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IT'S BACK - GEORGIE PIE TO TRIAL IN MCDONALD'S
OUTLETS AFTER 15 YEARS

by Simon Lord,
last updated 10/05/2013

9 May 2013 - McDonald’s are hopeful they can convert online fans into in-store footfalls as they bring back one of NZ’s best-loved brands

Re-united: We dug out one of the original Georgie Pie trays from our collection to form the backdrop for the new pie. The combination of the Georgie Pie and McDonald's logos on the bag marks a combo many never expected to happen.Judging by the social media response to news of Georgie Pie's return, many people will be jealous when I tell them I’ve just eaten one of the first genuine Georgie Pie products to be baked in 15 years.

Mind you, judging by social media, I thought I might have to push my way through crowds of drooling pie nostalgics to reach the event after the details of this morning’s press conference were leaked yesterday. It seems McDonald’s might have thought so too, as there were two security guards on the doors, but in the event it was unnecessary although, as one reporter noted, the press conference drew ‘the biggest media turn-out we’ve seen for a while.’

Where & when?

So what’s the news? Well, it’s less mind-blowing at this stage than some might have hoped. McDonald’s, which inherited the Georgie Pie brand when it bought the company for its properties in 1996, is going to trial a single Georgie Pie-branded product in 11 test restaurants around Auckland and the Waikato from early June (see full list of outlets below).

The Steak Mince ‘N’ Cheese pie (not Steak, Mince & Cheese – the missing comma is important) will be sold initially at the Queen Street and Green Lane restaurants, then rolled out to five other McDonald’s sites in Auckland and four sites in the Waikato shortly after. The test will take place at a mix of company- and franchisee-owned outlets.

The test will enable the company to evaluate the product from a number of angles: operational efficiency, business impacts, product mix and customer reaction. If the test is successful, as McDonald’s clearly expects, it will be rolled out in a national launch later this year (one of the options we identified in 2012). The range may later be expanded to include other Georgie Pie flavours, including dessert pies.

Following the recipe

McDonald's NZ managing director Patrick Wilson announces the trial return of Georgie PieMcDonald’s has made a big point of following the original much-loved recipe faithfully, recruiting former Georgie Pie general manager Brian Popham to consult on the product research and development process, and producing the product on the original Georgie Pie production line in Mangere, now owned by Goodman Fielder. The whole process has taken two years and McDonald’s MD Patrick Wilson says that the only significant change to the original recipe was the removal of added MSG.

The Steak Mince ‘N’ Cheese pie is made using quality New Zealand beef and Georgie Pie’s unique short pastry, formed in the distinctive square shape of the original pies.

The pies will be produced with part-cooked fillings and flash frozen before being delivered to restaurants. Each restaurant will then bake on site, necessitating the installation of special computer-controlled cooking and warming ovens. This will present a new set of challenges to operators, admits Patrick Wilson – pie preparation time is 30 minutes, as opposed to the maximum 6 minutes of any product in the current range, so forecasting of demand will be essential. This is somewhat off-set by the increased hold time, which may be up to 2 hours (although many other pie operators hold for double that period or even more).

The taste

An official product shot of Georgie Pie's Steak Mince 'n' Cheese pie - 2013 modelSo what does it taste like? To be honest, the fresh-cooked version I sampled at the press launch tasted much better than my distant memories of the original Georgie Pie product suggested. The short-crust pastry was tasty and avoided the flakiness that often makes pies a messy eat, while it was well-stuffed with the mince and cheese filling. You’d have to be very hungry to eat two.

The result lays to rest the fears of the former MD of McDonald’s New Zealand, Mark Hawthorne, who once suggested that the original recipe product would ‘taste like cardboard’ these days. He was present at the launch and laughed ruefully when I mentioned this. I suspect much of the past year has been spent making minor tweaks to the recipe and ingredients to ensure this is not the case.

How much?

One of New Zealanders’ fondest memories of the Georgie Pie chain is the ‘dollar menu’ that saw the pies priced at a round $1, $2, $3 and so on. McDonald’s are not planning to replicate this too, with the new pie being priced at $4.50 – a level that Patrick Wilson accepts will disappoint some people, although he expects most to be positive about the re-introduction of the brand. ‘Georgie Pie came to an end because it simply wasn’t viable,’ he said. ‘We think we’ve found the right balance to make it sustainable.’ And that balance is unlikely to include the building of dedicated Georgie Pie restaurants. ‘It costs $4-5 million to get a new restaurant up and running – we see Georgie Pie more as being complementary to McDonald’s existing menu.’

