by Stacy Dunn
Chef Sarah Bennetto O’Brien, Owner of the The Handpie Company, says entrepreneurs have the strengths and abilities to weather a storm, such as COVID-19.
“They stay true to who they are. I try to stay true to locally sourced, handmade – not fully switched to all-automated – production. Our core value is real people making real food.”
When COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were announced back in March, Sarah and her staff took a week and a half to transition operations to online orders and curbside pick-ups only.
“Our new curbs had just been delivered at our new location, so I joked on social media that now we can do real curbside delivery,” she says. “We took the online orders, prepared them, packaged them, and did full contactless service. April was busier than it’s ever been.”
In May, they welcomed customers back to the retail shop/manufacturing facility in Albany with social distancing measures and hand sanitizer on site. The company still does online orders and contactless pick-up as well.
The Handpie Company started in March 2017 at Gateway Village in Borden-Carleton, as a year-round eat-in/takeout business offering savory and sweet flaky pastry stuffed with a choice of 10 fillings. Two years ago, Sarah moved the operations to Albany in the former Scotiabank to increase retail/wholesale and manufacturing capacities. The selection of handpie fillings has since increased to 15. She distributes her product to various markets across PEI.
“Our distributor ADL Foods is able to maintain safe distancing and pick-ups. I give credit to our local food system because we source a vast majority of our ingredients from nearby farmers, butchers, and a flour mill in Central Bedeque. The shortage of supply has not affected us as much as our friends in the food industry.”
- Head Chef
- Head Bakers
- Bakers’ Assistant
- Packaging Operator
- Kitchen Assistant
- Retail staff
Six people, including Sarah, work year-round. Usually, the company has 13 employees in the summer, but due to the pandemic, nine staff were on board this summer. “We are a tightknit crew. Three staff members have been here from the beginning.”
COVID-19 financial support and other financial support
The Handpie Company was able to access the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA). It provides interest-free loans of up to $40,000 to small businesses and not-for-profits to help cover their operating costs during a period where their revenues have been temporarily reduced. “If we pay that off in three years, $10,000 of that is forgiven.”
When they moved to Albany, the business received Capital Acquisition Support through Innovation PEI to modify the bank to become a food manufacturing facility. “We are staying rural, close to our farmers, and we are giving jobs to people who live in the area.”
The Food Island Partnership planted the seed for Sarah’s business. While she owned and operated Scapes, a restaurant in Borden-Carleton, handpies were the most popular items on the menu. She knew she could create a company devoted to manufacturing and selling handpies, and so decided to participate in the Food Xcel accelerator program.
“I have since participated in the Food Island Partnership Food Propel program for established food manufacturers who want to elevate production to the next level. I have realized the need for continuous learning and adaptability, and I have a passion for what I do.”
Social media presence and impact
“At the beginning of the pandemic, I posted a video almost every day, and I continue to make videos,” Sarah says. “Engagement on social media went way up. It was great to stay front of mind with people and to help with feelings of community, because we are all in this together.”
She advertises jobs through all The Handpie Company’s social media channels. “My overall advice to job seekers is choose the companies you dream of working for, follow them, engage with them, and get to know their company policies and vibe.”
“The pandemic has pushed back my two-year plan to scale up manufacturing to three years,” she says. “We hope to be in a federally certified facility so we can ship off-Island. I get requests from off-Island stores every day. If we get a bigger manufacturing space, I would need an Operations Manager, Warehouse Manager, and more entry-level manufacturing jobs.”
For more information, call 902-437-3100. Visit www.handpie.ca
Follow The Handpie Company on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
For more information on Innovation PEI, visit www.innovationpei.com
For more information on Food Island Partnership, visit www.foodislandpei.ca
For a list of resources of government financial assistance for businesses, go to www.employmentjourney.com and search Canada – PEI financial help in response to COVID-19.