MEET SARAH BENNETTO O’BRIEN
Sarah Bennetto O’Brien walks the walk and talks the talk.
“I worked on two organic farms as training for this company,” says the founder of The Handpie Company. “And for us, it’s more than the farm-to-table movement. I want our products to honour folks who produce our ingredients by using their product to the fullest.”
Her employee, Keith Hanna, agrees Bennetto O’Brien goes beyond taking words at face value.
“She’s brought an innovative, new food item to the Island that wasn’t here. She’s pushing local — at a level that’s more than farm-to-table — and she’s doing it with sincerity. She’s really doing it,” he says with a smile.
Hanna has been with the company for about six months.
“In this short time, I’ve learned that you can make a high-quality product, invest in quality ingredients and staff, and see it all pay off.”
“Her love of high-quality food really shows, and she wants everyone to enjoy it,” he adds. “Her work ethic is so admirable. In the summer she’ll be here a minimum of 10 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Savoury, filling snack
Handpies are “handheld savoury pies with Island ingredients for a true ‘taste of the Island’ experience,” explains Bennetto O’Brien.
As the business continues to grow and handpies are found in more Island stores, she hopes to change the face of fast food by making an authentic yet convenient product for people.
The business, which recently relocated from Borden-Carleton to the former Scotiabank in Albany, is growing at a steady rate and has been welcomed into the small, rural community. Now customers can walk into the large building and watch the process of manufacturing the handpies while deciding which tasty treat they’re going to order.
“I hope to have an impact in the community and province because, by being a rural employer, I can provide steady, year-round employment for pastry and culinary schools grads. These factors have been a driving force in the business.”
She also wants to make an impact supporting local farmers.
“It keeps the money on the Island.”
Bennetto O’Brien rebranded her Borden-Carleton business Scapes into The Handpie Company after deciding to make the aforementioned item the sole option on the menu in 2017. She has been in business since 2014 and originally opened her shop after raising $11,000 through a Kickstarter campaign.
“Having a large educational component about what handpies are has been important. So educating the public about what we produce has been crucial.”
“But I’ve found that once we have people on board, they’re vocal, supportive and loyal fans.”
Building that fan base has been most rewarding and gratifying, she says. But more surprising is how quickly the business has grown.
“Starting this manufacturing facility was a scary jump, but it’s been the best thing. And the community has supported us ten-fold.
“There is so much potential in rural P.E.I. I’m part of a greater business community on the Island, but there is so much support out there for rural businesses.”
In addition, having a strong support and production staff at the facility has contributed to the growth.
“It’s because I trust them that we were able to make this step happen so quickly.”
While she can’t speak for all of Atlantic Canada, Bennetto O’Brien says the Island way — strength in communities — has led to creating relationships she wouldn’t have in large cityscapes.
“I personally know the people who produce my ingredients. And there’s a tight, supportive business community on the Island. If I had a question, I could pretty much go anywhere and get help from another business owner. There is a real advocacy — not necessarily from official groups, but there’s power in being small and supportive.”
Looking to the future, Bennetto O’Brien sees the company continuing on its course.
“We’ve done a lot for our brand and we’ve grown quickly. Now it’s going to be about polishing our packaging of our product,” she says with a grin.
One thing she’d like to become better at in 2019 is getting her head around her role as a food manufacturer. But she has a clear goal in mind.
“I want to have a handpie within a 30-minute driver of any Islander. Two more retailers and we’ve got that.”
If there was one piece of advice Bennetto O’Brien could give, it would be to ensure the local market is a happy one.
“They make a huge difference. In tourist season, locals know where the best places are — and if you deliver what they want, they’re going to tell others about you. But at the same time, it’s also important to stay true to your roots and support local. And I’m not saying it as a tagline — it’s a way to sustainably grow community and strengthen it.”
And one thing, she knows for certain.
“Handpies are the perfect comfort food.”