Just how complementary remains to be seen. The new pie is around 190 gms after cooking and sells for $4.50, compared to the Quarterpounder at 187 gms and $5.80. While McDonald’s aren’t about to disclose margins, they admit that they may not be as high on the pie although pies require less make-up time in store.

Broadening the market

Although McDonald’s has experimented before with items such as pizza and other branded products such as breakfast cereals, as well as the obvious drinks, this may well be the first time a hot other-branded product has been trialled in McDonald’s world-wide. Mr Wilson says that Oak Brook (McDonald’s global head office in Illinois) is being kept informed and there is considerable interest from other countries, although apart from Australia he declines to name them.

After the disappointment of the lamb products, which have been removed from McDonald’s permanent menu in both New Zealand and Australia, the return of Georgie Pie marks the next big venture for the company. Patrick Wilson said last year that, “We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t” bring back Georgie Pie and now he’s cautiously thrown the dice. Will the market really respond in the long-term or is Georgie Pie a brand best kept as a fond memory? Only time will tell; McDonald’s are hopeful they can convert online fans into in-store footfalls.

Mark Hawthorne offered me some thoughts about the size of the pie market in New Zealand. ‘The pie market in NZ is, what, 70 million pies a year. If we could capture just 20 percent of that market, at $4.50 a time that's not shabby business,’ he said. Actually, it adds up to a remarkable$63 million dollars. Is that realistic? Well, McDonald's has the footprint and the muscle and, when it comes to pies, no name is better known in New Zealand than a brand that never achieved its goals and ceased to exist 15 years ago – Georgie Pie.

As former Georgie Pie franchisee Glenice Riley says, 'Georgie Pie is an absolute legend in this country and our passion for this much-loved Kiwi icon hasn’t abated over time. Whenever it comes up in conversation that I owned the Georgie Pie franchise at Manukau City, people can’t tell me quickly enough what their favourite Georgie Pie was and how they’d love to see them back. The square small Mince and Cheese pie is the all time favourite. I’m excited to try the latest version!'

The NZ pie market

Since the demise of Georgie Pie there have been several attempts to establish specialist pie franchises in New Zealand, including locally-developed Pie World and the South African chain King Pie. The only one to have achieved some measure of success so far is Australian chain Jesters. Grant Rawlinson, the NZ master franchisee for Jesters, told us, 'We are excited for the whole category of pies to be put back on the table and up for discussion! Pies are a Kiwi institution and certainly Georgie Pie had a strong following and I am sure there will be those who will enjoy them once again.

'The pie market has changed markedly since Georgie Pie's halcyon days when they had the market pretty much to themselves, but there is certainly a place in the market for this type of pie.  Jesters  offers a range of 16 jaffle pies which are cooked fresh each day at each of the 17 outlets in the North Island. They use an ultra-thin puff pastry allowing their pies to not only be fresh, but contain considerably less fat than many market alternatives. This is borne out by the fact that the average weight of a Jesters pie is 175-190 gms, of which two-thirds is filling and one-third pastry, unlike many other pie options available in the market.'

Another Australian chain, Pie Face, announced in 2012 that it aimed to open over 60 stores throughout New Zealand over the next 10 years. The New Zealand master franchisees are Julian Field (formerly a multi-unit Subway franchisee) and Jared Palmer.

The last word goes to a cautious Patrick Wilson. ‘Our research suggests that Kiwis still have a big appetite for their favourite pie brand. We’re hopeful that after the launch excitement, our customers will come back and enjoy what is a great tasting, quality product. We will then evaluate the pilot and look at options for a nationwide rollout.’

Pilot restaurants

(serving Georgie Pie from early June)

Auckland: Green Lane, Queen Street, Albany (Coliseum Drive), Kelston, St Lukes Mall, Ti Rakau Drive and Mangere

Waikato: Frankton, 5 Cross Roads, The Base and Te Awamutu

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