When Life Gives You Limes

One week before the 3-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, we remember one of the many businesses that took a hit and recall how the community chipped in to bring it back to life.

By Adam Hurly for Five O’ Clock, a Harry’s Magazine

You only find yourself in Red Hook, Brooklyn when Red Hook, Brooklyn is the destination. It’s not on the way to anything, it’s not near any subways, and the majority of New Yorkers who make the trek to the far western nook of Kings County are headed to IKEA or Fairway. You never accidentally end up there.

Steve Tarpin, owner of Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, has operated his cult-status bakery and storefront in Red Hook for 14 years. “We were niche before niche was chic!” he’ll tell you.

When you meet the Miami native, you get the impression that he accidentally ended up in Red Hook. Visitors to the pie shop are often left wanting; if the weather is perfect for fishing, Tarpin and his wife Victoria might take their nine-year-old son Derek out in the boat to pursue striped bass and fluke.

“I may as well be in Key West,” Tarpin says of his lifestyle and his location just north of Brooklyn’s Pier 41. There aren’t any palm trees or coral reefs, but it’s prime real estate: Lady Liberty stares directly into his office, and Governors Island frames everything to the north. He holds court at a tiny turnaround on Van Dyke Street. So, should you be in Red Hook on purpose, and not for mass-made Fjälkinge shelves, you’re either there to hike along the waterfront or to eat key lime pie. Many people do both. This is Tarpin’s corner of the world, and the seaside seclusion reminds him of home.

Things were especially familiar on October 29, 2012, when hurricane Sandy made landfall in Red Hook — as it did many waterfront communities in New York City. Sandy took the already remote community off the grid, putting four feet of water in Tarpin’s bakery. It’s the kind of disaster Floridians anticipate, and a rude awakening for Tarpin and other Brooklyn business owners that live on the coast.

Tarpin saw irony in the disaster, though. “We are one of only two commercial bakeries in the U.S. using fresh-squeezed key limes, and I think since we’re the only one to sustain a direct hit from a hurricane, we are worthy [of that prestigious distinction].”

He’s got a point. Surviving a tropical storm does give him some added credibility as a maker of key lime pies. Though he doesn’t need much more than he’s already got: The “Authentic” in “Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies” is operative. He won’t compromise his recipe — for which he imports citrus from Colima, Mexico — despite the fact that production costs would be significantly lower with a concentrate. “Concentrate makes my teeth itch!” he says. How lucky for the rest of us.

After the storm, much of Red Hook was without power for 10 days. Numerous neighborhood revitalization organizations helped Tarpin and other business owners back on their feet. Restore Red Hook fundraised $5,000 for storefront owners. “That pays rent for a month,” Tarpin points out. “It bought us time.” The Red Hook Initiative, a youth empowerment nonprofit, organized volunteers to help clean up the bakery. Along with many of Tarpin’s close friends, they scrubbed the equipment clean and picked up all the unsalvageables. “They did a month’s worth of cleanup in two days,” Tarpin says gratefully. A cultural sport was made of the efforts, too: Find the Mezcal. “I had a full case, all packed in bubble wrap, that was distributed around the warehouse. It was like an Easter egg hunt, and it got us through the hard time.”

Even after those efforts, Tarpin had to relocate to another building — a bigger one — and he is now staying permanently. It supports his growing commercial business, which currently sells to Zabar’s, Citarella, and Whole Foods grocers, as well as Peter Luger’s and Wolfgang’s steakhouses, among numerous smaller vendors.

But he’s also got increased foot traffic. He approximates that 90 percent of his storefront customers are new, and most of them don’t seem to be there by accident. However, some of these people — who have ventured far out of their way for freshly squeezed limeade, or to taste the Swingle, which is a small, chocolate-dipped pie on a stick — learn the hard way that Tarpin still leads a Floridian lifestyle. “We’re usually open from 11ish until sundown,” Tarpin says. “But since we’re primarily a commercial business, it just makes sense to close the front end when we need a little break for ourselves.” The company’s website offers some roundabout direction:

“Our location IS your best bet for purchasing a pie (in terms of freshness)…we try and stay open on Friday till 6-ish, Saturday and Sunday, 11:00 AM until sundown. Check the link for the setting of the sun, which best determines our closing hour during the summer. We are semi-closed on Monday and Tuesday, semi-open Tuesday thru Thursday, although the hours are random. You can call and make an inquiry, or just take a drive-by and see if the roll-up gate is up. I’d say if you arrived after 11:00 AM and before 3~4:00 PM, there’s a good chance you’ll catch us with the door open. Hint; if the roll-up door is completely down, we are closed. Banging, yelling or tapping on the glass will not help. This is typical of many businesses (gate down, closed for business.)”

It’s elaborate, it’s flavored, it’s not watered down. If nothing else, it’s authentic.


Originally published for Five O’ Clock, a Harry’s Magazine. Words by Adam Hurly. Illustration by Reid Kikuo Johnson.