flavor they had.
Damian Parker was burned out on his career in the legal profession in England “My superiors had been in their positions for twenty years, sitting in the same chairs at the same desks, and that scared me.” he told me. After re-examining the direction his life was taking and pondering what to do next, Damian realized that the American pot pie industry had been in stasis since the mid 1960’s and that there was a community of expats living in the US who didn’t have access to the kind of pies they missed from home. Damian spent a year apprenticing himself to the most renowned butchers and pie makers in the UK, learning the finer points of meat curing, baking, butchery, and picking up some secret family recipes in the process. “I wanted to learn the craft from the old boys while thinking of ways that I could create and innovate a future brand, so I started touring the UK to train with some of the best.” After this period of hands-on education (and how amazing would it be to have a meat-pie-centric training montage in this post right now?) Damian and his wife and business partner Vicky sold the majority of their belongings and moved to the US to start a new business.
The couple started making pies in a converted garage in Vermont, but quickly outgrew the space and soon relocated the business to a bakery in Buffalo, NY. Supplying British expats, who were ravenous for EPPC’s pies, sausages, and bacon, as well as doing wholesale orders for major companies like Disney’s Epcot Center, kept the company’s growth rate high, necessitating their most recent move to a much larger manufacturing facility in South Buffalo where they produce 20,000 pies a days for distributors and private customers. They ended up making such a splash in expat circles that they now feed some of the UK’s biggest celebs – like comedian Nick Frost from Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (and the much missed Spaced, which was pretty much the funniest TV show ever) when they are feeling a bit homesick.
Damian has a lot more ambition than just bringing traditional British flavors to the US. He’s currently set his sights on totally reinventing the way American customers think of the pot pie. Damian and Vicky recently launched a second brand called Pie Mad which moves away from the niche of the traditional cured pork flavors of most English style pies to tackle more regional American flavors. Damian has spent years developing recipes to appeal to regional and seasonal American tastes, and when I say recipes, I mean hundreds of them.
“We’re basically reinventing the wheel and finding what’s quirky state by state: a Boston fish pie called Pie-Tanic, a Woodstock hippie veggie pie, a spicy chicken Buffalonian pie, a cheesesteak variety for Philly. On top of that we’re doing seasonal variations like a Valentines Day pie, which is a very decadent steak and chocolate stout gravy, and one for a holiday that comes the month after Valentine’s Day – National Blow-Job Day, which is a steak and blue cheese pie. We’ve also been creating custom pies for clients like the Kennedy Space Center who wanted something hot and spicy, so we created the Re-Entry Pie for them, which is an extremely hot chicken curry pie that burns both ends. We don’t want to be Marie Callender or Banquet. Pie Mad is reinventing the idea of pie culture and creating an innovative pie-sexy environment.”
There is something so perfectly retro and comforting about a pot pie that gets absolutely turned on its head after Damian and Vicky are done with it, and I mean that in a wonderful way. Most people have viewed pies like this as a utility item, relegated to memories of grandma’s freezer or long abandoned sections of the frozen food section – you know, the one fridge with the flickering lights that always has a dazed but intimidating weirdo breathing heavily in front of it. But the Parkers are creating modern reinterpretations of the classic format and drawing inspiration from regional food cultures all over America and elsewhere, delivering better quality and taste, and making pies cool again (It’s so hard for me to resist the urge to add something appropriately British about The Doctor swaggering out of the TARDIS and saying something along the lines of “I eat pot pies now, pot pies are cool” that you’re all just going to have to forgive what a sad and unredeemable geek I can be sometimes).
Celebrity buzz, support from food bloggers, endorsements from celebrity chefs, and strong word of mouth have helped the English Pork Pie Company to build a thriving business, and they are starting to channel that success not just into growing their two pie lines, but into revitalizing the local culture in their new home of Buffalo. The fields along the the Erie Canal where their bakery is situated will hopefully soon be home to a full size international soccer stadium that the Parkers are making the cornerstone of their next project – the creation of an actual English village in South Buffalo that is slated to include a brewery, a fish and chips shop, guest cottages, a live music venue and more – transforming the long unused land into a potential new cultural center of the local community. Pies are just the beginning of the New British Empire that the Parkers are starting to build in Western New York.