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 in 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 past three years are

anything to go by, there's no reason why 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 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 next month, they will also be available in 80 Sainsbury's stores around the UK. If things continue as they are, averaging 80% growth a 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."

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 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 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 feels like the industry is constantly putting up walls to stop you succeeding, but you just need to work hard and point what resources you have in the right direction."

Marketing has been restricted to in-store tastings. This may change if

Foottit's prediction of turning over £1.5m this year materialises. The ­couple are adamant that success and higher volumes won't corrupt the quality of their products. "Our products are premium, indulgent, everyday treats. We're never going to be totally organic, but we do try to be free-range and locally sourced wherever possible. James and I want to maintain that sense of hand-made quality," says Stephens.

There's no reason they shouldn't. They will be pursuing more listings this year in multiples and NPD will be on-going. Butternut squash, spinach & feta and chicken, and mushroom & tarragon variants are set to launch in the next few months. n

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