Name, age, occupation, where do you live and where are you from.
Steve Tarpin, 48, self-underemployed. Born and raised in Miami, living in the Big Apple and still retaining my mangrove-roots. Currently living across from the Red-Hook container terminal on Columbia Street, beautiful view of the harbor, statue and downtown Manhattan. 18+ years in NYC, always in BKLYN.
Your Key Lime pie operation, Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies, started in 1995 after a trip down to Florida, how has it changed since then? Has the expansion of your operations made quality control (like obtaining Key Limes, or making that fine graham cracker crust) more difficult?
Things have actually improved. The first four years was the incubation-period. Pre-renaissance Smith Street studio apartment found me baking from an old oven (held shut with a bungee-cord) and using three typical tenant refrigerators. Since I had a long history in that neighborhood, when I needed to borrow refrigerated storage from some of the merchants where I could stash cases of pies overnight. Over that period of time, I made a slow transition from buying materials from the grocery store to buying in bulk. For instance, instead of buying cases of Graham crackers and running them through a food-processor, I could buy a 25-pound box of crumbs. Same with the condensed milk, buying a "flat" of 36 14-oz. cans instead of buying a dozen here and there.
Initially I was using fresh raw eggs, but eventually I had to make the transition to pasteurized egg yolks. I would say that this is the only area in which I have made any compromise in my product, but it was a necessary one. Since we don't bake the filling, the raw yolks posed a few problems; they are not legal to use (oh details) and the reality that salmonella "batches". One bad yolk and the entire batch (of 12-pies) would be infected, if that is the right choice of word. So, in order to comply with the law, protect myself and my customers and the eventual end-user, we made the switch. I don't change my ingredients to make things easier, but this was the result of changing to the frozen yolks.
After 1999, when I moved into a larger "real bakery" space, I was able to make more changes. Because I had more storage, I could shop in larger quantities. My first purchase was a shrink-wrap machine. On Smith street, I had always wrapped the pies once they were placed in their box, knowing that butter can absorb odors and knowing that it was perfectly possible that the pies could be in a box next to onions or fish. So we went from deli-wrap and tape-gun to a proper shrink-wrapped box, which we are still using. Eventually I purchased a juicing machine, which has made a tremendous difference. Since we are still juicing our key limes in house, no more hours of slicing limes into a huge bowl in preparation to meet the (home-style) citrus juicer. We used to burn through those juicers every month or so, and always kept an ample supply of spares. Now, we're able to do 28-fruits a minute, which still takes a great amount of time considering there can be up to 400 or more key limes in a 40-pound box.
The move to Red Hook even allowed more improvements in production, purchasing and quality of product. Now, instead of using condensed milk from the cans, we order direct from a dairy in Wisconsin. They do a run of milk every week, so when we order, the product is about as fresh as it will ever be. For instance, the milk we're using right now (as of this writing) is 11-days out of production. To add, we take delivery of 1800 pounds palletized at a shot.
The key limes themselves are now taking a more direct route here, the last stop before I am growing them myself. They used to make their was from an importer in Homestead and ship via UPS, but since dealing with a Texas importer, they are shipped to Hunts Point. We are now buying them by the pallet as well, about 1800 pounds at a shot.
Crumbs are now purchased from a company that makes crumbs, period! So now we're getting a pallet of grade-A crumbs, much less processed than the other commercial ones available (about 1/6th of the ingredients) and again, fresher.
The only thing (aside from the eggs) that I haven't yet managed to purchase in bulk is the butter. Since we haven't changed the basic recipe (5-simple ingredients) I have tried to let my purchasing in bulk make up the difference for other costs that are always escalating. Basically, my prices haven't changed very much over 10-years, although costs have. Once we have a walk-in freezer in place, we'll try and get our butter in bulk, and at a time when butter more plentiful. I guess this part of this that pleases me is that in trying to reduce costs, my product had gotten even better in terms of the base materials. One would usually expect things to go in a different direction; cost-cuts equal reduced quality, but not so in this case.
To be quite honest, we're big fans of your pie. Is there any secret ingredient that is keeping us hooked?
Integrity and authenticity are not ingredients, but I think by me sticking to my guns and not looking for cheaper ingredients to reduce costs (for example, the milk is probably more expensive) and sticking to the basic recipe, this keeps the product what it always has always been.
Mechanization has only been instituted where is has helped us do what we were already doing; the juicing machine for instance. But we're still making our 10-inch crust by hand because the machine that helps us make our 8-inch and 4-inch crust) just isn't up to the task. We haven't moved on to a large commercial mixer, we still make the pie-filling (like on Smith Street) in batches of 12 (10-inch), and we're still using throw-away consumer electric hand-mixers. This insures us that our mix of milk, yolk and key lime juice is thoroughly incorporated. Of course we could do the in batches of 100 and use a mechanical dispenser, but I think the product would suffer.
Has it been hard getting your pies into stores like Citrella and Zabar's? How did you manage to get your pie into Peter Luger? What other restaurants can we find your pies in?
I wanted Luger for a long time and tried many times to make a sale. I remember once even slipping in on a busy night and just leaving a pie sitting on a stool somewhere with the hopes it would fall into the right mouth, but no dice. It wasn't until there was a review in the Times that Luger called me and asked for a sample; afterwards it was history. Even Luger spinoff , Wolfgang's, when they opened a while back has had the pies on the menu. It has always been a hard-sell coming in on the fly, but based on the numbers both Luger and Wolfgang are doing, it would appear to me to be an excellent finish to a heavy meal (take note all you steak houses).
