Sarah Curtis-Fawley, Pacific Pie Company, Woman Entrepreneur

One of the women that work for Sarah sent me an email saying that I should talk to Sarah and tell her story as one of the Women Entrepreneurs of the week.  I am so glad I did.  I love her story on so many levels.  It is about finding yourself, reinventing yourself, being scrappy and the business is food.  Honestly I can hardly wait to take a trip out to Portland to meet Sarah and see the Pacific Pie Company.  FYI you have to buy those pies locally so shipping is not an option. 

Sarah grew up on the south side of Philadelphia  She became obsessed with food at 13 deciding like many others do to become a vegetarian.  I love what her Mom said.  If you want to be a vegetarian then you have to start cooking for yourself.  Sarah did and before she knew it she was the resident chef for the entire family.  She started reading cookbooks and cooking magazines for pleasure. 

Her Mom was the breadwinner for the family.  Her Dad took off when she was young.  Together they had set up a life style for the kids with private schools and the threshold was set.  Once her father left, her mother worked hard to keep that up.  Sarah and her siblings had no idea how hard it was for her Mom until they became adults.  Sarah has been working herself since she was 14 that included working in restaurants.

After graduating high school, Sarah went on to University of Virginia where she got a full academic scholarship and majored in psychology and women studies.  The scholarship came from the Jefferson Scholars Program.  That included going abroad between her sophomore and junior summer for three months.  She worked on a research project on reproductive rights in Europe and how the movement was characterized.  Very different in Europe than the US.  It is just not as politicized.  This program was part of her scholarship.  When it was over she traveled around a bit.

After graduating UVA Sarah took a job working for the MacArthur Foundation as a site director researching the competence of juvenile offenders that stand trial as adults.  It was 1999.  This was a nationwide program to really drill down with the hopes that they would prove that juveniles should not be tried as adults.  There was a big case in Florida at that time where a young kid killed a kid younger than him and he was tried as an adult.  Timing was right for this program.  The more information she would uncover in regards fo the juvenile justcie system the more upset she became.  Sarah stayed for two years doing most of the research in Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia.

Sarah decided to apply for a Fullbright Scholar doing the same type of research in Australia.  She was accepted and moved to Australia spending six months in Adelaide and the other six months in Briston.  There were two research sites.  The program was meant to last only one year but in that time period she met her husband to be.  Probably her mothers worst nightmare.  Daughter gets into prestigious program in Australia for one year, gets married and never returns.

Sarah did in fact get married in Australia and ended up staying for seven years.  Originally she had a plan of going into the academic side of what she had been researching and getting a PhD but along the road she got a crisis of confidence and took a different path.  She got so emotional and attached that she could not comprehend how to separate those feelings to do that job.  Sarah ended up taking a job doing policy work for the South Australian government doing policy analysis in regards to program implementation when it came to housing, mental health, juveniles etc.  The unit was called social inclusion.  Not surprising that the conclusions were that if money was used in regards to helping people including having an affordable roof over their heads that money would be saved in the long run and so would lives.  No different than the studies that have come out that having arts and physical education in the schools is beneficial and having those make for better all around students.

Seven years had passed and Sarah and her husband Chris decided it was time to experience the US together.  They took some time off and traveled all over Asia and Australia before going back to Philadelphia.  Neither of them had any idea what they were going to do once they got there.  Sarah had not been back to Philly since she was 18.  They took their time, living in her Moms basement, trying to figure out their career path. That gave them some time and financial breathing room.  Sarah went to see a life coach who recommended a book called "I Know I Can Do Anything if Only I Knew What That Was".  She loved it.  She kept coming back to what her ideal day and month would be and realized that maybe she should become her own business owner.  So Sarah enrolled in a six month class through the Womens Development Center in Philly.  It was a class for women thinking about becoming entrepreneurs. By the time she had finished the class she had written a business plan for the Pacific Pie Company.

