When Aussie NBA superstar Ben Simmons tweeted a photo of a meat pie two years ago, declaring it the perfect snack, his team was intrigued.
Most Americans know nothing at all about the humble Australian pie, and the Philadelphia 76ers perceived an opportunity. They had been looking for a brand partnership to help them grow, and with a strong Australian contingent in the team, this looked like it could be the answer.
Simmons has become an international superstar with the Sixers, Australian Jonah Bolden is another fan favourite and head coach Brett Brown spent 17 years in Sydney and Melbourne.
Once the executives discovered Four’N Twenty and its long association with sports, a three-year deal was struck, with the team’s international sponsorship revenue forecast to hit $US10 million next season.
But persuading Americans to embrace the Aussie pie has been an uphill struggle.
When Four’N Twenty launched in the US a year ago, some complained it was too hot, or too dry. One hapless ESPN taste-tester caused an uproar on Twitter after he cut his pie into pieces with a knife and fork, and was accused of a lack of respect and desecrating a national icon, with even Queensland Police stepping in.
“That’s when we were like, what’s happening here?” Four’N Twenty CMO Anand Surujpal told news.com.au as the brand relaunched on Australian Heritage Night on Thursday during the 76ers’ home win over Miami Heat at the Wells Fargo Center.
The pie brand realised Americans were battling with the traditional Aussie concept of a small, round savoury pastry that is eaten with your hands.
“We tried with the regular round-shaped pie and people had real difficulty understanding the shape,” Mr Surujpal said.
“There was a bit of confusion what you do with this product, because the closest (the US has) to that is either a pot pie — so not exactly, it’s bigger as well — and then you get Hot Pockets, which is a different category.
“It’s oblong-shaped now, so they hold it and go, ‘I understand what this is all about.’”
Four’N Twenty’s research suggested the Traveller’s elongated look would make more sense to hotdog-loving Americans.
Even the traditional addition of tomato sauce has been a sticking point. “There’s people putting relish on it, hot sauce I’ve seen go on it, last time we had people putting mustard on it,” Mr Surujpal said. “Each to their own, I guess.”
The most popular flavours echo US fast food — classic beef, and beef and cheese — and the two options will options will be rolled out across the brand’s testing ground of Philadelphia over the coming months, with a Philly cheesesteak flavour in the works before Four’N Twenty takes its pies to New York and Washington.
The stadium is decked out for Thursday’s celebration of all things Australian with yellow and green decorations and a guide to Aussie slang flashing up on the neon signs. “Ta: means thank you,” one read.
Free pie samples are handed out to basketball fans, a handful of AFL players have a kickabout on the basketball court and Australian NFL star Jordan Mailata makes an appearance to ring the 76ers’ ceremonial liberty bell before the game.
Sydney boy Mailata — the only Aussie drafted into the NFL without any American football experience — said he misses sausage rolls, Lebanese bakeries and his dad’s cooking from back home.
“When I ask if they have any meat pies, they say no, they don’t know what that is, is it a sweet pie, a cherry pie?” he told news.com.au during the game. “I say no, it’s beef mince, lamb mince, no one has any idea what it is, so I have to try and Google, this is what it is, and they don’t have it. That shocked me, I thought meat pies were universal.
“They have like hoagies (submarine sandwiches), whatever that is, I didn’t know hoagies existed, then they have the cheesesteaks here — I got into Philly cheesesteaks.”
When Mailata hangs out with teammate Cameron Johnston, 26, and their fellow Aussie Simmons, 22, they treat themselves to “wings, burgers and ribs” with “a couple of drinks”.
Typically, the two-metre-tall, 155-kilogram giant survives on a strict diet of eggs for breakfast and meal-prepping chicken and vegetables. A season-ending back injury dashed his hopes of a rise to the Eagles’ starting squad late in 2018, so he’s focusing on getting well and coming back to live up to the hype.
“There’s no pressure, my attitude during the season was just taking it week by week and focusing on every day, because it’s a long day, it’s a long season,” he said. “It’s shorter than an NRL regular season but because you’re in the building such long hours, 14 hours, five days a week, you don’t get much free time, so any free time you get, you just need to focus on this day. You shouldn’t worry about what you’re doing tomorrow or what’s coming next week.
“One thing I learnt through the off-season was to just be where my feet are at, you know, I’m dealing with this injury right now and I’m healthy again so I’m feeling better than O was 11 weeks ago. It’s been a massive process and a learning curve.”
The 21-year-old offensive tackle — who was invited to tryout for the NFL’s International Pathway Program after executives saw clips of him playing for the South Sydney Rabbitohs — said it’s “a very weird feeling” learning a new sport in the US.
“It’s very detailed, technique. Know your details, it’s not just this sport, it’s every sport in America, it’s crazy.”
“Having my last name on the back of a jersey now just means so much to me. I was saying to another bloke, all we have in this world is your name and to be representing my family name and Australia as well means the world to me.
“Who would have thought a small — well, I shouldn’t say small — but a Bankstown boy could have made it so far in America? I’m just taking baby steps right now and it’s crazy. It’s a small team but a big city, a lot of people.”
Aside from the food, there are a few other cultural differences between Australian and Americans, he said. “I think Aussies can take a joke,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t. It’s like, oh, I didn’t mean to offend you.
“I’ll be honest, it’s not as patriotic at home as it is here. I just embrace it, I get to sing the anthem, show respect. I’m in their country and I like to sing, so if I ever get a chance to sing, I’ll sing.”
For now, he’ll be watching the rise of the pie in a tentative Philadelphia, while Australian sports fans pay close attention to the trajectory of our expanding contingent of stars in America’s biggest sports.
The business, sport and cultural links between the two countries are complex, but this is just one more game that will fascinating to watch.