A Taste of Down Under in Vermont...Pie Empire12/18/2021 12:22PM ● By Phyl Newbeck
In 2014, after a trip to Australia and New Zealand, Stephanie Choate was inspired to start her business, Pie Empire, to recreate the savory handheld meals she had discovered Down Under. “My husband and I fell in love with the meat pies we ate on our trip,” she says. “I decided to learn how to make them and then decided to try and sell them.” The business started as a part-time venture, but it has turned into a new career.
When she started Pie Empire, Stephanie sold her pies from time to time at the Richmond Farmers Market, but she soon made that a weekly endeavor and joined the Jericho Farmers Market as a part-time vendor. For winter selling, she would set up shop at breweries like Foam Brewers, Hill Farmstead Brewery, and Simple Roots Brewing, as well as working at some special events. During the pandemic, many venues limited on-site consumption, so she shifted to direct customer ordering. This winter, she plans to be back in bars and breweries.
Stephanie’s background is in journalism, not cooking. At first, she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to cook as a hobby or transition to a new career, but she’s happy she chose the latter. “I’ve always loved to cook,” she says, “but I don’t have any training or professional experience.” Nevertheless, she doesn’t see her change of careers as a big leap of faith. “I’ve always tried to do things slowly and sustainably,” she says. “It wasn’t a huge jump, but it was a complete 180 from what I had been doing. Even without any training in the food industry, it went really well and was a slow and smooth transition.”
The hardest part about learning to cook meat pies was making the crust. “It took a lot of trial and error to get a crust that’s flaky and tender but can stand up to the filling and being eaten by hand,” Stephanie says. Her first filling was steak and ale, followed by chicken and bacon, Indian vegetables, and chicken curry. The steak and ale is still the most popular meat pie, and Stephanie theorizes that it’s because it’s a traditional British flavor. Her current favorite is Buffalo chicken, but she confesses that she has had many different favorites over the years. “You can pretty much put anything in a meat pie,” Stephanie says, noting that she is currently working on a Middle Eastern beef pie and an Italian sausage option with peppers, onions, and a little tomato. So far, none of her new flavors have fallen flat. “They all took some time to develop,” she says, “and I won’t sell something until I get to a place where I’m excited about it.”
Stephanie proudly patronizes as many local businesses as possible, including Maple Wind Farm and Moultrop Valley Farm in Richmond; Rolling Meadows Farm in Underhill; Adams Turkey Farm in Westford; North Country Smokehouse in Claremont, New Hampshire; Barre’s Vermont Salumi; King Arthur Baking Company; and Cabot Creamery. “Using local meats has been really important to me,” Stephanie says. “When you start with really quality ingredients, it makes a much better product. Our farms are doing great things, so it’s nice to be able to support them.”
With Covid restricting her ability to do on-site events last winter, Stephanie started doing more direct sales. She was thankful to be able to return to the farmers markets this summer. “They have been great,” she says, “and it’s a wonderful opportunity for people to get out and buy from local producers in a safe, local environment. It’s a great way for people to connect with their communities,” she says.
Stephanie is hoping to continue to grow her business in a slow and sustainable manner with the possibility of hiring an employee at some point. Her husband, Nathan Steinbauer, helps out at some of the farmers markets, but she is essentially a one-woman show. She is reluctant to open a storefront for fear she would be tied down to a schedule. The couple enjoys traveling, as well as skiing, biking, hiking, and just getting outside. Any expansion would be designed to make the business more efficient and to help her bake more pies. As it is, during the height of the season, Stephanie works roughly 50 to 60 hours each week, making 12 to 14 dozen meat pies in her Fairfax kitchen. “Everything is made by hand and from scratch,” she says, adding that it is sometimes hard to have enough supply to keep up with the demand.