Made in New England Series: Jill Miller of The Maine Pie Co.
The art of making pies has always come natural to Maine local Jill Miller, who grew up in the Midwest eating pie with her family every Sunday. After owning two bakeries, Jill decided to take a break from retail and venture into the manufacturing business by launching The Maine Pie Co, specializing in scratch-made gluten free pies. We chatted with Jill to discuss her dedication to GMO-free ingredients, why the Universe has been her biggest teacher, and how nothing beats the taste of fresh Maine blueberries.
R.K: What made you start your brand? How did you first get the idea?
J.M: I owned a bakery back in the 90s called the Runcible Spoon in New York, and I had that for about 11 years. Then I sold the bakery and my husband and I moved to Maine with our kids. We started a bakery up here in the lower village of Kennebunk called Port Bakery, and we ran that for about two years but my kids were really young at that time and we ended up selling that as well.
Fast-forward to 2014. I needed to go back to work as my kids were going off to college and I thought “I’ve always loved small business and really enjoyed owning my bakeries, so what can I do?” I’m from the Midwest, and we had pie every Sunday with the whole family. We’d have our Sunday dinner and we always had pie. When I worked in retail, we would assemble a pie, make the pie and then freeze them and bake them off as needed, so our customers could have a fresh pie every day. I love the smell of fresh pie! So I thought, “I want to do that.” Since my husband is celiac, I thought why don’t we make a really good gluten free pie. And I wanted a Monday through Friday business so that’s why I went into manufacturing. I really didn’t know anything about that at the time, but now I do!
R.K? How do you source your ingredients and create your recipes?
J.M: I worked on the crust for a while, as gluten free crust isn’t easy to make, so I came up with my own recipe. I source all of the ingredients I can from around here, and the recipes I use are a lot of the same recipes that I used in my previous bakeries.
If you look at our ingredient panel, it’s really a clean panel similar to what my grandma put in her pies: butter, fresh fruit and simple ingredients. I don’t believe in adding all these additives, and we don’t use any preservatives or anything like that. Nearly all our ingredients are non-GMO including rice flours, potato starch and tapiocas. We use a corn starch as a thickener and our corn is GMO-free as well. In the fall when we do pecan pie we use a GMO-free corn syrup and we only use cane sugar as sweetener. I source all my blueberries from Maine, our apples are from Massachusetts, and I try to source as much as I can from around here!
R.K: What’s your favorite pie?
J.M: Right now, my favorite pie is the Three Berry with blueberry, raspberry and strawberry, but it changes. We also make a Lemon Tart which I love. All our packaging is made with recyclable materials. I also do 9-inch pie shells, and we’re changing over the shell packaging to compostable as well.
R.K: What did you have to learn the hard way? Any particular challenges along the way?
J.M: I’ve had to learn to wait and be patient. The business involves selling to distributers and everything is slow – much slower than a retail operation. In retail, you can create something and have it out to the customer in a couple days but this takes month’s to do. I like the creative process, and love creating a new item – from the packaging to the whole idea – but in the beginning I wasted money on introducing too many new products at once.
I like to be real hands on, and make different things every day but with The Maine Pie Co., you’re creating the same thing over and over and over again. I also love working with my hands, and rolling the dough!
R.K. Biggest accomplishment or best moment so far?
J.M: What I really like is when I do a demo and somebody comes up and says “This is the best pie I’ve ever had” or “This tastes just like my grandmother’s” or “This tastes better than my grandmother’s.” I think I like those moments the best! One woman told me she lived in Paris for years and the lemon tart was better than anything she had in Paris. I like an affirmation like that! I get emails from people saying how much they love our product, so that always feels good.
RK: Has there been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area that you don’t think you’d get elsewhere?
J.M: Definitely the blueberries! One thing about Maine is that people are really creative and resourceful, so there’s an energy for small business. That’s what I love most about Maine. Maine also supports its own, and there’s a big support group and many resources for small businesses. People are willing to help you for free which is amazing!
R.K: What would you love to see in the New England food and wellness scene that you don’t now?
J.M: I like the way that the food industry is going. It’s getting farther and farther away from processed foods, and moving more toward simple foods and cleaner nutritional panels. I think that’s mostly due to young people and I like that. I was brought up to eat just plain, clean food. I think it’s getting more toward that, even with major brands which is great!
R.K: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in starting your business?
J.M: Let me put it this way: I’m older and started my business in my early 60s so to me I must say this is all a God-given thing. I didn’t even come up with the idea of gluten-free pie; it just kind of appeared. It’s kind of like the Universe has been my biggest teacher. Most of the time I really don’t know, or something really bad will happen but it’ll turn out to be the best. I have a little caveat to that; sometimes my fear will get in the way and it clouds my thinking. But then I’ll go back to it, and remember this is all happening for a reason. We’ve grown relatively quickly, and it’s mostly the Universe!
R.K: What’s your favorite quote or business mantra?
J.M: When I get under a lot of pressure especially during the fourth quarter of the year, my mantra is “A Day at a Time.” This day in the moment, a day at a time.”
R.K: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
J.M: Hm, I don’t really know. I just want to keep the business growing and I want more and more people to know we exist!
R.K: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own food business?
J.M: To make sure they love what they’re doing! My kids will say to me “That’s so boring, how can you do that every day?” And I’ll say “Actually I like it, it’s not boring to me.” It’s important to love what you’re doing.
R.K: Here at The W.E.L.L. Summit we like to say “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” How would you describe your vibe?
J.M: I’m pretty much an open person. Basically what you see is what you get…and that’s with my product too! I don’t really try to be anything that I’m not, and I would say that I’m authentic — with all the good things and bad things that go in with that!