You've Probably heard the expression: “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” The implication is to keep on going when life's inevitable storms arise. For one Central Florida nurseryman, after suffering through four hurricanes since 2004, he grabbed key limes, made some key lime pies, and founded a gourmet dessert business.
“I'd been conceptualizing an adjunct business to my wholesale nursery operation for a number of years,” says Louis Morehead, owner of Tiki Lui Nursery in Titusville, Florida, which he started in 1984. The nursery specializes in tropical plants such as Crotons, Cordylines, Gingers, Heliconia, and White Bird of Paradise. The nursery also grows bananas, hot peppers, and key limes on 1.89 acres.
But the deciding factor for beginning a new business, along with the recent storms, occurred in March 2007. That's when Morehead took a fall, breaking his arm in five places. The repair required two plates and fourteen screws.
“I was in a cast for four months and lost ability to pick up and carry plants as well as I use to,” he says. “By not being able to do as much heavy work, I had the time to cement my idea for a key lime pie business and really start developing it.”
Morehead's previous significant business strategy change occurred in 1992. “That's when the large retail chains such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot came to town, and my business — all retail at the time — became much less profitable. I decided to get out of retailing tropical plants and move into wholesaling them.”
Plant production is begun with cuttings, seeds, or rhizomes (horizontal underground stems) in a greenhouse. When the new plants reach a certain age, they are moved into larger pots and placed outside on gravel within shade houses.
It takes about a full year for the tropical plants to reach the point where they are ready for sale. Plants are grown to an average height of 42 inches. At any one time 8,000 to 9,000 plants are on the ground within the main shade house and 12,000 plants on the ground within the greenhouses.
“We ship several refrigerated semitrailer loads of plants a year,” says Morehead. “We double stack the plants. We load the floor of the trailer first. Then we load a deck that is set at 48-inches high. With our plants being around 42 inches tall, they don't get injured during the loading and unloading process.”
Key lime destiny
With time to contemplate business ideas while nursing his broken arm, Morehead says he was struck with a realization: “This is the time to get into the key lime pie business.”
He began looking at key lime pie recipes and comparing them to a longstanding South Florida family recipe for fresh baked key lime pie. He went to other key lime pie producers to check out potential competition. He also began looking at packaging for his products.
Along with his graphic artist Chris Lehmann, the two developed a unique primary and secondary logo and other graphics to be used by the company. They designed product container labels, a retail pie box, shipping box labels, product identification labels, and merchandising material such as menu inserts and table tops for potential restaurant customers. Morehead and Lehmann also developed a website for the company.
“Along with the longstanding family recipe for Florida key lime pie, there are the good old recipes for tropical cheesecakes,” says Morehead. “South Florida has a heavy influx of people from Central and South America, Cuba, Jamaica, and the Caribbean Basin, and these types of cheesecakes are a favorite with them, especially the ones with Guava and Mango.”
Using closely held family recipes, production of the Florida Key Lime Pie Company's Tropical Guava, Island Mango, Caribbean Chocolate Marble, and Vanilla Bean cheesecakes were under way.
The key lime pies come as a 4-ounce individual serving cup, an 8-slice 9-inch deep-dish pie, and a 10-inch standard pie. The cheesecake selections come in 8 or 12 pre-portioned slices.
All the pies are made at a small bakery in which Morehead has an equity investment.
As soon as the pies are made, they are frozen to keep their freshness and maintained at a temperature of 0°F.
While most of the product is stored at the bakery, Morehead bought an 8-by-12-foot freezer from Arctic Industries and assembled it at his nursery for additional storage.
He did all this before he began trying to sell his pies.
Morehead launched his Florida Key Lime Pie Company on August 7 of last year and began looking for customers. As he started meeting with success, he needed to purchase a “freezer” delivery truck.
He decided to go with a Dodge Sprinter van that he had modified into a freezer delivery truck. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, the truck didn't meet his needs.
It was about this time that the Florida Key Lime Pie Company participated in the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Show. The company booth at the show's exhibition was near the Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America (MFTA) booth, manned by representatives from MFTA dealer Diesel Specialists of Orlando. Featured in the display was a Mitsubishi Fuso cabover FE 125 truck outfitted with a refrigerated body.
“Since our booths were near to each other, Louis and I spent a good deal of time visiting,” says Jeff Smith, a salesman for Diesel Specialists. “He told me about his truck problems, and we discussed how the FE 125 could fulfill his transportation requirements and needs.
“Plus, he thought the truck would be a much better vehicle than the Sprinter for his planned vehicle wrap.”
A short time after the show, Morehead met with Smith and purchased a 2008 model FE 125. The truck, with a gross vehicle weight rating of 12,500 pounds, is powered by a 175-horsepower diesel engine backed to a 6-speed automatic transmission.
Among the features that helped sell Morehead, Smith notes, is the truck's 5-year/175,000-mile powertrain warranty; good fuel economy; forward swing doors for easy, safe entry; fold-down workstation; and plenty of storage areas.
Morehead's FE 125 has a 12-foot-long, 10-foot 6-inch-high Fresh Max refrigerated body. Manufactured by Complete Truck Bodies of Gay, Georgia, the Fresh Max line features three to four inches of insulation, seamless aluminum inner and outer skins, and body panel's pressure bonded to structural foam for superior strength and durability.
The rear of the body has two full panel opening swing doors. A single panel swing door is on the body's curb side. Plastic strip curtains are on all the doors to help keep the cold in and the heat out when the doors are open.
For the refrigeration unit, Morehead settled on the Thermo King V500 Max reefer with electric plug-in capability.
“One of the things I liked about the truck body was its smoothness, which would make our vehicle wrap look even better,” says Morehead. “We designed the wrap to be a unique, eye-catching rolling billboard for our gourmet desserts.
“We even have the wrap on the front of the truck body, as well as on top of the cab, so it can be seen from just about any angle.”
Snappy Sign in Cocoa Beach, Florida, did the vehicle wrapping and Morehead says, “and they did a great job”
He has been focusing his sales efforts on smaller family run mom-and-pop type eateries, independent restaurants, caterers, and country clubs. “I do have a couple of larger accounts, including some fine dining restaurants and two large hotels, The Rosen Omni Plaza in Orlando and the Daytona Beach Hilton. In total, I now have more than 50 customers.”
Morehead is dividing his time between his nursery and pie businesses. “It's keeping me extremely busy, but I'm loving every minute of it.”
He's in the process of adding a retail store for his pies at his nursery, which sits right off busy US 1.
“I'm proud that I've developed the pie business so fast in such a short time, but unfortunately the Central Florida economy has slowed,” Morehead says. “We don't have the usual amount of snowbirds here.
“Not only are fewer people wintering here this year, there aren't as many people going out to eat as normal.
“One nice thing about the slowdown,” he says, “is that when I'm cold calling on restaurants, the decision makers are more available and have more time to visit with me. This is important because my pies sell themselves. The key is to get them to have a taste.”