Brits Favor Proper Pies, Tampa Bay Farmers Markets

When Derek Gibson sets up his Proper Pie Company "fayre" at a Florida farmers market, it does not take long for customers to line up three deep – eager to sink their teeth into one of the British pies they cannot find in local stores.

Gibson, whose accent unmistakably reveals his U.K. roots, has an increasing number of devoted customers salivating at the very thought of the pies his Davenport-based company prepares. One full-time and three part-time staffers bake such favorite varieties as steak with Guinness, Cornish pastry and chicken curry pies.

"We sell 1,000 products a week, in the shop and at farmers markets all over the state," he says. "We also do corporate catering and parties."

They can create a pie to satisfy just about everyone, he says.

"At any one time we can offer up to 20 varieties, so every member of the family can be accommodated with their particular favorite type of food -- steak, chicken, pork, vegetarian."

On a sunny day at the Saturday Morning Market in St. Petersburg, Gibson is swamped with business. His customers, many with British accents, walk away with bags full of the pies, which can be frozen and reheated. Many of his customers long for the "old country" recipes his bakery uses, with fresh, healthy ingredients.

Of course, Gibson is just one booth in a marketplace packed with vendors selling anything from eucalyptus oil to fresh produce. The atmosphere is upbeat and friendly, and customers of all walks of life mill about. Families bring dogs on leashes, and a small group often dances to a live band.

Gibson's easy smile and popular products fit right in. He especially likes the Tampa Bay region, he says. He and his wife, Beverly, set up the Davenport shop in Polk County southeast of Tampa when his son began to attend a local golf college. They saw an opportunity, and went with it.

"The Pie Company was identified as a huge void in a very congested food market," he says. "The pies sell well because they are unique – they bring on distant memories of a relative from the old country, making them when they were younger."

Infusing Flavor Into Finances

Economic professionals say farmers markets fit an expanding niche for vendors, consumers and the local economy.

"Diverse people come together at their local farmers market and claim it as their own place, creating a sense of community among people who might not necessarily mingle otherwise," says Becky Abel, of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority. "At most farmers markets, a visitor will find a little hint of the eccentric, a flair for the artistic and a sense of closeness to the Earth."

And, while Gibson does sell from his shop and conduct catering, markets are his primary draw. "Fresh markets have been a very important development in our business, as it ties in very well with our philosophy of fresh, healthy food, with no added preservatives," he says. "A recent line of low-salt pies have been introduced in line with this."

Stephen Gran, manager of Hillsborough County's Agriculture Industry Development department, says it's impossible to measure the economic impact to the area of the markets, but they clearly have brought an infusion of business to vendors and businesses near the sites. "I would say it is significant," he says. It's just hard to measure, as a whole."

Richard M. Blau, who specializes in agricultural law for GrayRobinson, P.A., says businesses like The Proper Pie Company only stand to build steam, as the trend toward buying local foods grows.

"The rise of the locavore and related local food trends is producing initiatives that can yield substantial benefits in economic development impacts, health and nutrition benefits, and improvements in food security and remedial effects on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions - lowering both," Blau says.

Learning About Farmers Markets

83 Degrees readers can learn more about the state's farmers markets by visiting the website for the Florida Association of Community Farmer's Markets.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services maintains a list of many of the farmers markets in the state. Information about locally grown produce and markets in the Tampa Bay region can be found on Hillsborough County's website.

For Gibson, the markets have proven to be fabulous push-off points for his growing business. He's considering franchising and/or setting up more stores or bakeries. But for now, he's relishing moments such as the one he had while handing over a bag of the pies to a delighted British couple at the St. Petersburg market.

"We really enjoy them so much," the smiling female customer says. "Just delightful, really."

Gibson offers a friendly smile in return, but can't dally long in conversation.

"And what can I get for you?" he asks the next customer. "Ah, yes, we do have those," he says, and introduces them to the requested variety, and a few others. "Clearly, we hit on something," he says. "We have quite a following."

Mary Toothman, an independent journalist writing her way around the Tampa Bay region, lives in Tampa Palms with a boxer and two rescue Chihuahuas. She can often be found at a nearby Starbucks or Jazzercise, and goes nowhere without her iPhone. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Mary Toothman.

Mary Toothman is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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