Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, located on the breathtaking Brooklyn waterfront in Red Hook, is the seventeen-year-old food-baby of Steve and his family, the concept of which originated during a road trip from Brooklyn to Miami. Steve is understandably proud of the roots of his business, as it began with the kind of effortlessly humble story that we all love to hear, a simple request from an attendee at a Red Meat Club BBQ, who had a family-owned restaurant, to fold Steve’s key lime pies into his business.
We chat with Steve about the tried and true, the methodology, the number of muscle spasm-inducing miles he’s clocked on the road, and more.
Morning Steve, how did your start making Key Lime Pies?
I grew up in Miami. And you know, South Florida’s Key West, they’re famous down there. That’s where they originated. And I just couldn’t find a decent Key Lime pie. So I started making my own, pretty much for family and friends and then I was just up here, I was unemployed, I got invited to a barbecue of a bunch of really serious food people. And I got some fresh key limes and took three of them to the barbecue and one guy owned a restaurant and said hey, can you make these for my restaurant. I said yeah why not. So that’s how it started. Three pies a week.
So tell us about the original, authentic key lime pie.
It’s really simple. I wouldn’t have been in business for over twenty years if it weren’t simple. There are five ingredients. If I needed to use another hand to count the ingredients it wouldn’t have worked. Fresh key limes, the filling – fresh key limes – sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks, and the crust is nothing more than graham crumbs and butter. My product has actually gotten better over the years because of our purchasing power, as we’ve been able to source out better, fresher ingredients. Our condensed milk comes direct from a dairy in Wisconsin, our graham crumbs are specially formulated for us from a bakery in Virginia. So, everything is about as good as it can get. It’s pretty simple: we take the fresh ingredients, we break them down, and we put them back together in a different order. And there you have it.
Explain the flavor of a key lime pie when you bite in.
There are really a couple elements to the taste. We sell ours naked; we don’t put any topping on it. So if you include whipped cream on top of it, you add another element to it. But the pie itself, when we bake the crust, the butter, literally, it cooks the crumbs. They get brown, there’s a certain smell to that butter cooking, and it almost turns out like a cookie. The smell is really intoxicating in the bakery when the shell is being baked, and that’s all we bake technically, the shell. So you have that part, you have the crust, and then add to that the custard, which is sweet and sour. It’s the perfect combination of sweet and sour. With those two together, it’s magic. It’s a culinary marriage of flavors that seems to work out. They’re not breaking up anytime soon.
Do you remember your first?
When I was in Miami and I started making them for myself, years ago, basically for family and friends, there was always access to the backyard variety of key limes. There was no problem finding them. There was a little bit of trial and error because back then you go out, you buy a box of graham crackers and you mash it up and mix the butter, and sometimes it was a little hit and miss. Sometimes too much butter, too little butter, but the filling was always the same. Pretty consistent. We can’t use fresh egg yolks anywhere because of the possibility of contamination (salmonella), so we use a pasteurized egg yolk. But we made one recently for my mom and we did all fresh ingredients and it was just like back in the day. It’s the same recipe we use today. The same one I was doing twenty-five years ago down in Miami. Nothing’s changed, except for the fact that the ingredients are even better than they were then.
What about the lifestyle? I’ve been to Key West. It’s a pretty chill lifestyle there. What’s the lifestyle of Key Lime Pie?
Well, we’ve been known to close the shop when the fishing is good. We were just out fishing the other day, spent a lot of time in the harbor. I’d much rather be doing it in South Florida than in New York harbor, but here we are. In that respect, we might have more of the lifestyle here than they do in Key West. I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of a ship they run there. If it’s anything like the key lime pies that the commercial bakers are making in Key West, forget it. There are two commercial bakers in the US that use fresh key limes. Ours, and the other one is in Georgia. So in terms of authenticity, I don’t know if that translates into an authentic kind of Key’s lifestyle, but I think we’re doing it up here pretty good.
What’s the demand like?
It’s pretty good. We have a good reputation. Word gets out, we’ve gotten press overseas and in Europe. We have people coming from Australia and the Far East. Primarily we are a commercial bakery. We sell to restaurants, hotels, retailers. But the walk-in business has been phenomenal. Year over year, the traffic increases, and it’s really just word of mouth.
Tell us about Red Hook.
Red Hook has gone through some tremendous changes, which everybody knew would happen sooner or later. Most of us were hoping it wouldn’t be this soon, or this dramatic. It seems like after Hurricane Sandy, we got a tremendous amount of focus in the press, and in spite of Red Hook’s shortcomings, in terms of transportation, people still want to be here. We’re on the map now. And it’s a double-edged sword. But we like it. We’re right on the water. It’s a great little gem in the city. I think the Rockaways is kinda . . . we’re much closer to the city center here, you can see outside, I don’t know if you saw the Statue’s right there, you can practically look up her skirt. Manhattan’s just a stone’s throw away. And we get traffic from the water taxi, they have a free water taxi during the summer and that brings anyone who would want to get on a free boat ride. That brings more bodies in. Restaurant choices are cropping up. We have some terrific food entrepreneurs in the neighborhood.
Will you always do the same thing, you think?
As long as I can, you know. God forbid there’s some kind of a lime catastrophe, think about what are we gonna do, I don’t know. After that whole lime-pocalypse we were actually contemplating trying to get a greenhouse going here, where we could grow limes and other tropical fruits. So, I don’t know. It’s not off the board. I just don’t see it happening until we get faced with another emergency, then it might push us a little further in that direction. But that’s pretty much it. We’ve been doing the same thing for twenty-some years, and you know, we all like our routine.
How many can you get sold on a Sunday?
I’d have to check the numbers. It can be quite a few. All told, it can be four, five hundred pies. I couldn’t eat them every day. My son went through a period where he was eating a pie a day. But he’s kind of chilled it out a little bit. He’s paced himself. They’re still just as good as they ever were.