Pie Mezzanae - Halal pies made in Lancashire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 September 2019
Former biochemist Zainab Bilal is now using domestic science to make sure her pie business is flying high.
There are five words written on the wall of Zainab Bilal's office: 'don't think, just do it'. They're written on three large neon pieces of paper in black marker on her five-year business plan. It's a mantra that has served her well. In the few years since she launched her pie company, Pie Mezzanae, she has grown from making pies in her small domestic kitchen at home, to making up to 1,000 pies a week.
When the 40-year-old, a trained biochemist and teacher, first founded her business in 2015 those pies were an easy, family dinner ime staple for her, her husband Bilal and their five children, as well as extended family. She used to spoon leftovers into a pie dish and cover them with shortcrust or puff pastry. But it wasn't long before demand grew beyond the walls of her home and she needed more room. In 2017, she set up a unit in Blackburn town centre.
'It's a bit crazy, thinking back on all we have achieved,' said Zainab. 'I couldn't have done it in those early days, and even now without the help of my family - my husband, children, mother-in-law, my aunty, they all chipped in when I needed to get things done.
'I have four staff now, too, who are brilliant and my mother-in-law still comes in to help. It's a big unit but I wanted to aim high.'
Zainab's eclectic fusion pies menu takes in most corners of the globe - lamb tikka, samosa pies, and traditional chicken and mushroom. She also has her Pie Heroes brand - a much different flavour profile - specifically catered to children. Burger, calzone and chicken taco pies along with philly steak and veggie masala make up this side of the business. Her creations have been developed with the help and feedback of young people.
Many of her creations have won her fans. Red or Dead founder and design guru Wayne Hemingway has supported Zainab since the early days of the business, including through events like Festival of Making. Jeremy Corbyn, Liz Truss and several other high profile politicians discovered the joy of Zainab's pies at the House of Commons last year when Marketing Lancashire took a delegation of Lancashire food producers to the capital to mark Lancashire Day.
Several of her spicy creations have won medals of the British Pie Awards in Melton Mowbray, too, a particularly remarkable achievement for someone unable to taste many of her competitors' efforts for religious dietary reasons.
Her achievements at this year's awards were filmed for a BBC documentary. Zainab hopes her success will highlight the lack of female entrants to the competition. She is also keen to encouraging more flexible working conditions to enable women to follow their dreams.
'It's so important for places of work to be flexible, for everyone, but it is often women who need more of this. I'm still working as a teacher as well as running the business and spending time with my family. I have mothers who work for me and I want them to have flexibility, too.'
In the few years since she stuck that business plan above her desk, she has ticked off several of them. She sells at farmers' markets and grocery stores around the region and the most recent win was to start supplying Blackburn Rovers Football Club.
'Being able to cross that off my plan felt really good,' said Zainab. 'I took my first delivery and could barely speak. It felt so big and just amazing. People have mentioned other clubs are interested too, now. But to supply my home team really is special.'
But Zainab has much bigger plans - her dream is to be sold across the UK in supermarkets and convenience stores. And she wants her Pie Heroes range to be a household name.
'To be in big stores and convenience stores where people can come and get a nutritious pie would be it for me,' said Zainab. 'People are so busy these days and to be able to have something that is made well to get when you go into a shop is something that's not really available at the moment.
'I'd also love a pie and coffee shop, somewhere to have a drink and eat a delicious meal. I'd start in Blackburn but would love them all over Lancashire and then the country.'
For many these might seem like pie in the sky ideas. But spend five minutes with Zainab and you'll be convinced she will achieve her dreams.