Don Smart showcases his Key lime pie on a stick, from start to finish

The Key-lime-pie-on-a-stick guy
For Smart Choice catering, success is sublime
by Heidi Edidin

As any entrepreneur will tell you, what it takes to succeed (aside from a good product, talent and hard work) is a hook – a carrot, if you will, to dangle before customers and lure them in. Don Smart’s carrot has an unlikely color and consistency. It’s frozen, rich and creamy, soft, green and dipped in chocolate. Smart is Charlotte’s
Key-lime-pie-on-a-stick guy.

Continental Beginnings
Smart, born and bred in the Queen City, landed one of his first culinary jobs in 1975 at the then posh Café Eugene, located at the corner of Providence and Sharon Amity roads. Smart worked his way up from pastry and desserts to head chef, gleaning both kitchen and business knowledge at the well-known dining establishment owned by Paul and Connie Ostrow. “The Ostrows were in the import/export business so they traveled all the time, particularly to Belgium, France and Italy. They had a love for food and wine, and every time they went to a restaurant they liked, they would make arrangements to bring the chef back to Charlotte for a two- or three-week period,” explained Smart. “It was unbelievable, really. The Ostrows talked these guys into coming over to the States for a working vacation. They would work with us in the kitchen, sharing skills, techniques and recipes. It was an invaluable experience and a great on-the-job way to learn from real professionals.” In time the Ostrows had other ventures to pursue and decided to sell their restaurant business. Smart left, too, for the kitchen at Cedarwood Country Club. In 1987, after four years at the club, he moved on to run the corporate kitchen at J.A. Jones Construction Company.

A Smart Move
At first, the job at Jones entailed only lunch for the company’s executives. But as the construction business grew, Smart was soon serving midday meals for 300 people or more. While it was demanding to turn out innovative upscale meals on a daily basis for such a large group, Smart notes that the really great thing about the job at Jones was that it was just lunch. In the evenings and on the weekends, Smart still had access to the kitchen and began to use the facility and his free time to do some private catering. “Like everything, it started out small at first,” said Smart. “Someone in the company would have a child getting married and I’d do the reception – things like that.” When J.A. Jones went out of business in July 2003, Smart decided to make a go of it in the private catering business. He bought all of the equipment from the Jones kitchen to set up shop. While Smart was making the transition from working for someone else to working for himself – a one-and-a-half year period of time that included looking for a catering location and then building the space – he happened upon Key lime pie on a stick.

A Taste of the Tropics
“I wish I could say it was an original idea, but it wasn’t,” Smart said with a laugh. “In 2004, I was at the Minnesota State Fair, of all places, and one of the vendors on the arcade had frozen pie on a stick. We tried one … it was good, not great, but we thought it was a neat idea.” When Smart returned to Charlotte, he and his family turned his mother’s kitchen into the research and development center for the perfect Key lime pie. Smart experimented before landing what he and his family considered to be the smartest combination of flavor and consistency.

Pie in the Sky
Smart makes whole pies with real, from-scratch, traditional graham cracker crusts. He freezes the whole pies first, cuts them into wedges, pops the sticks in and finishes each piece with the chocolate dip. While I wouldn’t ask him to divulge any trade secrets, I do know that fresh lime zest in Smart’s Key lime custard packs a full punch of flavor. The custard is delicious – not too sweet, not too tart. The chocolate coating and the crunchy crust surrounding the custard inside make the perfect foil to match the creamy confection. Certainly Charlotte’s own Key lime pie on a stick is one of the best frozen treats I’ve had in years.

Catering to the Public
Smart now owns a 1,600-square-foot commercial kitchen at 3623 E. Independence Blvd., which he designed exclusively for catering. “It works well for us, lots of open space and plenty of room to move around,” Smart said. Aside from offices and the working kitchen, Smart also has room at his facility to meet with customers. “That’s really all we need. I have a small staff – just one full-time employee and I bring on freelance people as needed.” Smart sells his Key lime pies directly to the public, via stands and coolers at several area farmers’ markets, including the Regional Farmer’s Market on Yorkmont Road on Saturday mornings. If you’d like a number of Key lime pies on a stick for a party or special event, Smart also sells in bulk; call for information. Key lime pies aside, Smart’s catering company, Smart Choice, is up and running. He continues to do a good bit of corporate lunch business, describing his fare as “mid to upscale, affordable elegance.” Smart uses as many fresh, locally and organically grown products as he can and buys them from his brother and sister-in-law who own Nise’s Herbs in Stanley, N.C. In addition to growing produce specifically for many of Charlotte’s restaurants, Nise also has a booth at the Yorkmont Road Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings. Arrive early for fresh greens, heirloom tomatoes, fresh herbs and more. If you would rather have someone else do the cooking, call Don Smart at Smart Choice Catering at 704-532-2800.