Garlo’s Pies Kicking Goals

After a successful NRL career captaining South Sydney and The Roosters, Sean Garlick went on to create one of the country’s most recognisable pie brands and enviable business models. Here, he tells Australian Baking Business how the success story unfolded.

Sean Garlick would never have imagined that in just 10 years his company would grow from a little pie shop in Maroubra to having one of Australia’s largest retailers knocking on its door with a craving for the unique Garlo’s Pies.

It all started back in 2001, following Sean’s retirement from professional rugby league. His younger brother Nathan had resigned from his job at a local pie and cake shop around the same time.

“He’d been working [at the pie shop] since he was 14, and was making every single thing in the shop,” Sean recalls. “He grew tired of it, just working for wages. He ended up just driving a truck when I finished up and I thought it was such a waste of talent.”

Sean approached his brother with the idea of opening a pie shop together. It was agreed that Nathan would deal solely with the product and Sean would handle the business side of things. The pair applied for and won a lease on a local shop in Maroubra Mall and got to work.

Hard yakka and serendipity combined with fantastic results. Working on the side with The Footy Show as a guest host and reporter, Sean mentioned his new business venture to the show’s producers and they came up with the idea of holding a celebrity pie-eating contest in-store, televised live. “I got some big names and frames in rugby league into the shop and they crossed to us live about five times during the show,” Sean says. “It was just huge. It catapulted the business from virtually the first week.”

This instant dose of fame saw Garlo’s Pies outgrow the small store within its first month of operation. Sean and Nathan found a second, much bigger store in Mascot, and invited The Footy Show back for round two of the pie-eating competition.

The customers kept rolling in. Sean and Nathan were soon swamped with enquiries for wholesale orders and franchising, but chose to hold off while they refined the business.

Over the next few years, they opened store after store as their fledgling pie business went “gangbusters”. The rapid expansion saw their workload increase dramatically, and despite his love for rugby league, Sean decided to leave his consulting role at South Sydney Football Club to join the business full-time.

“I felt an overwhelming responsibility to the business,” he explains. “Nathan had always said, ‘Leave me in charge of the product and the rest of it you’ll have to take care of’, so there was nothing more he could contribute. My best energy was spent growing the business… I became the salesman and administrator and we employed more staff. At one stage we had about 15 stores.”

Despite their early success, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “We realised the effects of the GFC probably a year or so before it hit, and we started to see a downturn in the retail market, which was always very volatile due to weather. We soon realised pies are great when it’s cold and windswept and miserable, but when it’s blue skies and warm and sunny, sales take a hit. It started to worry me, the fact that our income was so volatile – and 90 per cent of our income came from our retail stores. We decided we needed to diversify a little and really go after some of these smaller customers,” Sean says.

“We found the leagues clubs and RSLs were very good, and we even approached a few convenience stores. It was a much more predictable revenue stream and although we were selling at a wholesale price, it was still much easier to bank on. We also discovered it was quite refreshing to be able to drop the pies off and let them be somebody else’s problem – heating them up, paying for electricity, staffing, etc.”

Two years ago, Coles approached Garlo’s Pies on the back of their reputation as being among the best pies in Sydney.

“I was stunned with how the relationship with Coles started,” Sean says. “We were minding our own business and then all of a sudden we got a knock on the door from Coles. They needed a local pie supplier and recognised Garlo’s as the best brand in Sydney. Immediately my reaction was ‘no’ – I’d heard the horror stories associated with supplying the big supermarkets, where they screw you on price and drag out your payment terms. I said to them, ‘Look, I’m really not that interested – I think you’ll ruin our brand. If you 51go selling our pies in your supermarket for $1, how can we ever expect to get $4.50 for them in a store?’ They said that wouldn’t be the case, and agreed to [all our terms].

“We started with their brand-new store at Newport and went along with it for the exercise – I thought, ‘Who’s going to buy a pie for $3.50 in Coles when you can buy them for 90c in Coles?’ But they did. The response has been phenomenal.”

The store numbers in NSW are continually growing and Garlo’s Pies is in discussion with Coles to stock the pies across Queensland. The pies are available in the refrigerator, not the frozen section. Inside, shoppers can find up to the full 14 lines of the range, which include the two flavours of family pie, the junior and sausage roll 12-packs, two types of pasties, the jumbo sausage roll and seven different types of the traditional pie.

Sean attributes the business’ continued success to their commitment to producing a superior-tasting product that doesn’t compromise quality for factors such as price or ease of transport.

“We pride ourselves on being thin on pastry and big on meat,” he says. “If you bite into one of our pies it’s very thin on pastry and extra flaky on top… it’s a pie you expect to find in a pie shop but you can now find it in a supermarket.”

And while taste is of paramount importance, Sean highlights the fact that Garlo’s Pies are a lot healthier than most commercially made pies, being high in protein and low in fat. Garlo’s Pies have been independently tested and shown to have the lowest fat content of meat pies on the market – for example, the chunky steak pie has 40g of protein and only 2.3 per cent fat.

The real recipe for success, however, certainly lies in the fact that Sean and Nathan have recognised changes within the marketplace, identified weaknesses within their brand and responded to these factors accordingly, whether it be through diversification or fine-tuning their image – something they’re focusing on at the moment.

Looking at the good old ‘ocker’ pie, Sean and Nathan realised that their business was aimed more towards pie-eating males and less towards females, prompting a move towards creating a café-style environment where males and females alike could feel at home.

“We wanted to feminise our brand a little to be more inclusive of those who don’t necessarily see themselves as pie-eaters,” Sean says. Our Gourmet Bakehouses are completely different to what our pie shops look like… They’re much warmer – more modern, slick and inviting. And yes, pies are still a very big part of the business, but they’re more of a café.”

The Gourmet Bakehouses at Mascot and Coogee offer an extended menu, which includes barista-made coffee, baguettes, sweets, cakes and biscuits. And, of course, the trusty pies and pasties that have served the brand so well for so long.

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