In 2016, grocery shoppers in Utah and surrounding states sliced into more than 750,000 ready-to-eat pies from Associated Food Stores.

Now national judges have confirmed what those savvy shoppers already knew — that the independent wholesaler, based in Salt Lake City, makes some of the best commercial pies in the country.

Associated earned eight awards during the 2017 National Pie Championships, sponsored by the American Pie Council.

In the family pie category, Associated’s Beehive brand won for 8-inch sea-salt caramel, pumpkin chiffon and strawberry margarita pies. In the premium pie division, Beehive took top honors for 9-inch regular banana cream, banana cream topped with real cream and sea-salt caramel French silk.

The seasonal peach/raspberry galette as well as a frozen take-and-bake cherry almond praline (sold under the Red Button Vintage Creamery brand) also took top honors. Winners were selected based on taste, quality and size for the retail price.

There is no money for the commercial awards, just blue ribbons and “the satisfaction of being the best,” said bakery director Dan Hilgenberg.

The American Pie Council, which has held its annual championships since 1995, said 22 commercial bakers entered 470 pies in this year’s competition, which also included categories for amateur pie bakers and professionals.

Hilgenberg said Associated Food Stores has sold commercial ready-to-eat pies for nearly a decade, but this was the first year it had entered the national contest. The company was feeling confident after reformulating its recipes in 2014 and launching its Beehive Bread and Pastry Brand using better ingredients including Grade A fruit and real butter.

“When we developed the Beehive brand, we saw a 42 percent increase in sales,” he said.

Associated has since expanded its Beehive brand to include artisan bread, produced by Utah’s Stone Ground Bakery, and popcorn made by Kathy Kaye Foods in Logan.

For the pies, it contracts with Rocky Mountain Pies in Salt Lake City. The line includes 15 regular pies as well as 10 seasonal offerings.

Rocky Mountain makes pies for companies all across the country, but in Utah, 99 percent of the business is supplying brands for Associated Foods Stores, said president Mark “Par” Grandinetti, who started making pies for Marie Callender’s in the 1970s. He also operated Western Country Pies before starting Rocky Mountain in 2007.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Workers assemble hand laid lattice apple pie at Rocky Mountain Pie factory in Salt Lake recently. Eight different pies sold through Associated Food Stores earned blue ribbons in the commercial categories at the National Pie Championships.
Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Workers assemble hand laid lattice apple pie at Rocky Mountain Pie factory in Salt Lake recently. Eight different pies sold through Associated Food Stores earned blue ribbons in the commercial categories at the National Pie Championships.

On a recent morning, the Rocky Mountain Pie factory near 2100 South was humming. On one assembly line, a machine methodically squirted meringue on lemon-filled pies while workers quickly spread the soft white gel by hand to seal the edges.

On a second line, workers quickly arranged strips of dough to make lattice-topped apple pies. Every minute or so, a line of 13 completed pies would start their baking journey moving into the massive commercial oven.

Right now the factory is on a regular schedule, “making pies five days a week,” Grandinetti said over the noise. “As we get closer to the holidays, we will start making pumpkin pies 24 hours a day.”

Last year, Associated Foods estimates it sold 180,000 pumpkin pies between October and December. This year, it is expecting to sell even more.

Hilgenberg and Grandinetti have already put together Associated Food’s holiday order. During the three-month period, they expect to fill at least 22 truckloads — each carrying between 11,000 and 20,000 pies, depending on the pan size. All will be shipped to Dan’s, Dick’s, Macey’s, Lin’s, Fresh Market and other Associated stores in the surrounding eight states.

The growing number of pies is a natural consequence of today’s fast-paced culture, said Hilgenberg. “While there are still a lot of people who bake from scratch,” he said, “there are a lot of people who don’t want all the work.”

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Hand laid lattice apple pie enter the ovens at Rocky Mountain Pie factory in Salt Lake recently. Eight different pies sold through Associated Food Stores earned blue ribbons in the commercial categories at the National Pie Championships.
Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Hand laid lattice apple pie enter the ovens at Rocky Mountain Pie factory in Salt Lake recently. Eight different pies sold through Associated Food Stores earned blue ribbons in the commercial categories at the National Pie Championships.

When ready-to-eat pies were introduced decades ago, they paled in comparison to home-baked. Improved quality, however, means cooks can buy a grocery-store pie without sacrificing flavor.

“Grocery-store products have transformed since then,” said Hilgenberg. “They are way better now in both quality and consistency.”

Associated Food Store customers already know that. Now the rest of the country will, too.

kathys@sltrib.com