The Key Lime Pie King...of Smyrna

Saturday is National Pie Day, a time for Georgians to stick out their pastry-filled bellies with pride and partake of the Peach State’s delectable desserts.

Georgia, after all, is renowned for peach, pecan, sweet potato and key lime pie.

Key lime pie? From Georgia?

Indeed. In fact, Smyrna -- aka Key West North – produces one of the nation’s finest frozen key lime pies. It is home to Key Lime Kenny, the self-anointed Famous Amos of key lime pie, who recently celebrated 20 years in the business while baking his five-millionth pie.  The recession has taken a big bite out of sales.

Increasingly health-conscious Americans also sidestep the pastry cart these days. The nation’s pie-makers combat a youthful America that didn’t grow up tethered to Grandma’s apron strings.

Kenny Burts, though, has a plan to restore Georgia’s pie-making pre-eminence.

“We will not sit idly by and let the economy roll over us,” he said. “We’ve taken a product enjoyed for decades in south Florida and made it available anywhere at anytime.”

Burts is a true pie-o-neer, a local boy done good turned food-service entrepreneur. From a one-bedroom apartment off Powers Ferry Road, where the ironing board doubled as pie rack, Burts built a business that topped $3.2 million in sales last year. His pies can be found at Old South Barbecue, LongHorn Steakhouse, a national chain, and internationally (Philippines, Nigeria).

“It makes me proud to tell folks that Kenny’s key lime pies are from Smyrna, Georgia,” said the town’s mayor, Max Bacon. “I’m as proud of them as I am of Glock guns and Howard’s Restaurant” – other famous Smyrna establishments.

Sales of fresh and frozen pies reached nearly $550 million in the year ending May 2009, according to the Bakery Production and Marketing Redbook.

The big guy pie-makers, including Schwan’s and Sara Lee, control much of the industry. The recession dropped frozen pie sales by a manageable 4 percent last year and fresh pie sales by 3 percent. Sales of Kenny’s Great Pies dipped 10 percent.

“People worry about keeping their job, or paying bills, or buying a new car,” said Kirk O’Donnell, a vice president at the American Institute of Baking in Kansas.

The nation’s health craze hurts sales too. Kenny’s makes a 4” pie, a slimmed-down pastry that the industry overall now embraces.

“People should treat themselves every once in a while,” O’Donnell said. “Life is too short to live on rice cakes.”

Which could be the motto for this year’s National Pie Day celebration. Instead, the American Pie Council, the industry’s trade group dedicated to “promoting America’s love affair with pie,” is pushing pies as a balm for the nation’s financially harried masses.

“As the nation steers through a series of challenges,” an APC press release states, “a fresh-baked pie presented as a heartfelt gift carries with it a reassuring sense of courtesy and sincerity.”

Nostalgia for a simpler time is a hallmark of the pie industry.

Cookie-cutter consolidation, though, gobbled up much of Georgia’s unique pie history.

Minnesota’s Schwan Food, the industry’s largest baker, ate Mrs. Smith’s and Edwards which still makes pies in Georgia. Sara Lee and Kellogg’s also churn out grocery-store favorites. Publix bakes 12 million pies a year in a south Atlanta factory for its 1,000 stores.

While smaller bakeries across Georgia bake, freeze and fry pies, few rival Kenny’s for entrepreneurial gumption.

“When I was young I used to oil the cabinets so my parents wouldn’t hear it when I went looking for the good stuff,” Burts, 53, said. “I love my sweets. I’m in the right business.”

He grew up in Buckhead and Chamblee and was introduced to key lime pie by Florida grandparents. His key lime ardor smoldered during a three-year stint in Miami spray-painting buildings and toying with a college degree.

Burts returned to Atlanta in 1980 to work on Pontiac and Chevy muscle cars and tend bar.

With tips earned at John Henry’s in Marietta, Burts would stop by Kroger to buy pie mixings on the way home to his 800-square-foot apartment with four freezers and sky-high electric bill. His grandmother’s neighbor in Miami sent boxes of key limes north.

Burts baked in the early morning, slept a few hours then delivered pies to restaurants within a 30-mile radius. He fit 50 pies into a Nissan 300 ZX Turbo.

In 1989, Ray’s on the River began ordering 30 or 40 pies at a time, Burts said. The big break came three years later when California Pizza Kitchen ordered hundreds of pies.

“Making pies was easy; growing the business was the tough part. We literally had to build a factory,” Burts said. “We weren’t trained for this stuff. We had to figure it out as we went along.”

Kenny’s pies are served today at 2,500 restaurants nationwide, including Ted’s Montana Grill, Max Lager’s and Figo Pasta. Key lime pies account for nearly 90 percent of sales; Kenny’s, with 20 employees, also makes mango, lemon, peanut butter and other specialty pies.

“In my expert opinion, you can’t beat Kenny’s key lime pie,” said Charlotte Smith, day manager at Howard’s. “It’s real creamy. Maybe a bit tart or tangy. I like them well enough that I keep one in my freezer at all times.”

Kenny’s Great Pies cut staff by 30 percent during the recession, but recently hired back two bakers. New contracts are being signed. A TV shopping network is interested, Burts said, as well as a major big-box retailer. He expects sales to grow 38 percent over the next five years and to, one day, wear the crown as Key Lime King.

“Nobody calls me that yet,” Burts said, “but we’re working on it.”