I walk into Pie Society and find myself in a bright bakery that’s flooded with natural light with two walls of floor to ceiling glass encasing this corner shop. I look around and it is immaculately clean and neat. A few tables are sprinkled around for those looking to satisfy their appetites onsite. There is a large deli case that is filled with all sorts of quiches, desserts, and pies–savory and sweet. On the counter is a selection of bread and rolls baked earlier in the day. A hot display box showcasing different items to eat right away also sits on the counter.
There is a genuine kindness that emanates from them both. Gill (pronounced Jill) Wagstaff greets me and I’m immediately at ease with her warm smile, sparkling eyes, and lovely British accent. Next, I meet Edward Wagstaff, her youngest son and third child. He is tall and has the most reassuring presence. As we shake hands, I’m caught by his amazingly clear blue eyes. Sure, they’re a little red, but in all my years in the food industry, I have yet to meet a baker that was well rested enough to have eyeballs free of redness, it’s a true sign of a dedicated artisan.
It can be a solitary profession, every baker I know likes to start off quietly then fill the solitude with some background noise. Edward shares this characteristic, ” I do have the radio on, but generally, for the first hour or so I don’t have it on because I’m still waking up. I make lists, get ready, know what I’ve got to do and manage my time because sometimes I can have 15 hours of work and I have to get it done within a certain amount of time. We’ve got people coming in the morning for specific items and then we have people coming for lunch. Everything has to be timed well. I try and make everything just before it’s needed so it’s as fresh as possible. Managing all that in the first hour or so, I make sure everything is in order. I put mixes on. Some things take a long time to get going, like the bread especially. But an hour or so, I’ll put the radio on and it gets me through the morning, I suppose. I generally like to have a cup of coffee that my mum makes when she gets in at 8am. Sometimes I have a scone at 5am. Most things you have to try. So I don’t really nibble or graze as I go along because I’ve already tried it anyway. Some things you can try and the taste will be in your mouth for hours. Like lemon in the lemon meringue can be there for hours and at 5am, it’s not something you want to try, but you have to do it. You know what I mean though, don’t you? It’s the early hours of the morning and you’ve got to try some lemon to see if it’s too bitter or whatever. You’ve got to do it or else someone will buy it, even if it’s not right, then they won’t be happy, and you can’t have *that*,” he ends with emphasis, easily conveying his horror at the prospect of an unhappy customer.
Edward has been baking since he was 14 years old in quiet and rural County Staffordshire where he’s worked with recipes that are over a century old. After university where he studied Geography & Environmental Management, he continued baking in the same shop, which baked a cake for Queen Elizabeth II, “We have links to the Royal Family,” Gill explains, “Her Royal Highness came (within the week of) her 80th birthday to Staffordshire where the bakery was to celebrate 800 years of the establishment of our county. We made a cake for her and the mayor presented it to her.”
How does a British pie shop find itself in Pooler, of all places? “I think it was a combination of things…there’s a large community of expats in the area; the idea of opening a traditional British pie shop was a perfect opportunity,” plus, “we wanted to move out near my daughter here, Edward wanted to open a bakery, so it was sensible to start it here, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, there’s a lot more opportunity than in England,” Edward responds, “We like Savannah, Savannah is nice, but Pooler, there’s a lot going on but there’s more space.” There’s something to be said for living close to where you work, “We’re open every day. We’ve had 2 days off since we’ve opened, Easter Sunday and Memorial Day.” Memorial Day found them on the beach in Hilton Head Island enjoying a much deserved day off nibbling on their own scones and other baked goods from the shop. The scone they’ve shared with me is beautifully dense and is cut in half and filled with cream and strawberry jam. It is rich, satisfying, and perfect in every possible way.
After visiting her daughter for a dozen years, Gill’s become familiar with the area. “I think Savannah is beautiful, I like the people, and the opportunity we’ve got.”
Edward nods in agreement, “There’s a lot more opportunity here. We’ve made friends. We have regulars that come in every other day.”
