They start every day before the rest of Bristol is up – and the first job at Clark’s Pies isn’t making the unique pastry or cooking up the trademark minced beef, it’s the potatoes.
But soon after 6am, when the spuds for that day’s pasties are prepped, everything else kicks in as the 20 or so people who make up the staff of this Bristol institution begin to arrive.
Their daily task is to make as many as 3,000 pies and pasties in just a few hours, ready for the delivery vans to start pottering about all over Bristol and beyond.
The methods used are the same, pretty much, as father and grandfather Clark did from this little bakery in the middle of a terrace of shops, cafés, bookies and bars on North Street.
The street out front may well have changed beyond all recognition, but the pies and pasties have remained resolutely the same – that same distinctive thick crust pastry which means a traditional Clark’s pie doesn’t even need a foil tray – you can hold it and eat it with one hand and it will stay intact and in one piece to the last delicious mouthful.
Clark’s Pies are a proper, old-school Bristol institution – but remarkably have their origins in Cardiff.
Working class mum-of-nine Mary Clark worked as a housekeeper for a wealthy family but times were hard, so for extra cash, she started a little pie business on the side.
Legend has it the famous thick crust came about because her large pie dish broke so she adapted the recipe to make individual pies which didn’t need that support.
It worked, and the family all helped make and sell the pies in Cardiff.
(Image: Dan Regan/Bristol Live)
Ninety years ago, one of those nine, son Percy decided to branch out, take the Clark’s Pies empire international, and set up a shop in Old Market in Bristol.
More shops followed, dotted around the city, and in 1935, Percy was looking for a new base. He was in North Street in BS3, and saw the thousands of workers – mainly women – come out for their lunchbreak at the tobacco factories of Ashton, and munch on homemade sandwiches.
This would be the place to set up, and Clark’s on North Street was an instant hit.
They used to say the queue from the small counter inside the door of the bakery would stretch down the end of the street and round the corner into Raleigh Road, as the lunchtime rush began.
Now, while that counter is still open from 8am each morning, the daily produce of around 1,400 of the traditional Clark’s Pies and maybe the same again number of pasties and other pies is almost entirely delivered across Bristol – to chippies, to pubs, to convenience stores where they are kept warm for the lunchtime workers of the city.
While the Clark dynasty started off a product of Wales, it’s now run by a Scotsman.
And not just any Scotsman, but a now retired professional ballet dancer.
Keith Prested met Dawn Clark, Percy’s granddaughter, when the pair danced for the Scottish Ballet Company in the 1990s.
The company, coincidentally enough, began life in Clifton in Bristol, but moved north to Glasgow and took on Keith and Dawn as dancers.
A ballet dancer’s career is physically gruelling and has the same kind of average retirement age as a footballer.
So, in 2001, when they had both retired from professional dancing, Dawn brought Keith down to her native West Country, to Bristol and the world of pies.
Keith was taken on by his father-in-law, and now, at the age of 47, runs the family business.
He was brought up to speed with the company’s history at the heart of South Bristol’s diet.
“It was in the 1950s and 60s that they started delivering,” said Keith.
“Things were beginning to change. Back in the day, we supplied the little chippy down the side of the Hippodrome in the city centre, for instance, and they would shift two dozen boxes every night, just from everyone coming out of the theatre and getting a pie.
“There were no other shops then selling hot food like that – this was the time before pizza, kebabs, Chinese, there was the chippy and that was it.
(Image: Dan Regan/Bristol Live)
“Now there’s so many other options for people, so it’s not as big as it was,” he said.
“But we’re still making and selling those pies with pretty much exactly the same recipe as in the 1930s when we came here,” he added.
In fact, the traditional, meaty, thick pastried Clark’s Pie has had one slight alteration. “Our older customers sometimes complain that there isn’t the same loads and loads of gravy in it like they remember from years ago.
“It’s the only change, really,” said Keith. “The pies used to be full of gravy and they would tell us it would run off and dribble everywhere and was lovely.
“But with modern food regulations, we have to ensure it’s baked properly, at the right high temperature, and that means we can’t have the same level of gravy in them, because it would bubble over and no one wants a pie with burnt gravy up on top,” he explained.
Back in the bakery, behind the little counter in the North Street shop front, and things were moving quickly.
With the potatoes prepped, the 7am pasty team start up, then at around 7.30am the pie machine begins
By 8am the front counter opens and the first pies are leaving. Four vans were being filled with hot pies and pasties, to head off as far south as Brean and Weston, as far north as Olveston and Yate, as far east as Saltford, with scores of shops, pubs and chippies in between.
“Each van has got two routes, so eight routes in total, and it’s all covered,” said Keith.
(Image: Dan Regan/Bristol Live)
When Keith first arrived in North Street in 2001, it was a very different place than today.
The tobacco factories had long closed down, and the queues of smoking women had gone with them. “It was pretty much every other shop was a charity shop,” he remembered.
“I wish I’d bought a house in one of the streets here then, looking at how much they are worth now!” he said.
The changes of North Street, Southville across the road and the BS3 postcode generally have brought a new demographic – an affluent, young, urban population mixing with the traditional working class.
They tend to be a consumer who values locally-sourced, sustainable, chemical-free food – so Clark’s Pies should be ticking their boxes.
“We source everything as locally as we can – the meat from Baker’s the butchers of Nailsea, flour from the Cotswolds, the ale from the steak and ale pies comes from down North Street at the Bristol Beer Factory.
“The only thing we have to source from overseas is the lard – a pie would be double the price if we had to buy lard produced in England, which is a shame,” he explained.
But the key to Clark’s Pies unique quality is that they are made fresh that morning.
“We don’t add any chemicals or preservatives – it’s pretty much the same recipe as it was in the 1930s. It’s freshly made, and made to be eaten the same day,” said Keith.
“They’ll last four days or so if kept in the fridge. I struggle to think, when you see pasties and pies in wrappers in shops with a use-by date weeks ahead. What are they putting in them to make them last that long? It’s not right,” added Keith.
“We use as little chemicals as possible. We’re using a recipe unchanged – apart from the gravy – for 90 years or more,” he added.
And with that, the full vans left for the first time that morning, packed with hundreds of pies for the shops and chippies of Bristol.