ACTON — Before a big storm you might stock your kitchen with all kinds of meats, vegetables, and greens — things you finally have time to make — only to discover that, oops, you forgot a couple of ingredients and that stew you planned on won’t happen. Or driving home from work, mentally planning the evening meal, you suddenly get that sick feeling. The chicken breasts you meant to defrost are still the freezer. You could use a lifeline here. Which is where Blackbird Savory Pies come in.
Created by brother-sister team Matthew Kline, 61, and Sarah E. Kline, 56, Blackbird Pie Co. produces frozen pot pies using natural ingredients. Matthew Kline develops the recipes for the company’s five products in an open, sunny kitchen here, which he designed around an impressive commercial Montague II range. He found the cooker, which has a built-in wok, when he was living in Chicago and had it shipped east when he moved back to his home state. It sat in storage for seven years, until he built his current house.
Three years ago, when Sarah Kline, then an assistant team leader at Whole Foods, heard that a Connecticut pie company was for sale, she asked her older brother to explore the opportunity with her. She had always wanted to start a food business. Something of an unlikely business duo, with divergent professional backgrounds, the siblings share a culinary heritage shaped by a mother who, according to Matthew, “cooked everything from scratch. Our core ability is we know good food.”
Instead of buying the pie company, the Klines started their own. Sarah had also worked in corporate catering, as market manager for The Boston Public Market Association, in publishing, and high-tech marketing. (She has a master’s in business administration from Simmons.) She knew from the beginning, “I wanted to go into wholesale not retail.” She also wanted to create a high-quality specialty product. Some might find it almost weird that it has ended up being sold in the frozen section, a part of the grocery store not necessarily associated with gourmet foods. “Growing up, we never bought frozen food,” Sarah says.
In Concord in the 1960s, the Klines were a food-obsessed family long before it was in vogue. “At every meal, we were talking about the next meal,” recalls Sarah. Each weekend, after what Matthew recalls as an obligatory family trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, their parents took the four siblings (him and three sisters) to Chinatown and, Sarah notes, “dragged us into the kitchen to meet all the chefs.”
When Matthew moved into his first apartment, his mother gave him a wok and a Chinese cookbook. A philosophy major in college, he left a doctoral program at the University of Illinois to play jazz piano in Chicago. He also started a couple of technology-related companies before moving back to the Boston area in 1994. While the siblings worked on their company, he cooked for a year at East Coast Grill in Cambridge.
Matthew was busy at home, too. Over the course of roughly 12 months, a host of family and friends tasted about 50 top-crust meals before settling on the five pies the company makes now. “The first line of tasters was always my two sons [Gabriel and Jacob, now 15 and 14]. If they gave a thumbs-down, the pie suffered a premature and cruel death. Thumbs up and the pie is onto the next group of tasters,” he explains. (Daughters Kathy and Elizabeth are older and live in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Chicago, respectively.)
“Each of the pies is intended to exhibit five or six flavors,” Matthew explains. Indian ratatouille pie, for example, jolts the taste buds with ginger, chilies, lemon, coriander, and asafetida. Shiitakes give umami flavor to an Italian-style chicken pasta pie. The product line includes two gluten-free pies.
Blackbird pies are prepared under the Klines’ supervision in small batches at a facility in Pennsylvania. Individual components — meat, vegetables, and sauce — are cooked separately so the fillings won’t become mushy. Because most of the pies contain meat, the company is required by law to make them in a USDA-certified facility. (The Klines could not find one in Massachusetts that met all their requirements, but are still looking.)
Last August, the Klines sold their first pies to a handful of specialty markets. By January, they were in more than 30 stores, three Roche Bros. in Massachusetts, and Whole Foods Markets throughout New England.
The Klines are spending a lot of time handing out samples at markets, which is particularly rewarding when, as often happens, tasters turn into customers. Sarah notes, “We say, ‘Tasting is believing.’ ”
Blackbird Savory Pies www.black
Andrea Pyenson can be reached at email@example.com.