FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Bob (Simon) Whitworth
May 29, 2018
Is he enigma, tour-de-force, happy go lucky chap, friend, funny, quirky, tireless and extraordinarily intelligent (both the book learning type, and the emotional intelligence of reading people) and entertaining? Yes, it seems one person can be all those things – even if he shows up in a funny hat and an apron …
I’ve bought many pies at his stall at the farmer’s markets, and at my local Co-op grocery store – and I thought this local food success must have an interesting story and it might be great to get acquainted with whoever was behind it. When I stopped at the counter one day, asking the fellow behind the counter who owned Simple Simon Pies, I was surprised to hear, “I am!”
There is nothing simple about Simon. He isn’t really a Simon. He’s a Bob. That’s Bob Whitworth, born in Manchester, England and his journey to Calgary and fame as inventor/chef and purveyor of pie is a wriggly path – and it is impossible to not be entertained by this gregarious man of many talents.
Why ‘Simple Simon Pies’? “Well, it wouldn’t sound right if it was ‘Simple Bob’s Pies’, now would it?”
His beginnings, an upper-middle class family in Manchester, dad was in sales of felts for the paper making industry, mom was a housewife – one older sister, and Bob. His schooling was at a high-end private boarding school in Scotland. He told me more about those times but I am sworn to secrecy. Bob says he was an all-around average student, good at math, but had trouble focusing. He didn’t pursue post-secondary schooling because, “I had no interests, so there wasn’t much of a point”.
Bob’s early jobs were in offices; BP, Shell, but he hated paper pushing. He wanted to get away, go somewhere else and explore – but chose to limit his choices to English speaking countries, narrowed his choice to Australia and Canada. Canada won. In 1974 he moved to Arnprior near Ottawa, worked in management consulting but found the place ‘too small’, or maybe it was a romantic conflict … anyway, he ventured to Calgary where he had a cousin …
Bob tried to get work in oil & gas but found his lack of a degree posed a problem. He got a job on a gas drilling rig – he last 2 ½ shifts before walking off the job. Hitchhiking and walking his way back to Calgary he found he was headed the wrong way, to Saskatchewan. Corrected by a helpful trucker, he rode back to Calgary and next tried a job at The Keg, working in the back of the house. He worked shifts at Moose Factory, and worked as a bus driver for Calgary Transit but when he was late for a shift too many times he was dispatched to desk work – a 9-5 gig rather than shift work. He took on some delivery work, started a multi-level marketing business that didn’t take, delivered newspapers.
One night he went to a party, met a teacher with similar food industry desires to start a restaurant – and soon ‘Whitworth’s’ was born – had a three year run in an old building where today’s city hall is located, but that building was to be torn down. Next, a burger joint in an old gas station – ‘Big Dick’s Burgers’ in NW Calgary until Shell sold off the property. During that time he started making and selling meat pies – he had the equipment! And, the pies were good and sold well. After a few months of feeling despondent, broke and without capital he declared to himelsef, “you’ve got to do something here”, Bob started making meat pies and selling them at flea markets. The first day he sold $81 in pies. The next week, $120, then $180 …
His business grew, he liked the work, tried the Crossroads Market (when it was still at the Crossroads) and continued when it moved to Ogden Road. He said, “this is a decent living”. He expanded to the Calgary Farmer’s Market in the old Currie Barracks and business really took off. His early days of ‘using someone’s kitchen at a pub’ led to acquiring commercial premises for manufacturing.
“I know how to do it, I enjoy it, and it allows me to keep doing it and be happy”. His products are complex flavour experiences – but his method is simple: no preservatives, everything is frozen. “There wasn’t a lot of choices to make when business grew 1000% in three years."
That first ‘bay’ has expanded to four bays of prep, storage and freezer space. That’s a lot of frozen pie. When the Currie barracks market closed he moved to the Blackfoot Market – but business volume dropped, so he needed a solution – which got him into wholesale business. Calgary Co-op sell a substantial assortment of his products. Though 10,000 pies a week is a lot – he’s added soups, dips, and frozen meals to the range. Business today is 50/50, wholesale/retail. His mantra, “I’m always asking the ‘why not?’ rather than ‘the why?” …
Bob says "no and none" when asked about marriages and children – though he admits to his share of girl friends along the way …
Our interview was paused a few times as Bob attended to things needing his attention. While I waited I asked his office manager/assistant Sharon (she's been there four years) what it is like, working for Bob, and she replied without hesitation, “he treats us like family”. Bob’s response to that, “I find good in most things and in most people”.
Why are you successful? “I’m insecure. I have a level of curiosity that constantly needs to be fed and attended to so I build things and create relationships. If I hit a wall, I just find a way around it.”
What has held you back? “sometimes fear of the unknown. I get scared of things, just like everybody else.”
How do you see your business – convenient meal solutions – going forward over the next quarter?
… despite a sluggish economy, our business has been growing – so I expect that to continue.
And over the next five years?
… continued success, I hope. We’ll grow and change add unique products. Our food is delicious, easy to prepare and serve, our containers are recyclable. Good food for people in a rush. I often hear customers saying, “my kids love these pies”.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… a lot of it is reputation. Reputation is paramount. Anybody can make mistakes – but it is how you deal with those mistakes that earns respect. I like things I can rely upon – in equipment, and the same in people.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose ‘Simple Simon’/Bob Whitworth, and why do they do business with you, over your competitors?
… a good product at a reasonable price – and there is some sincerity about it.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… chaos theory in practice!
… no, but I don’t see work as being a burden …
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I get very excited about new things, new ideas – and I don’t have the good sense to go back to bed.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… nothing stands out. Good health, food & drink, friends.
… I used to read! I had an eye issue last year – and I don’t like these new reading glasses. I like to putter. I find everything fascinating.
What do you read?
… periodicals mostly. I used to read a lot of Tom Sharpe novels …
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