East Coast baker's seaweed and bacon pie makes waves with customers, saves business

By Kate Green of RNZ

An East Coast baker famous for pāua pies has created a new delicacy - bringing her business back from the edge.

Rachael Thomas, who owns Te Puia Springs Store an hour and a half north of Gisborne, was struck by inspiration while driving. She wondered what she could do with leftover parengo - a type of seaweed - she had at home.

Pāua pie made Thomas' former eatery, Cafe 35, in Tokomaru Bay famous. She sold the business a couple of years ago and moved back to her roots in Te Puia Springs. 

Since then, the coast has had a rough time, first with COVID-19, then a slew of severe weather events, culminating in Cyclone Gabrielle at the start of this year.

Thomas said she had to let go of all her staff after the cyclone, with reduced forestry work dwindling her customer base.

"I lay in bed and I just realised, my business is screwed, it's completely screwed. Straight away I knew, there's going to be no forestry, the roads and that were just all gone."

She carried on, running the shop herself seven days a week, struggling to keep her head above water. 

"I thought, heck, okay, you know you've gotta be creative and proactive. You can't just sit there and let life go by and hope like hell someone's going to walk through your door."

One day, inspiration struck on the drive home from town.

"It was like a lightbulb moment," she said. "Because you have [parengo] with bread usually anyway, bread and butter. And my pastry is real yum.

"I roared back, and I tried it out, and it is yum." 

So far, she has seen people drive from as far away as Whakatāne to sample the pie and has sold up to 90 a day.

Now, she is in the process of hiring back her staff.

An older couple was sent into her store by their son, who lived half a world away in London, but had heard about the pie online.

One customer, Jason Walker, was impressed. 

"Oh bro, that's a beautiful pie Rachael. Well presented, tastes nice... if that don't make you feel Māori, I don't know what will," Walker said.

Thomas said the secret was butter and a lot of bacon. The pies took two days to make, so she was not getting a lot of sleep.

But she knew it would not be long before others start copying her parengo pie, just as they did with her famous pāua pie, she said. 

"It is seasonal though, so I don't know how long I can keep putting it out there for, but at the moment it's going off and we're just going to ride the wave."