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The CS Interview: Robert Whittle, General Manager, Pidy UK

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The CS Interview: Robert Whittle, General Manager, Pidy UK

October 21
20:07 2013
Pidy Coloured Mini Cones3 landscape.jpg

Did you know you can now buy catering pastry cases on Amazon? Really, try it. Go online, type ‘Pidy’ into a search engine and see what comes up. You’d maybe think that, with such a unique name as this, (it stands for ‘Patisserie Industriale Dehaeck Ypres,’ if you didn’t already know) Google and the others would struggle to place anything but the company’s own website at the top of the page. Not anymore.

Such is the pace of change both in the foodservice industry and online these days, it’s the all-conquering global distributors whose websites win the battle of search engine optimisation. Nowhere else is this more prevalent than when searching for Pidy, and Robert Whittle is proud of the association the company now enjoys with Amazon.

Despite beginning his career long before e-commerce became a crucial part of Pidy’s business plan – or even a concept in itself – he is very aware of the power of online marketing:

‘As we speak I’m sitting putting together our new product descriptions for Amazon,’ he explains. ‘It’s part of the sea change in our strategy and it’s been a phenomenal success for us in terms of marketing and distributing our stock to both established customers and new consumers.’

Once such product has been Pidy’s Veggie Cupswhich have proved exceptionally popular since their online launch to consumers last year: ‘Thanks to Amazon, chefs can now buy these online, test them out and if they like them and think they’ll be popular with their own customers, they can persuade their wholesaler to stock them,’ continues Robert.

‘That’s part of the attraction of making our products available online; it allows customers to obtain them quickly and reliably, and it doesn’t affect wholesalers’ businesses too much – although it can be a challenge for them nonetheless!’

An enthusiast at heart – he’s worked in the industry for the past 25 years – Robert believes that Pidy is in a unique position to take advantage of the demand for ready-made pastry products:

‘Pastry is an awkward thing to make,’ he says. ‘The ability to create it is a special skill to have, and an expensive one to develop.

‘There are thousands of experienced chefs out there who are far too busy dreaming up exciting new dishes for their menus, and they don’t have the time to learn how to make pastry properly, too.

‘Our ranges are premium priced but that’s reflected in the quality of the finished products. Chefs know this and they’re only too happy to let us create our products for them – and they’re prepared to pay for the privilege.’

Pidy started life as a single small patisserie shop in Ypres, Belgium, back in 1952. Run by its founder, a local pastry chef named Andre Deheack, the shop thrived in its local area but it took until 1968 when his son, Thierry, came on board before it could expand.

Investing heavily over subsequent years, Thierry and his father began to grow the business by appealing to new target customers and diversifying into alternative product lines. Nowadays, the European pastry powerhouse is virtually unrecognisable from its primitive beginnings back in Belgium, but it still retains its philosophy of producing the best quality produce.

With a team of chef-developers who demonstrate how best to use Pidy products in the catering sector, the company also designs its own custom-built machinery to fit its specific requirements: ‘We stick to producing artisan-quality fare, made in the way a patisserie chef would make it themselves,’ continues Robert.

In doing so, the company has grown to become the largest ready-to-fill pastry manufacturer in the world, with three factories throughout Europe and the USA, and a burgeoning Asian market on the boil.

‘We’re seen as a barometer of the ready-to-fill pastry sector,’ he adds. ‘Taste, flavours, texture – they all change and evolve, and so because we are creating between 30 and 40 new products each year, inevitably we are viewed as a bellweather by our competitors, and indeed the industry as a whole.

‘People look to Pidy to see where the market is.’

Vol-au-vents are a case in point. When Pidy first began making them nearly 50 years ago, the ubiquitous pastry cases quickly became a best seller: ‘Over time, though, their appeal waned,’ explains Robert. ‘They slowly went out of fashion and became less visible at social and professional gatherings.

‘However, lately they have enjoyed something of a renaissance, and certain key food retailers are putting them back onto their 2014 menus.’

Made to a classic puff pastry method, Pidy’s vol-au-vents hark back to their traditional 1950s roots, albeit with modern overtones: ‘Round in shape with a docked base and golden brown colour, our vol-au-vents offer a crispy, crunchy structure and are perfect for canapés, first courses or main dishes,’ adds Robert. ‘They are currently experiencing a resurgence in catering, and the fact they’re available to order through Amazon means they’re more popular than they’ve ever been.’

And yet, in spite of this success and the fact that Pidy’s competitors continually clamour to predict their next move or product innovation, the company remains a resolutely independent organisation: ‘The trend at the moment – in many sectors, not just ours – is for supermarket chains to squeeze producers to within an inch of their margins,’ explains Robert.

‘However, while a few of our competitors have driven themselves into the ground, desperate to secure contracts which require them to adhere to whatever terms are demanded of them, we tend to do the opposite.

‘Of course we try to avoid raising our prices but sometimes it’s not possible to absorb increases exclusively in-house. Our products are worth the extra and our clients know this, so we have to be brave in passing on any increased costs to them if necessary.

‘At the end of the day, there is a certain respect between you and your partners if your prices go up when all your costs are rising, too.

‘Having said that, we are just as happy to reduce them in line with market forces, if need be.’

Perhaps understandably, communication is a key aspect of Pidy’s strategy. Aside from their fruitful relationship with Amazon, the company has recognised the power of online marketing and social media in creating a buzz of publicity around its new products:

‘In order to innovate, build awareness of our products and understand our customers more effectively, communication is crucial,’ concludes Robert. ‘There’s been an earthquake of change in this respect. Only a few years ago we were relying on traditional methods to communicate our messages and campaigns, but now we’ve got Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest accounts, and of course our successful e-commerce relationships with Amazon and other distributors.

‘These are as essential to our ongoing success as is our ability to innovate and grow into new markets.’

And there’s the clincher; it’s the speed of change matched to a willingness to adapt that marks Pidy out from other specialist pastry manufacturers. From humble beginnings in Belgium offering freshly baked goods to local domestic customers, the firm has morphed into a leading provider of ready-to-fill pastry products for catering businesses throughout Europe, America and beyond. While other producers tread water and buckle to the price pressures of big distributors, Pidy uses its experience and keen sense of innovation – combined with the power of the internet – to continue serving its clients as it has always done since its first day of trading back in 1952.



Robert Whittle square.jpg meets Pidy general manager Robert Whittle (inset), and discovers a man who insists on innovation, embraces the digital revolution and treats clients the traditional way…

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