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No compromise on quality is the key to McKee's big slice of market's pie

Published 28/04/2015

McKee’s Quality Pies owner George McKee
McKee’s Quality Pies owner George McKee

It may come as quite a surprise to learn that McKee's Quality Pies includes Scotch eggs as among its best sellers. The demand for the product is so high that the Co Londonderry firm employs six full-time staff at its factory in Maghera to make enough for its customers.

While the company's proprietor, George McKee, is coy about the exact amount they sell, he admits they sell thousands of the handmade savoury treats every day.

"It is one of the lines we offer that have really exceeded expectations," he said.

"I have six people around a table every day making them by hand.

"We buy in the eggs, pre-boiled and shelled, but other than that the rest of the product is made in our factory.

"Stuffing has been another thing that has gone through the roof.

"You would expect it to be popular at Christmas time but we now have two people designated to making stuffing full-time all year round.

"It's a phenomenon and there's no explaining it."

McKee's Quality Pies now offers between 40 and 50 different products, including pies, quiches and sausage rolls.

It is a far cry from the humble beginnings of the business, which started out as a butcher's in the town in 1898.

"It was started by my grandfather and then my father and then me after that," said Mr McKee.

"My grandfather started out as a farmer come butcher as they would have been in those days.

"He was from Maghera and he had a wee butcher shop in the town but he used to go around the country with a horse and cart as well.

"Then about 32 years ago, after the death of my mother, my sister came home to look after our father as he was in poor health.

"She had been working in the catering industry and we decided she could make some pies and sausage rolls for the shop to give her something to do.

"It developed from there really."

Mr McKee said the company took advantage of a change in social circumstances to develop the business.

"More women were going out to work and they wanted handy food," he said.

"There was a growth in convenience food and we saw an opportunity and went for it.

"We also sold nine-inch pies, which was a bit different to the seven-inch pies that were being sold at the time.

"It meant you could feed a family of five, although they were a bit more expensive."

However, Mr McKee said they have always refused to compromise on quality - even if it does mean a higher price tag.

In the beginning, all the pies and sausage rolls were prepared and cooked in his sister's kitchen.

But the demand for her products quickly outgrew the capabilities of a domestic kitchen, resulting in the construction of a 7,000 sq ft factory at the rear of the butcher's shop in Maghera town centre.

Over time, they have developed the range of products on offer, with all recipes developed by his sister.

The growth in sales has been the result of word of mouth as oppose to a concerted marketing campaign, said Mr McKee.

"We have never had a sales person in all the years we've been doing this," he said.

"I would have gone out to shops and asked people to try the pies."

Mr McKee believes this personal touch has played a major role in the success of the company.

McKee's Quality Pies and other products are sold in Spars around Northern Ireland, however, he insists they are delivered directly to the shops.

"We've point blank refused to use their central distribution centre," he said.

"I much prefer my drivers going in to the shops and speaking to the staff behind the counters.

"That way, they can tell them if there are any problems and then we can deal with them quickly. I think the personal touch is important."

Mr McKee said the company's policy to source as many ingredients as possible from local farmers is also extremely important.

"We keep some cattle ourselves but a lot of the livestock is bought from farms within 10 to 15 miles from us.

"I think that if we buy from local farmers, they will come into the shop and buy from us."

Mr McKee's business methods have obviously paid off - even more so than he ever intended.

The company now has an annual turnover of £3m and operates out of a 20,000 sq ft factory.

"I left school and started as a butcher," added Mr McKee.

"I wasn't really excited about it but my father needed my help and that's just how it was.

"It was the same as if your father was a farmer, you were just told to get in there and work.

"When we built the first factory, as far as I was concerned, that was it.

"Of course, once the factory went up, the overheads went up as well.

"I always said when I got to 25 staff, that would be enough, but we now employ 56 people.

"I suppose as a businessman I shouldn't say it, but I am quite content where we are now.

"As long as there is enough to pay the bills and the staff and we have a healthy profit, I am happy enough."

Belfast Telegraph

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