Rather than the usual PR, corporate speak which seems all-too familiar in today’s world, Sunil Dass offers an altogether more straightforward explanation as to why Pieminister chose to continue its expansion with a branch in the Steel City.
“I believe Sheffield was chosen as the northern love of gravy and potatoes blended with the brand’s ethos,” Sunil says, from the premises on Division Street.
“Plus you northerners love a pie!”
Sunil may be from Birmingham, but he’s bang on with that. And it’s a simplistic honesty that flows right through the brand, he says, and culminates in the end product; pie.
Award-winning, British-made, responsibly-sourced pies, we later discover. And damn delicious too.
In my full-time job as a sports reporter, pies are a staple weekend food at football games up and down the country, usually of the Pukka variety in a cardboard tray with a splash of Henderson’s Relish if we’re extremely fortunate.
My fiancé indulges in the delights of pastry less often, which rather shows in our respective physiques, but still considers herself a connoisseur and still talks about one visit to the pie specialists Broadfield on Abbeydale Road in tones people usually reserve for their wedding day, or births of their children.
So, it seemed a natural destination. Our party of eight became nine at the last minute and although we couldn’t get through on the phone beforehand to amend it, we were accommodated easily enough by Sunil, on a long table to the right of the entrance.
The first thing to hit your eye as you walk into the place, the former Nosh café, is the decor. Or rather, the lack of it. It’s interesting, but I like it. The wall alongside our table is exposed stone with markings and measurements still in pencil, and lamps hung loosely from the ceiling either side of an exposed air conditioning unit. It may look like it’s opened a bit too early, but it’s deliberate; at the behest of one of the company’s founders, Jon Simon.
“The aesthetic is perpetuated by Jon’s love of simplistic, rustic designs,” Sunil says. “He is behind the design of all the branches. They all look very similar in decor.”
Sheffield is Pieminister’s ninth restaurant in the UK, and they also have seven smaller cafés including two in London.
Jon and fellow co-founder Tristan Hogg secured a seven-figure finance deal from HSBC to open five new outlets in what they call ‘thriving university cities’ but it all began for the company on the other side of the world, on Bondi Beach in Australia.
Jon and Tristan, Sunil tells us, met when Jon employed close pal Tristan to run his kitchen at a pub in the mid-1990s, before Tristan moved Down Under in 2001.
He bemoaned the quality of pies in Oz and came up with the name Pieminister while eating one on Bondi Beach. They started the company in Bristol in 2003, grew from there and after working their magic at Glastonbury and London’s Borough Market, expanded across the UK.
We visited on a sunny Saturday Sheffield evening, and the place is bustling without feeling overly busy. The building is small but doesn’t feel crowded, and Sunil then breaks the news; they’re out of fries. A blow, but not a fatal one.
As a consolation, the menu is vast; 14 different classic pies, at £5.95 each including gravy, four ‘small plate’ options, pastry free ‘skillets’, pigs in blankets, halloumi and onion rings on sticks, and even a bottomless brunch with pies, Bloody Marys and Prosecco that sounds intriguing, to say the least.
Pie lovers have five basic options; a classic pie and a side for £7.95, a skillet and a side at a quid more, two more choices with various side choices and then the ‘tower of power’ – two pies, mash, minty mushy peas and onion rings.
Vegans are catered for via an intriguingly-named pie, the ‘Kevin’ – chestnut mushroom, tomato and red wine pie with baby onions and thyme – and vegan mash, too. With World Cup fever in full swing, the HurriKane pie in honour of the England skipper caught the eye and the smoked paprika added a sumptuous spice to the British beef steak and potato pie with red peppers.
Served on both plates and boards, a welcome combination of classic and contemporary, the moo and blue – steak and Long Clawson Stilton cheese – was described as a fantastic twist on a British classic, with pastry strong enough to withstand the filling but soft enough to melt away in the mouth.
Halloumi fries, as an alternative, were received positively, well fried and not too greasy.
Another favourite was the Mexicow; beef, kidney bean, chilli and cheddar. Essentially chilli con carne in a pie, it sounds simple and tasted great, even working strangely well with the accompanying gravy boat.
Sunil, who’s been in the trade for around a decade now, worked for Wetherspoons before joining Pieminister and also worked in marketing with a small leather goods company in his native Birmingham. He moved to Sheffield after being promoted to assistant manager of the Division Street store, after a spell as a supervisor at the Birmingham branch.
“The response has been better than was expected,” he says. “People on the whole love the menu... most people come in specifically because they love pie so Pieminister in Sheffield has its own unique tribe of pie lovers!
“I think long term, the idea is to have one in every major city in the UK eventually.”
And in case you were wondering, the connoisseur’s verdict? A big thumbs up, for the moo pie – essentially a traditional steak and ale, with a gluten free option available. “Slow cooked, melt in the mouth beef with a flavoursome craft ale gravy,” was the considered ruling once the crumbs had been cleared away.
“One thing that made it stand out was that this was a ‘proper pie’ – no dishes here, just a full and delicious pastry case.”
We’ll be back. And for two so well versed in pie, there can surely be no higher compliment!