Since they cut themselves a slice of the premium pie market in October 2003, Camilla Stephens and James Foottit have earned their crust in the own label sector.

But with two product launches last November into the branded arena, the husband and wife team have their eyes set firmly on bigger things.

They hope to dispel the image of pies as mass produced, low quality fare, and if the last three years are anything to go by there's no reason they shouldn't achieve their goal.

Their growth to date - turnover was £250,000 in year one, £550,000 in year two and £900,000 in year three - has been built purely on own label supplies to delis and specialists.

In November they added two Higgidy branded pies to their portfolio: a 330g British beef, Stilton & ale pie and a 300g free range pork sausage and mash pie, priced £3.49 at retail.

“In some ways the business we're moving into is what we always wanted to do,” says managing director Foottit. “I hope that in two years time branded lines will make up 70-80% of our turnover.”

Those pies are available in 16 Booths stores, a handful of specialists and by the end of February they will also be available in 80 Sainsbury's stores all around the UK. If things continue as they are, averaging 80% growth every year, Higgidy will have built a turnover close to £3m within five years of starting.

Not bad for a business proposition that Stephens, the production director, says felt pretty risky initially. “Our business plan was to be the equivalent of Kate's Cakes, but in the pie world,” she says. “My husband and I have been the ones backing it so it did feel risky, and will always feel risky, but we're really excited to be going into Sainsbury's. It means we have a huge opportunity to develop and widen our range, looking not just at pies but quiches and tartlets too. We want to take the best of what we do and expand.”

A second production facility, quadrupling capacity, will be operational in March. Higgidy's pies are hand-made and are aimed at the super-premium sector, sitting above Sainsbury's Taste the Difference and Tesco's Finest ranges, alongside the likes of Gü and Duchy Originals. Foottit quickly points out that this hasn't dampened own label sales in Booths. The pies seem to particularly appeal to women, he adds.

“We have a hunch we may appeal to women more than other pies do. Although we take a lot of trouble over our ingredients, these pies are made by ladies who are also really good cooks. We know a lot of the people who eat our pies are women.”

Their experience in own label has prepared them well for the demands that will inevitably be made of them by the bigger retailers. “We will continue to do what we want to do with the Higgidy brand, because we're used to producing own label products and we're familiar with the demands retailers make,” says Stephens.

Foottit claims the Sainsbury's contract is more generous than contracts from specialists. “We've found that supermarkets want less margin than specialists, who often want tiny volumes and a lot of margin,” he says.

But they acknowledge the work they'll need to put in to earn that business, given that they are competing against far bigger, richer and more experienced companies. “The biggest issue for us is that you're expected to have all the technical support that a Northern Foods would have,” says Stephens. “You're expected to supply with a similar depth of expertise, and that's hard. It is a challenge, because it feels like the industry is constantly putting up walls to stop you succeeding, but you just need to work hard and direct what resources you have in the right direction.”

Marketing has been restricted to in-store tastings. This may change if Footit's prediction of turning over £1.5m next year materialises. The couple are adamant that success and higher volumes won't corrupt the quality of their products. “We're trying to get rid of the preconception that pies are always mass produced and low quality. Our products are premium, indulgent, every-day treats. We're never going to be totally organic, but we do try to be free-range and locally sourced wherever possible. And James and I want to maintain that sense of hand-made quality. We believe we can build the business doing this,” says Stephens.

There's no reason they shouldn't. They will be pursuing more listings next year in the multiples and NPD will be constantly on the go. Butternut squash, spinach & Feta and chicken, and mushroom & tarragon products are set to launch in the next few months.

Live and let pie

Tree houses or pies? That was the choice for Camilla Stepehens, who was a chef, and her husband James Foottit, who was a tree house architect. Luckily for us they decided that “Camilla's pies were better than James' tree houses”, and Higgidy was born.

Stephens has a background with Seattle Coffee Company and Starbucks. She worked with small suppliers, delivering pastries and other baked goods from businesses such as Kate's Cakes to 300 stores, but soon decided she wanted to get back to the nitty gritty of food making.

“I missed being hands on, and saw a lot of growth in the industry and also noticed the pie market was neglected. I got together with a couple of other guys, we showcased five pies at the IFE exhibition in March 2003, and the response was so great we built the production facility and were up and running by October.”

Having started with own label supplies to Eat cafés and Booths, Stephens and Foottit, who now own 80% of the business, were eager to move into branded. “We wanted to develop a brand that could reach consumers, and really felt we were good at what we do and were ready to put out name to it.”

They went to a design agency, created two pies, which will be launched into 80 Sainsbury's store in February, and the rest, as they say, is Higgidy.

Product: Pies, quiches and tartlets
Turnover: £900,000
Positioning: Super premium
Established: October 2003