‘We went from artisanal bakery to mass pie production for Premier League clubs'

Piglet's Pantry
Sussex-based Piglet's Pantry is based at a former Warburton bread factory where thousands of pies, pastries and sweet treats are made each week.

Jo Hunter grew up on a Brighton council estate, didn’t know her father for the first 25 years of her life and endured a “traumatic childhood”, which included abuse from her stepfather. But, thanks to her grandmother, Hunter found solace and a passion in baking and she has turned it into a multi-million pound business.

In 2010, she also suffered a breakdown and was omitted to a psychiatric hospital. She can’t pinpoint the exact reason — a mixture of stress, working in the corporate world and her upbringing — or indeed understand why she was in the mental health facility during her first five days there.

A conversation in hospital with her mother led her from low depths to opening a small bakery for £300 a month on Shoreham seafront. Over the next five days, mother and daughter came up with a name for the venture, Piglet’s Pantry.

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Thirteen years on, we meet at the company’s Worthing headquarters, surrounded by a plethora of pie of the year awards and the firm heading towards £10m revenue this year.

Producing pies, teas, cupcakes and plated deserts for online sales, its wholesale side caters to around 500 venues across the UK, clients ranging from Premier League and Championship clubs to cruise lines, British Airways lounges and Merlin Entertainment, which owns Chessington World of Adventures.

Jo Hunter has gone from small pantry selling homemade pies to a national food manufacturing company.
Jo Hunter has gone from small pantry selling homemade pies to a national food manufacturing company.

“I was just going to take it easy in a cottage industry,” Hunter, founder and managing director, says of setting up the artisanal bakery in 2011.

Three months in she went to buy her sons’ season tickets at Brighton & Hove Albion and found herself having a conversation on becoming the club’s pie supplier. Asked to come up with some designs, she beat off competition to win the contract, one which is still flourishing today.

A pre-season friendly game saw their first batch sell out in 10 minutes as they scrambled to make more before kick-off. They then sought to find new premises in three days and scale their hand crimping production to 10,000 pies. Plenty of midnight finishes ensued.

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“We gave the market a bit of a run for their money in terms of what they were doing in the stadia world,” says Hunter.

“Our fans are passionate about our pies. We had built a platform [alongside local Lewes brewery Harvey's] and it feels like they own a piece.

“We went from a small artisanal bakery selling 100 products to full on mass production overnight. I didn’t really have the skillset and we had to learn machinery quickly. There were an awful lot of challenges that went with it."

Hunter had previous corporate experience in sales and marketing and on the employee side – which today sees 300 staff contracted at other clubs such as Portsmouth FC – after COVID completely changing their business outlook.

Piglet's Pantry are based in Worthing in a chef-led business. 'It’s why we can adapt,' says Hunter.
Piglet's Pantry are based in Worthing in a chef-lef business. 'It’s why we can adapt,' says Hunter.

“It showed the connection and how far people went to protect that too,” says Hunter, recalling how queues were formed round the block to take their matchday pies which were now surplus to requirements after Premier League games were cancelled.

With help from a £17,000 business grant, they then set up an online platform for the first time and Hunter puts the problem solving down to regular family meetings; her partner Steve is a co-director while son Grant, who helped his mother in the Shoreham bakery, still works on the operational side. “It’s good that we are apart as we are both passionate people,” smiles Hunter.

As the pandemic took hold, Piglet’s Pantry designed 200 Easter hampers and quickly sold out, with local companies helping to deliver in “an outpouring of support”. Pre COVID, Hunter employed 25 staff, which was then bolstered to nearly 100 staff "almost overnight".

Sussex-based Piglet's Pantry are based at a former Warburton bread factory where thousands of pies, pastries and sweet treats are made each week.
Piglet's Pantry afternoon teas proved a sales winner during the COVID pandemic.

Afternoon teas in ‘game changing’ boxes, ensuring the product wasn’t damaged in transit, came next. ‘We aimed to give people a lift at home and we sold around 100,000 teas that year. It was right time, right place,” adds Hunter.

Their pastry success ushered Piglet’s Pantry into becoming a fully-fledged bakery, a world away from their roots as a sole sausage roll and pie supplier at Brighton’s Amex Stadium, the company’s 'birthplace'.

Hunter also has her late grandmother Edith to thank during her childhood. “We were encouraged to walk forever and in late summer months we would pick blackberries and apples,” she says.

“It was a war ethic where you could batch bake and put things away. I was fascinated by that.

Piglet's Pantry's first client was Brighton & Hove Albion FC in 2011, who they still work with today.
Piglet's Pantry's first client was Brighton & Hove Albion FC in 2011, who they still work with today.

“She could make things from nothing and it seemed like there were no ingredients in the kitchen and then these amazing chocolate eclairs would turn up at Sunday tea.”

Hunter’s own carrot cake recipe has carried through to today and adapted from when she was a teen cooking in Edith’s kitchen.

“I always say to customers now we are making memories,” she adds. And they receive plenty of letters on this theme too; Hunter notably recalling how a terminally ill child had once requested an afternoon tea.

In a chef-led business, Piglet’s Pantry’s scratch bakers use local produce, while Hunter relishes the problem-solving in tray when customers ask to recreate recipes they are unable to do at home.

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To stand the brand out they also use rice paper discs, the designs stamped on anything from their Red Leicester sausage rolls, football club logos and shirt numbers, while Ed Sheeran’s face and Mick Jagger’s tongue have appeared on their products.

From pre-COVID revenue of around £1.75m to nearing a projected eight figures, Hunter says Piglet’s Pantry is now exploring the retail side and a decision on whether to move into bricks and mortar space.

Her story over the last decade is a remarkably resilient one and further expansion seems inevitable.

“I’m driven because of my background,” she says. “It does give you that ability to dig deep in times of difficulties.”

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