Retailers have not been so easy either. I recall one retailer (who's name will not be mentioned, but they started in a garage) first told me that "our taster didn't like the pie". My reply was, when you decide to buy according to the taste of the public and not your taster, give me a call. The next time I saw them, I dropped my price about 15% and told them there was "no wiggle-room". They called back and said they liked the pies, but "let's talk price". Sales is not my forté. We haven't spoken since.
Trying to get into another retailer was, well, seemed comical. This place touts selling their foods unprocessed, more "whole" than usual. When I visited one of their stores, the head of the bakery told me she was making her own key lime pies. When I asked what she was using for juice, she said she was using the bottled key lime juice. Highly recommended if you're stripping paint or removing rust, but NOT in food. The irony is that after downloading their "new product submission form" I could see that I was offering them a product that conformed to their criteria more than the one they were making in-house.
Bedsides your Key lime pies, what is your favorite dessert?
Cranberry upside-down cake and a fresh peach-blueberry pie that my daughter and I make annually.
Your pie shop is in Red Hook, Brooklyn, how do you feel about the development of that area?
This question gives me a sigh and makes me think (ouch!). It isn't an easy question to answer because the fallout has so many layers. I stood in support of the Fairway market coming to the waterfront, even though I will not sell direct to them (another story). I have stood neither in support or opposition to the Ikea project. And with the recent purchase of the sugar refinery by THOR Equities, the Hook's future is really in question.
One of those layers I spoke of, and one that all of us here in NYC for any period of time have witnessed, is the influx of outsiders (or interlopers as I like to call them). They are attracted by the unique mix of characters that give an area character. Eventually, these characters are displaced and you're left with some generic feeling "neighborhood" that has little resemblance to what made it attractive from the beginning. This area has such a long history as a working waterfront and it would be a shame to see that quality get diluted. For instance, people would come to an Ikea regardless of the waterfront location (look at NJ). You could use the same argument for Fairway, but I recall in some of the initial plans (where are those plans anyway?) there was the idea of a landing dock for the tugs. The Water Taxi is very much a part of the working waterfront, and I suppose the container port and cruise port will be as well.
There are some people working very hard at keeping (or bettering) the working aspect of the waterfront. If you looked at both Waterfront Matters and PortSide NewYork, you'll see within these very complete websites, some definite ideas and objectives regarding the future of this area. I would tend to align myself with the direction these folk are pushing towards.
As far as my location and the other properties that Greg (O'Connell) owns, I think I can speak for most of his tenants when I say that I hope he has the courage of his convictions. He has managed to fill his spaces here on Pier 41 and the Beard Street with a very unique collection of businesses, and I think he digs that. But one can't help but wonder how long we will be here, how much the pressures of big-bucks and big-ideas can be held at bay. Greg has always advocated the retention of the working quality and mixed-use in Red Hook (as opposed to luxury-living) and I have little reason to believe he or his successors will fold under the pressures after the long, hard fight to get things where they are. On the same note, unlike what we've seen to the woodworkers and artists in DUMBO (and SOHO before that), there is not a thrust (at least on these properties) to get us out of here.
Best/worst Brooklyn gentrification trend?
Another ugh! Actually, I tend to move (or get moved) from neighborhoods that become gentrified. I still manage to go back to Smith Street to shop at Los Paisano's meats, wash and fold at Contenintal, coffee at D'Amico's on Court. Thinking back to the days on Smith, what happens is that the newcomers arrive with no history. They aren't aware that they can buy fresh mozzarella at Caputo's, so they end up buying it from a posh little shop that charges thrice the price. A new store opens selling pet-food, but the newcomers aren't aware that there was always one pet-food shop that has been there for years. It was a huge relief when Barnes and Nobles opened on Court Street and the two local bookstores (Book Court and Community) managed to keep going. I guess the Starbucks is expected, but the loss of some of the old -timers (usually because they rent as opposed to own) is always sad to see. Eh, whatchya gonna do?
This gives me cause to reflect on an earlier answer. I suppose there are many here in the Hook who me as an interloper or newcomer. Even though I have been coming to the area for well-over 15 years, I don't live here and I'm not part of or privy to the history that those who were here before me. Although I spend 7-days a week here, someone recently said that I was not a Red-Hooker because I didn't have residence here. But in my defense and when people ask how I picked this place, I have to say that sometimes the place picks you.
What place or thing would you declare a landmark?
The entire waterfront, from Erie Basin to Atlantic Avenue, including the old sugar-mill (fat chance).
What advice, if any, would you give to Mayor Bloomberg?
Hahaha, I should be asking HIM for advice. Well, first of all, I think that most of us here with small businesses are working in a hostile environment. I would stop handing out "free-parking" windshield passes for cops and firemen and "special friends". In many areas, 80% of parking reserved for deliveries is occupied by cars with these window-passes, so there are lots of us who are forced to double-park to make a delivery and eventually get tagged with a ticket. It isn't as if there isn't an alternative way to get to work, after all, look at NYC's transit. Give them all a free-pass on Metro-North, the subway and busses. I would also do a total revamp of PVB, what a boondoggle! Make the agents accountable not for the sheer numbers of tickets they write, but for the number of of tickets that are legitimate and actually stick. Such a waste of time and resources.
When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone?
Right here where I am sitting, in my office looking out on the harbor. But I'm never alone, Mango is always nearby.
Photos one, two, and three by Jeremy Liebman