Mike Cote's Business Notebook: Mrs. Budd dreams up new flavors for chicken pie
By MIKE COTE
YOU'D THINK Mrs. Budd would be looking a bit tired these days, considering she's been baking chicken pies in the Queen City for more than 65 years. But like Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker and Sam Adams, the face on the package has grown younger with time.
Mrs. Budd still could be your grandma, but she's the hip lady that might be featured in an AARP ad, the one who can play tennis four times a week and still find time to whip up 50,000 chicken pies a day.
She could never make that many pot pies without Leo Sprecher and Curt Marcott, former Pittsburgh bankers who bought the company 35 years ago to escape the corporate world. While they retained the company's founder to manage the plant for 13 years, the new partners set about instituting the efficiencies needed for large-scale food production.
Budd Foods has changed a bit since the 1950s, when Irving Budd began selling the pies as an extension of his family's poultry business. The pies are still made at 431 Somerville St., and the factory still includes the original ovens. But now they are used for overflow baking at the 45,000-square-foot manufacturing center that was built around the original structure.
Sprecher, 69, and Marcott, 67, never veered from the company's comfort food origins as they added other products over the years. Now they want to introduce chicken pie to a new generation, one with more adventurous taste buds than their parents. That's what the market research demands.
“What we've discovered is that there is a very traditional quality to our product. It is the moral equivalent to grandma's meatloaf,” Sprecher said at the company's offices, housed in a small building just east of the plant. “Just think about the number of restaurants you've gone to lately that serve meatloaf compared to anything with pesto sauce, avocado and bacon.”
Modern generations have been bombarded with high-intensity flavor — and many of us don't know what it's like to eat with grandma.
“There are a lot less people now that sit around a table on a Sunday afternoon with their extended family to have a meal,” said Sprecher, who grew up in the Boston area. “It's really a tragedy of America that there are not as many people doing that. We are losing a little bit of that appeal of what grandma and grandpa, Uncle Louie, and all these people, what they loved to eat, and how the eating of that now conveys that same traditional feeling that we had.”
Sprecher and Marcott can't force millennials to sit down with their grandparents, but they figure they might be able to lure some of them to try a chicken pie if they dress it up a little bit.
Thus, a new line of chicken pies Budd Foods plans to roll out over the next year in limited editions will be available for four months each. First up for the “In Season” parade is a pie with a bacon and cheddar crust that blends chunky white breast meat with carrots, corn and green beans.
(Photographer Dave Lane and I were invited to try some after our tour of the plant last week. Our take: It's a tasty variation on the original but not a radical departure.)
Budd Foods spent more than three years developing the new flavors — the other two will be revealed in the months to come. Inside each package will be a survey to help the company determine which ones to keep in production.
“We see this as a way to talk to this next generation, introduce them to traditional comfort food but in the modern language of new flavor,” Sprecher said. “It's very experimental for us. We've never done anything like this before.”
Mrs. Budd's chicken pies are sold up and down the East Coast and as far west as Chicago in chain supermarkets such as Market Basket and Hannaford and at independent grocers such as Gosselin's Superette, a corner store at 706 Somerville St. just a few blocks east of the Budd Foods plant. Back in the old days, the company would deliver the pies to those local stores, but now it ships them to warehouses for distribution.
While the company sometimes services national accounts — I once found Mrs. Budd's Chicken Pie for sale at Sam's Club when I was living in Colorado — maintaining its niche as a fresh product limits distribution.
“Our strength is fresh. Fresh product, when you ship it too far, you lose too much time,” Sprecher said. “We're unique in that regard. There is literally no one else anywhere in the country that has this scale of a truly fresh product. And you lose just a touch of flavor when you freeze. You lose a little bit of the character of the crust.”
The scale at the plant presents a marvel of modern food production. At peak season, which begins in the fall, about 100 workers operate industrial mixers, assembly-line crust makers, and giant rows of rotating ovens to prepare 125 pies a minute. Stainless steel piping provides the conduit for gravy and other ingredients to travel from room to room. Steel containers on one machine open and snap shut as they dispense precise amounts of chicken into each pie.
Over time, the process has become increasingly automated, such as a recently installed packaging system.
“Our theory is humans should be dedicated to things that machines are not so good at,” Sprecher said.
The company takes careful measures to ensure proper cooking and equipment cleaning temperatures. An inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which houses its local field office inside Budd Foods, visits the plant each morning. All that pie dough browning in the ovens makes the plant smell like a bakery, but the company is subjected to the more stringent meat plant standards set by the USDA.
During the tour, Marcott proudly described how fast the pies are cooled for packaging, which requires the use of giant fans. That gets the job done in about an hour, keeps the company's power bill in check and promotes food safety.
“A lot of people let these things sit around for eight hours and cool off, but during that period of time you get a huge amount of bacterial growth,” Marcott said.
And Mrs. Budd would never stand for that.
Mike Cote is business editor. Contact him at 668-4321 ext. 324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.