Mike’s Pies started in a South Tampa shopping plaza nearly 30 years ago and has become one of the country’s biggest names in pie.
Mike Martin opened the doors to his South MacDill Avenue pie shop on March 1, 1992, hawking his homemade pumpkin, apple, key lime and pecan pies.
The only problem? No customers walked through those doors.
“After two days, I said forget it, I’m going to go sell something,” Martin, president and CEO of Mike’s Pies, recalls.
He had previously been in the wine business but, with a new wife and a baby on the way, was look-ing for a new venture that would allow him to be close to his growing family. As a kid, Martin and his four siblings fought over the pies their mother would make every Thanksgiving and Christmas — particularly her cherry pie.
“When I was 27 I got tired of fighting over the pies and got tired of waiting for Christmas and Thanksgiving,” Martin says, so he learned to make them himself
Neighbors who received Martin’s pies as gifts implored him to start selling them. He resisted for a few years, but his future sales model eventually clicked: Who better to sell pies to restaurants and stores that serve them to customers than the guy making them?
So after the rough start at his storefront, Martin began his one-man sales operation, visiting restaurants and making his pitch to chefs to get his product on their menus. His first customer was a restaurant called Mango’s, near Interbay, and he was soon delivering pies to 25 restaurants himself.
“Our business grew by how many times I could get into a restaurant and show them the product,”Martin says.
Mike’s Pies’ continued growth meant they eventually outgrew their final South Tampa storefront, the former Old Meeting House ice cream shop on MacDill. As the company got into broadline distribution (“a herculean effort for a small company,” Martin says) to get their pies to restaurants outside of the Bay area, it moved operations to commercial space near Carrollwood.
Today, Mike’s Pies makes about 65 varieties of frozen pies and cakes, with 20,000 desserts produced for distribution in each of the lower 48 states every week. The recipes are still the ones Mar-tin’s grandmother created and his mother passed along, which has held some unexpected benefits for the company. All the ingredients in Mike’s Pies products are ones you’d find in your house, Martin says, so additives and preservatives are forbidden. That means the pies can be thawed, heated and refrozen over and over safely and without impact on the taste.
“It literally is just like you made it in your house,” Martin says. “It’s just pure luck that a homemade recipe is the way to go because it doesn’t affect [the pie] when you freeze it.”
Even little things don’t sit well with Martin if they can be improved. Before last year, the company used margarine in its crusts instead of the more expensive butter. “I felt hypocritical about saying we don’t use preservatives but putting margarine in our crust,” he says. When he found out switching from margarine to butter would only slightly increase production costs, the decision was easy. Now, the top-selling Killer Key Lime Pie is made of just egg yolks, key lime juice, condensed milk, graham cracker, brown sugar and butter.
“We converted immediately. I feel so much better about it,” Martin says.
Martin has also put an emphasis on doing business with companies that share his passion for quality over profit. He says he once traveled to the far-flung corporate office of a national restaurant chain with a dozen pies in tow, only to have the potential client demand to know Martin’s prices before even tasting the product.
That meeting led to an epiphany: Some businesses are price-driven, while others are quality-driven. Martin says he’ll now only do business with the latter, even dropping one of the country’s largest restaurant chains because they were only interested in price.
“Eureka. I will not waste my time calling on a customer who is only interested in the price,” Mar-tin says. “I have 10 sales people, and they’re all directed to quality first, or don’t even show them the product. If someone starts off with, ‘Just give me the price on it,’ don’t even bother.”
The focus on taste and quality has paid off, as Mike’s Pies products are served at nationally recognized restaurants (like The Polite Pig at Walt Disney World) and sold at grocery stores across the country. The company just won blue ribbons from the American Pie Council (again) for its key lime and peanut butter pies, and a new production facility is under construction near the state fairgrounds. But Martin can see the end of his road.
He is in year four of what he’s calling his five-year exit strategy, cutting back to four work days each week to prepare for his eventual retirement. His sons, Lucas and Cameron, are both company managers. They are preparing to step into their father’s shoes, though Martin — who plans to remain the company’s CEO — has yet to decide who, if anyone, will take on the position of president.
Martin says he’ll never completely back out of the company, in part to help maintain the business relationships he’s worked nearly three decades to grow, but he’ll be more judicious about how he spends his time. He envisions cruising in to the business meetings he has around the country on a boat, then leisurely making his way with his wife to wherever duty calls next. And, of course, there’s a Mike’s Pie logo on this boat.
“That’s my vision,” Martin says, then pauses, as dozens of employees continue baking, icing and slicing according to his family’s recipes just across the hall.
“It sounds good. It sounds real good.”