When I ask about the process, an interesting dialog emerged:
Gill: “My background is in sales at Alton Towers Theme Park…I took two years to do this, to be honest, for the business plan and everything else I had to do. That absorbed my time the last two years. We had to have everything in place in order to come here.”
Edward: “There was a lot to do. The guidelines and stuff that you get given if you want to come over here, as long as you follow them, then you’re fine. But there’s a lot, a lot, a lot.”
Gill: “We had to make sure that everything in the application was correct and everything we sent over to the embassy was correct. What we had to submit was about 300 pages long. We went to the American Embassy in London to make sure everything was prepared and sent over here. Part of what took us so long to get here was that everything had to be done beforehand before the investment visa was issued. Anybody can say they’re starting a business, but you have to prove that you are actually opening a business, that you’re not trying to just get a visa. We have to fund it ourselves. You have to have so much for them to front the visa. There are very very strict guidelines. So we gave everything up in the UK, didn’t we? The process was very long. Our long term goals are here, definitely.”
Edward: “Yes. Yes, we’ll do what it takes, wouldn’t you say? We wouldn’t do it if it was for a few years.”
Gill: “It’s too much work involved for it to be a short term thing.
Edward: “Nobody told us how to do it, we just had to read everything and do it.”
Gill: “We spent hours and hours and hours of research.”
Edward: “That was it, it was painstaking. It’s horrible when you go back and think about it,” Edward laughs with wonder.
Gill: “I knew it wasn’t easy. People had said the process wasn’t easy, but we wanted to do it so much that we were determined. I believed in Edward and know how good he is. I believe in the product and I believed in the business so that’s why we persevered with that.”
I ask Edward how does it feel to have a mother that’s such a great supporter and cheerleader. “Umm…I don’t’ know what to say to that. I don’t know. She’s always been like that.”
Gill, Edward, and his eldest sister, Emma, seem like a very close knit family, “We do most things together,” says Gill.
“Yeah. I don’t really see a lot of them because I get here in the early hours of the morning. There’s a lot of work, you see, when you make it fresh. It’s not just take it out of the freezer and put it in the oven. You know, you have to get the recipe, get all the ingredients together and make it, obviously adjust it for how much you need for that day, and then I do specific orders. So some people will tweak certain recipes, so I’ll have to work around that. Some people will want things warm for specific times, so I’ll have to make sure it’s ready and baked and hot for them. Or if they want it cold, I have to make sure to make that earlier so it’s cool enough for them because some people like to pick it up and put it straight into their coolers especially if they’re going for a few hours driving. I worked 94 hours last week, it’s not much more than I would normally do. There’s always a lot of prep to do. I peel and chop everything, potatoes, apples, lemons, carrots…it doesn’t do itself,” he shares with a self depreciating smile.
Gill says, “It’s an opportunity to introduce Americans to the Meat Pie and they’re enjoying them very much.”
Yes, indeed. This American is tasting a pasty (pronounced like “pasta” but with an “ee” at the end instead of “pay-stee”) for the first time. I’m eating the Cornish Pasty and I’m desperately trying not to wolf it down. It is incredibly delicious and I fight the urge to let my eyes roll back into my head. British food gets a bad rap for being bland; this is far from the case at Pie Society. It is beautifully seasoned, nicely salted, and full of flavor.
“It’s ground beef, onions, potato, peas, and carrots in a beef gravy. It’s all made from scratch, by hand. That is one of the most popular things that I sell.” Edward also makes all the pastry for the pies and desserts onsite by hand daily. I don’t know that I can explain the pastry–it’s so light and flaky, yet substantial at the same time. It’s apparent that everything is made with pride and dedication to quality. “It’s an old recipe–not like over a hundred years old–but it’s just handmade fresh pastry; that’s the difference, you see. 99% of the pastry you buy stuff from isn’t…some places say ‘Baked on Site’ but it’s brought in from somewhere else and they just put it in the oven. We make it and bake it from scratch, everyday, here. Everything we make, you can freeze because it’s never been frozen. Everything is all cooked so you don’t necessarily have to reheat it, you can eat it cold, but you can reheat it. We do the desserts as well. If they want something slightly different from the menu, we’ll adjust that. Like we have an order for tomorrow for a ham and mushroom quiche but she wants spinach in it as well. We’ll make that for her, it’s not a problem. Just order it the day before by 7pm and we’ll make sure we’ll have that ready at the time they want it for.”