Neither her husband or her really liked Philly.  They decided they would start this business somewhere else but had to decide where.  They kept coming back to Portland.  She had a cousin there and both of them had been there a few times on vacation.  They knew it was so cliche to move to Portland and start a food company but it just made sense.  It was January 2009.

Part of the business plan started with the local farmer markets.  They applied to sell their pies at those marketplaces and got in.  They found a commercial kitchen space to rent out two days a week.  Those two days they would get there at 6am and leave at 5am almost twenty-four hours later.  During her class in Philly both her and her husband started to teach themselves to make pies.  Sarah did massive research on crusts and recipes.  How humidity would change everything.  Even the butter would change everything based on what kind of food the cow would be eating.  It was a large science experiment.

Early on they figured out that rolling pies by hand was not the way to go if they were going to scale this business.  They made an investment in a second hand pastry sheeter on Craigs list.  When they got it they had no idea on how to use it.  Sarah got on YouTube and figured it out through trial and error. Scrappy.

The response from the farmers market stands over the first year was amazing.  At this point they were only doing savory pies.  Savory pies are big in Australia and also England.  Based on their initial success they decided to take a commercial lease in an industrial area of town seven days a week.  They made all their products there and put a small cafe in the front with four tables.  The word got out and people would stop by to buy pies.  In November 2010 they were filmed for the Food Network.  Her husband and her were not big TV watchers so they had zero idea of what that meant.  They thought oh that is cool and had no idea the impact it would end up making.  Right after the show aired people started showing up in droves and lines started to form.  People not only wanted savory pies but they wanted sweet pies too.  The business took off.

They had three employees at this point and were baking 24 hours a day to keep up with the demand.  The wholesale part of the business was never part of the original plan but because of their success they started getting requests from restaurants, cafes and local grocers to carry their pies.  What makes the Pacific Pie company unique is that 60% of their ingredients come from local farmers.  Packing up pies and shipping them went against their values of keeping the carbon footprint small.  So they have stuck to their local model and grew from that.   They grew out of the original commercial space and had to move to another location where they started a new bakery and bigger restaurant. 

As of August 1st 2013 they will be opening their second cafe.  They are hoping to duplicate their brand in another location in Portland.  Like the original, the next restaurant will have a large freezer where you can buy pies with the instructions on how to bake the pie at home.  Everything is hand made and they have added stocks and sauces to their product line too. 

Here is what is the most impressive.  Sarah has never taken a dime from anyone.  They have totally bootstrapped the business on their own.  Not easy but they now can say they have zero debt and they have done it and own it by themselves.  Sarah has serious energy and lots of spunk.  Her story is not so unique that she was not able to get a loan from a bank which is why angel investors are becoming a bigger part of the financial landscape.  I love that she has not only kept the business local but she has a big vision.  I would not be surprised to see an eventual chain make its way down the west coast called Pacific Pie Company. 

Comments (Archived):

  1. awaldstein

    Really like this story.Bootstrapping is a challenge but if you can do it, it really works.More and more I see folks going this route as it makes fund raising for expansion easier (I think) if you have core business in place that you just did on your own.I also am just drawn to the model of local first.

    1. Gotham Gal

      if you can prove it and do it by yourself…please will be flocking to get involved.

      1. awaldstein

        yup…that’s our plan

  2. William Mougayar

    Great story. I love food related startups. So much can still be done in that sector as we return to authenticity and artisanal focus.

  3. Sarah Curtis-Fawley

    Thanks so much Joanne, it is an honor to be profiled on Gotham Gal!

    1. Cam MacRae

      And now I know where to get a sausage roll after a night out in Portland!

  4. JLM

    .Great story. Life is a series of stories. Well done and well played. Crushing volley at the net.JLM.

  5. Mellissa

    so inspirational! it’s exactly why i read your blog, joanne. thank you!

    1. Gotham Gal

      thank you!