Florida Keys Business
Sunday, June 29, 2014
Key lime businesses turn sour fruit into sweet delights

David Sloan is about to cut you a big slice of heaven.

"Key West has always held the record for the largest Key lime pie," Sloan said. "And we're about to do it again."

Sloan, co-organizer of the second annual Key Lime Festival (July 3-5), is set to break last year's Key lime pie record (8 feet, 4 inches in diameter) with a pie measuring 9 feet in diameter. Slices of the mouth-watering confection will be sold to festivalgoers to benefit a local charity.

In addition to the record-breaking feat, the festival will feature a Key lime sip and stroll, pie-eating and pie-making contests, and a battle for the title of Miss Key Lime USA.

Andy Newman, who works public relations for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, said Key lime is one of the region's most recognized marketing tools.

"There is nary a Keys seafood festival or food-and-wine event that does not have Key lime pie or a Key lime beverage on the menu," he said. "It's an indigenous part of Florida Keys cuisine. Not to mention, the state Legislature declared Key lime pie the official dessert of Florida in 2006."

Citrus aurantiifolia is better known to the world as Key lime.

The golf-ball sized yellow fruit with a tart and refreshing flavor is used in baked goods, candies and drinks that prove most popular with visitors and locals alike.

Key lime is used in non-edibles, as well, everything from shampoos and body scrubs to Key lime pie-flavored cigars.

But they're not native to the Florida Keys.

According to Sloan, author of "The Key West Key Lime Pie Cookbook," C. aurantiifolia was first cultivated centuries ago in Southeast Asia and eventually made its way to the Americas in the late 1400s.

It was wildly popular in the Florida Keys through much of the 1800s, with fruit groves popping up everywhere.

The farming magazine Country Gentleman reportedly coined the term "Key lime" in 1905, forever associating the fruit with this part of the world.

During the early and middle 1900s, however, hurricanes and saltwater intrusion wiped out most of the local groves and commercial industry.

Today, practically all of the Key lime juice used in products made in Florida and the Florida Keys is imported from Mexico.

Key lime pie is the best-known Key lime product worldwide.

Key West's three leading pie makers - the Key West Key Lime Pie Company, Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe and the Key Lime Pie Factory - are all located along Greene Street. Cruise ship passengers debarking at Mallory Square and patrons of Duval Street's most popular bars need only walk a few steps to one of these shops to enjoy a slice of paradise.

Although there are hundreds of different ways to make a Key lime pie, Sloan and his fellow piemakers agree that true Key lime pie must include real Key lime juice and sweetened condensed milk on its list of ingredients.

"With this in mind," Sloan said, "it's really hard to screw up a Key lime pie."

Jim Brush keeps his Key lime business simple with primary focus on pie.

Brush co-owns the Key West Key Lime Pie Company with Alison Sloat and Marcus Lemonis, star of CNBC's "The Profit" who recently financed a complete redesign of the shop. Visitors can watch piemakers through a glass wall as they proceed to the back of the shop to purchase slices or whole pies.

Brush limits his stock of other Key lime products to fudge, ice cream, drinks and candies. He said that one of the most popular products is his special Key lime chipotle sauce and marinade.

"We realized that a lot of the things that we could carry you could get at a local supermarket," he said. "We didn't want this to become a Key lime grocery store."

Brush said that his business pulls upward of $1.4 million in sales annually.

Kermit Carpenter, owner of Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe, located just two blocks away, stocks more than 125 Key lime products, everything from pies, candies and jellies to bath gels, shampoos and doggie treats. He said that his biggest sellers are cookies, marinades, condiments and barbecue sauces with Key lime as a main ingredient. Carpenter also said that he's working on a Key lime rum cake that he hopes to unveil later this year.

Carpenter said that among his favorite treats are Key lime peanuts - made with peanuts, salt, sugar and freeze-dried Key lime powder - and Key lime mango poppy seed dressing.

All of the original products on display, with the exception of the pies, are made in a warehouse in DeLand and shipped down to Key West.

"For me, the fun is trying Key lime in new products," he said. "Key lime enhances the flavor of everything."

Carpenter said that his business pulls upward of $2 million in sales annually.

Brush and Carpenter each said that they produce more than 200 pies per day to sell in their shops and ship to wholesalers, businesses and customers as far away as Washington state and Puerto Rico.

They both said that they owe a debt of gratitude to Bob List, a former local who owned a chocolate shop on Duval Street in the 1990s, for developing one of the most popular items on their menus: the frozen, chocolate-dipped, Key lime pie on a stick.

"Key lime business in the Keys is a unique dynamic," Brush said. "When you're in Key West and you know that this is what people are looking for, you have to be on your game."

Carpenter, who markets his business in his trademark chef's hat and coat, enjoys offering visitors samples of the various Key lime products that he sells.

"Most of the customers are here to have fun," he said.

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