“We’re doing English bread now,” Gill says.
Wondering what’s different about the bread, Edward explains, “There’s no sugar in it. It toasts very well. As soon as you add sugar to something, it’s not savory anymore. Being English, we eat a lot of sandwiches. A sweet bread doesn’t make a good sandwich. Even a sourdough bread is slightly sweet. The British people seem to like it and we do get American people that like it as well. I don’t know whether it’s handmade and it’s fresh or what, but they like it as well. I do rolls as well, but they generally don’t last as long.
What do you do when you have things left over?
“I eat it,” Edward promptly replies with a wide grin and adds, “I let the customers have their choice (first).”
“Or we’ll eat it for dinner,” says Gill, “It’s not what you want for dinner, it’s what’s left,” as we all chuckle.
“It’s great. Sometimes it can get repetitive, but it doesn’t bother me at all,” assures Edward.
They seem content with their routine. “Yeah, I like it all to be fresh. I don’t mind putting in the hours, I’m not that old yet, I’m 25. I don’t get frustrated or fed up with it. I always enjoy it even if I make the same thing every day for 3 months, which is what I’ve done being here.”
Customers are enjoying it too, and he’s been happy with how varied his customers are, “I’m surprised at how many British people there are here, especially Scottish. I think there are more Scots that live in Chatham County than actually live in Scotland. I do truly believe that, the amount that we see. We see the same amount of Scottish as we do English.”
It seems like a shop that people would weave into the fabric of family routine. Young adults growing up to become parents, bringing their children in for a pastry and saying hi to Mr. Edward. As I ask about how he sees that scenario, he says, “People already say that, it already happens. They say, ‘Hi, Mr. Edward’, ‘Hi, Pieman’.”
“The children come looking for him. They’re disappointed if he’s not here,” Gill adds with a twinkle.
“And the old ladies do, as well,” he says, shaking his head, “I don’t know what to make of that one.”
Do you give the children sweets? “They can buy a cake,” he says with a grin and a laugh.
Speaking of sweets, I’m eating a Mini Victoria Sponge Cake, a favorite of Queen Victoria’s. The one I’m eating has cream and raspberry jam in it. It’s so light and refreshing. He brings in the jam locally and uses a local butcher for the meat who cuts it for him fresh.
“I used to work at a very traditional bakery where some of the recipes were over 100 years old. None that I specifically use here. Mainly here, we’re limited to what we make, we make it all fresh. I don’t want it lingering around, so I make it in small amounts so everything stays fresh. I can make lots of other different things and I’ve got loads and loads of other different recipes I’ve made over the years. All sorts of cakes and savory items. Generally, I’m not going to change the traditional style of it because at the end of the day, we’re a traditional British bakery. It’s not like we’re introducing something from out of this world. We’re not coming from Asia and serving scorpions on a stick. It’s what Americans generally like as well. I do a Steak & Kidney Pie. I do it on Thursday, Friday, and Saturdays, but I’ll do it any day to order.
“We do make all the things that aren’t on the menu like, there’s no bread, there’s no scones, there’s no custard tart, no steak and kidney pie, there’s no shortbread. We do loads of things that aren’t on the menu which is less than half of what we actually make, isn’t it? Now and again, I’ll do a Pavlova which is a meringue with fresh cream and strawberries on it. I can do a day to day menu. I’m not restricted in an aspect like a chain would be, which is a good thing. I don’t have to wait for a head office to tell me this is what I’m going to have on special next week.”
As I look at the Mini Victoria, I see that the sponge cake is cut out. What do you do with the left over cake, do you eat those? “Yes! You do do that,” pounces Gill humorously.
