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The upper crust

Mike's Pies & Coffee Shoppe caters to families and restaurants with unique, tasty recipes that have gained a national reputation and a devoted holiday following.

By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN
Published November 21, 2003

preparing an order of key lime pies
[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Sylvia Kadlubowski, left, and Chase Replogle prepare an order of key lime pies at Mike’s Pies on S MacDill Avenue. Between 2,000 and 4,000 pies are baked and shipped a week.
Chase Replogle packs boxes
Chase Replogle packs an order of Killer Key Lime Pies at Mike’s Pies. Sales of the national championship-winning pie account for 65 percent of the sales at Mike’s Pies.
Mike Martin holds a Killer Key Lime Pie
Mike Martin’s Killer Key Lime Pie is the top seller among the more than 25 varieties of pies available at Mike’s Pies & Coffee Shoppe.

BAYSHORE BEAUTIFUL - When the Mikus family sits down for Thanksgiving dinner next week, they will have all the traditional fixings - turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pie.

Pumpkin, of course. But also key lime.

Not just any key lime, but the award-winning kind from Mike's Pies & Coffee Shoppe on MacDill Avenue.

Mike Martin's assortment of pies, including his Killer Key Lime, have been gracing local dinner tables for 11 years. Many families consider them main ingredients of their annual holiday feasts.

In the days before Thanksgiving, Mike's Pies will churn out more than 2,000 pies - more than for New Year's, Easter and Fourth of July holidays combined.

To fill all the orders, Martin will work 42 out of 48 hours leading up to the big day.

He will go through more than 3,000 pounds of condensed milk, 100 gallons of evaporated milk and a ton of Keebler graham cracker crumbs.

And it's not all for pumpkin pie. Customers want apple crisp, cherry and Reese's Peanut Butter, Southern Pecan, Mudd, and, of course, the award-winning Killer Key Lime.

The Mikus' table will feature key lime, apple, bananas foster and pumpkin pies - four kinds for six people. Or, as George Mikus explains, "More for me."

The Mikuses drive past Mike's Pies every day but only recently stopped in. The banners proclaiming the key lime pie as a national champ enticed them.

They planned to order something traditional for Thanksgiving. But after a few sample bites, they were hooked.

"Oh, God, that's addicting," George Mikus told his wife, Deanna, after taking a bite of key lime pie. "Want a bite?"

Crying over pie

Martin knows how important it is to have pie for the holidays. His fondest childhood memories all revolve around pies.

Every holiday, his mother, Jean, baked the same pies - three pumpkin, three cherry, three apple and one mincemeat - for her husband and five kids.

"You can bet your sweet life the mincemeat wasn't touched," said Jean Martin during a phone interview from her home in Melbourne. "This bunch was raised on dessert."

The other nine pies? She has some stories to tell.

As each child went into the kitchen, they'd grab a pie and hide it to make sure their brother, Mike, wouldn't eat them all.

Under the bed, in their car. "Anywhere they could hide them to guarantee they could have pie," Mrs. Martin said.

Eventually, they'd return the pies to the table, laughing.

She will never forget one particular Thanksgiving. The day before, she set all 10 on the dining room table and left to run an errand. While she was gone, her children devoured every one, except for the mincemeat.

"I came home, I sat down and cried," she recalled.

Then she rushed to the grocery store to make a new batch.

"I spent all of Wednesday evening, dear girl, making pies."

Holidays weren't the only time when pies came hot out of the oven. Jean Martin would take them to the University of Kentucky when she visited her son. Within minutes, his friends finished them.

Today, Jean Martin, 76, doesn't bake anymore. She eats her son's pies. And she takes orders for Mike's Pies from her friends.

"Mike has never understood why I never sold my pies," she said. "In my generation, we all baked. I've done my share."

Dessert first

For Mike Martin, 48, the path to pie baking began about 20 years ago. The former linebacker for the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots craved his mom's pies.

