When it comes to a ripper pie, Mountain High Pies can’t be beaten.
The humble highway-side business in Wentworth Falls gives a nostalgic nod to the golden age of bakeries, where meat pies are served with coffee and a smile.
Head baker Mike Fuller could be seen a mile away at Fine Food Australia, almost bowing under the weight of his gold booty – the overall gourmet pie trophy and a couple of first place plaques – with a gleaming smile to match.
In fact, owner and baker-by-trade Damien Smith put in 10 entries this year only to take home nine medals. It’s not the first time Mountain High Pies has been on the winners’ board, but it’s certainly the shop’s biggest endorsement to date. And, the recognition has come at a good time for the family pie shop with the boys currently knee-deep in renovations to double the size and literally turn the business around.
“We’re building an extension to house an entire new shop, which will see us sit about 150 people, up from 75. At the moment, the shop faces the highway, but we’re turning it around, creating new parking, re-doing the internals and basically just making it newer, bigger and better,” Damien says.
“It’s been a few years in the planning and it’s great to see it finally coming together.”
Classic chunky beef and mince pies are the shop’s bread and butter, but when it comes to the menu, there’s nothing old-fashioned about the selection. There are about 30 varieties of pies on offer, ranging from lamb, rosemary and shiraz to Moroccan chicken, along with a sizeable selection of quiche, apple pies and sweet tarts served with ice cream.
It was the brekky pie that stole the show at Fine Food Australia, however, with Damien saying it was the product’s distinctive assembly that grabbed the judges’ attention.
“It’s a bit different to a normal breakfast pie in the way it’s cooked up and served. It’s not one you can do in advance because the key is to have a poached egg on top, so when you cut it open, egg oozes all over the rest of the pie,” Damien says.
“I think about 90 per cent of brekky pies out there have the egg baked into them, so they are quite hard and powdery by the time they come out of the oven, whereas ours are soft.”
In fact, the entire pie is pretty much a café-style breakfast neatly tucked into pastry. With sausages on the base, homemade baked beans take up the bulk of the filling while a layer of chorizo sits on top. A well of potato is piped around the interior of the pie, which is then lined with bacon and topped off with the soft-poached egg and a little hollandaise sauce.
“People are always coming in and asking for a cooked breakfast, so we met them halfway. The brekky pie isn’t like our normal pies, which we can heat up if we run out. We have to bake these from scratch every day. But now, poaching eggs is just part of our routine: the pie goes into the oven and, when it’s time to turn them, we get the eggs going. It’s fresh and delicious.”
With the brekky pie garnering so many accolades, and a solid coffee offering to boot, you’d be forgiven for asking, “why don’t they just do breakfast?” The thing is, Damien and his wife Reyna decided very early to do one thing and to do it well. And, while the menu has benefited from some welcomed additions throughout the years, Damien’s proud to have stayed true to his word.
“A lot of pie shops tend to get convoluted and cross the line into general takeaways – and customers always seem to be asking us to do other things as well. But it’s really paid off for us to remain a speciality pie shop with a good and varied selection,” he says.
“We have a great vegetarian menu – in fact about a third of the menu is vegetarian, and half of that vegan – and that’s helped us carve out a real niche market. There are a lot of alternative lifestyle people up here in the mountains, people who wouldn’t usually set foot in a pie shop. But in Mountain High Pies, they have a lot of options.
“To top it off, we’ve got a solid coffee trade. We committed early on to do coffee well, not as a side offering, but as a core part of our business, and it’s really paid off.”
Indeed, the business goes through about 60-80kg of coffee each week – a lot for a pie shop – mostly thanks to locals.
“Being just off the highway, we always thought about 80 per cent of business would be from travellers, but it’s turned out to be the other way around. We do get travellers coming in from the Central West, but we never realised just how strong the local commuter market would be until we opened the doors. There is no real industry in the mountains apart from tourism, so a lot of residents head down to Sydney everyday for work,” he says, adding pies are also a popular grab-and-go option for the region’s tradies, as well as students from the TAFE and high school next-door.
“That’s why we’ve really focused on our breakky options; pies, quiche and coffee. It’s an exclusive market because we’re the only place half-an-hour either side where people can stop and get a coffee and something substantial before 9am.”
Ten years ago, in “another life” as Damien puts it, he and his wife ran a successful suburban bakery, complete with birthday cakes, white sliced bread and the occasional pie. But now he’s pumping out up to 1200 pies a day in peak times, he knows he’s onto a winning formula.
“We go through more than 200kg of mince a week – more in winter. We’re in the perfect location for pies here in the mountains as it’s always about 10 degrees cooler than in Sydney,” he says.
“And we enjoy being pie puritans, in a sense, making sure each pie that goes out is fresh and filled with quality ingredients.
“Not everyone wants a pie all the time. But when they do, it’s good to know they can come somewhere like here; where the bakers are really, really serious about pies.”