Bashfully and with a tinge of remorse, “I do, but sometimes if there’s a customer here, I’ll offer them a little bit just to try. I don’t do them singularly. Mainly because with that specific cake, with the type of oven that I’ve got, making a muffin style doesn’t work, it doesn’t come out as soft. That cake is all about being soft. It’s a different kind of soft texture than you’re used to. Like, it’s very soft and there’s air in there, but they’re probably not as moist as a muffin.”
I agree it has an airy quality yet, “It’s solid cake,” Gill perfectly finishes my thought.
Edward also mentions, “The meringue is completely different than what you’d expect as well. In England, a meringue is crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside. Whereas here, it’s soft and they blow torch it. It takes a lot more time to do it (our) way.”
For breakfast, he says, “they come in for the Pasties & Rolls menu, minus the Pork Pies and the Cornish Pasties. So Sausage Rolls, Sausage and Apple, Sausage and Cheese, Ham and Cheese, Cheese, Onion and Potato, they’re all warm and they’re in a flaky pastry so it’s a bit lighter. It’s something different than having a sausage, egg, cheese, and something in a bun or a muffin.”
Looking at the small hot display case it seems like they have to manage their flow accordingly. Edward says, “Yeah, it’s a constant battle. Someone can come in and buy all of one item and then I’ll have to make more. Normally every day, something sells out like that and I have to contemplate if it’s worth making more or not. Some things take hours, some things don’t. Most things are at a minimum half an hour. Some people walk in and expect the entire menu to be available. If I was a shop that was willing to compromise on quality, that would probably be the case, but most people now know that it’s all fresh and if they want something specific, they will ring up and order it. They know that they can’t ring up and order one quiche and half an hour later it’ll be hot. Some people do ring up and they will say, ‘I want a quiche for an hour, have you got any that are warm now?’ If it’s just coming out of the oven, then I’ll put it in the heating cabinet for them. It’s not to say that I won’t do it, it just depends on the time of day, what it is you actually want, so people just ring up and ask and if not, then they have something else. In a bakery in England, you always sell out. If you came into a bakery now [about 4pm] in England, there wouldn’t be a lot left, you’d just have bits. Generally all the popular things go first. We do sell out. Some days we’ll be open for a couple more hours and only have one cake left, but we’ve gotten better about judging that.”
“I want to start doing more things here. Different things,” he says.
Gill tells me, “We’ve got some British goods coming over. Just general groceries and things.”
Edward adds, “Customers have asked for certain things. Just a few specific items, that’s it really.”
Gill continues, “We’ll be bringing in British coffees and teas, small cakes, things like that.”
In the short time they’ve been open, they’ve already participated in a few special events. “We were invited to the British-American Business Group in Atlanta. My daughter and I went up for that. It was a lovely garden party. They were very interested in what we were doing.” Edward adds, “We did the Taste of Pooler. That was very good.” Curious about their St. Patrick’s Day, Gill tells me, “We were on River Street…it went down very well. It was hard work, but it was a very good day.” In addition to all of that, Gill says, “People have got orders for meetings on the catering side.” I silently plot how to get Pie Society to the next event I’ll be in charge of.
Despite the light teasing, you can tell they understand the art of getting along with each other, “We’re pretty easygoing. We know how each other gets annoyed so we really don’t push those buttons,” says Edward.
Gill agrees, “I think we’re easygoing and the job needs doing and we want it to succeed so we work hard toward making it.”
Edward perfectly sums it all up, “You’re opening your own business here, so you’ve got to work long hours. It’s my own business. I want to make it the best it can be. I wouldn’t work 94 hours for anyone else. I’m quite happy to carry on every day. I don’t need a lot in my life, I’m quite happy. In my mind, all I do is work and sleep. When I wake up in the morning, I just come here and work. I know what I’m doing everyday. No one else is going to do my job for me, are they? I like my job, that’s why I do it. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.”
It’s clear they have a passion and a commitment to bring us the best, authentic, quality, traditional baked goods possible. Apparently, I now have a new velociraptor obsession…and that is the Pie Society in Pooler, GA, an absolute must-try for anyone with a stomach.
Payment: Cash & Credit
Parking: Free Lot