But he grew tired of waiting for her to bake them. So one holiday, he returned home to Melbourne and asked for her cherry pie recipe. It's a variation of Crisco and Betty Crocker recipes that she had tinkered with for decades.

She offered him some hints: Use tart cherries instead of Bing cherries. Add food coloring to the pies because cherries alone aren't as vibrant.

Her son was aghast.

"No food coloring. He doesn't do it," she said. "He wants everything to be natural."

Pretty soon, Mike Martin was baking pies for all occasions. He made them for holidays; he gave them away as gifts. He took them to dinner with friends.

"It's quite a story to say he went from linebacker to pie baker," she said.

When Mike left football in 1979, he went into wine and liquor sales - a job that took him on the road. He didn't mind the travel. But after he got married in 1987, it seemed he was never home.

Then he had a child. So he began looking for work that would allow him to spend more time with his family - he has three kids ages 15, 13 and 11. His wife is WFLA-Ch. 8 news anchor Gayle Sierens.

Friends raved about his pies. "You should sell them," they told him.

So in March 1992, he opened a shop in a 900-square-foot building a few blocks away from his current locale. He had a 30-quart mixer and an oven that could bake 15 pies at a time.

Today, after several moves, he's in a 9,000-square-foot space with two 140-quart mixers and two standing ovens that each can brown up to 120 pies at a time.

Mike's Pies hawks 32 different kinds, from Orange Blossom to Heath Bar Crunch.

His kids bring pies to school. He bakes pies for his church. In addition to birthday cake, his children get birthday pie.

He used to eat a pie a day. But just as fast as his business has grown, his metabolism has slowed.

"It's hard to resist," Mike said, the aroma of pies wafting throughout his shoppe. "That's why I'm on a diet now."

Cherry is his favorite. He only bakes it as a special order. It's expensive - $17 for an 11-inch pie - because he uses tart cherries packed in water that he can't buy wholesale. He gets them out of the Publix freezer. Cherry is also tough to make. You have to be exact. Too much corn starch, and the filling gets too thick.

Martin jokes that he doesn't cut corners "because there are no corners in Mike's Pies."

He bakes his key lime pie. Others don't. And he uses egg yolk, condensed milk and key lime juice. The result is a light, yet rich, pie.

In 2000, a friend persuaded Martin to enter a pie contest. He grabbed a few off the shelves and drove them to Kissimmee, where the American Pie Council's National Pie Championship was taking place.

His key lime pie took first place in the Commercial Citrus category. His Reese's Peanut Butter pie won first place in the Gourmet Nut category.

The key lime pie won top honors for the next three years. Martin has never been present but received a certificate proclaiming his key lime pie as a winner.

"I'm not superstitious," he said. "But I'd rather win and not be there than lose and have to be there."

He's thinking of retiring his key lime pie from competition. He wants it to go out a champ. But his employees, many of whom have worked for him for years, cheer him on.

"It's reeeeaaallly good," Brendan Gleason likes to tell customers as he pushes samples in front of them. "You sure you don't want to try a bite?"

Martin employs 17 people. All sign confidentiality agreements and noncompete clauses to ensure the recipes don't get out. They make, bake and ship between 2,000 to 4,000 pies a week.

Most of his pies are sold to distributors who sell to restaurants and hotels. About 700 pies a week are sold out of the coffee shoppe. Key lime pie makes up 65 percent of his sales. On Thanksgiving, it drops to about 40 percent.

Area restaurants that carry his desserts include Columbia Restaurant and Cha Cha Coconuts. He likes to order his pies whenever he eats out, to check out the presentation.

"Life's short," he likes to say. "Eat dessert first!"

- Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at 226-3403 or nguyen@sptimes.com

Mmmm, Mike's

Want a "Mike's" pie for Thanksgiving? Saturday is the last day to place orders for pick up by Wednesday. Visit Mike's Pies & Coffee Shoppe at 4004 S MacDill Ave. or call 835-PIES 7437. Check out the Web site at www.mikespies.com

[Last modified November 20, 2003, 09:58:27]

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