A Huntington Phenomenon

For one week every year, Jim’s serves up 10,000 slices of a special pie that draws massive local crowds and garners national attention.

By Samuel Speciale

Photos by Rick Lee

Jimmie Carder knows a thing or two about strawberry pie. In the 40 years since her restaurant sold its first slice, Carder has seen thousands of pies go out the door of Jim’s Steak and Spaghetti House, which her father, Jim Tweel, opened in Huntington in 1938 and eventually passed on to her.

strawberry pie

“It’s very pure,” says Carder when describing the ingredients that make up her restaurant’s nationally renowned dessert. Over the decades, the hands crafting Jim’s strawberry pies have changed, but the recipe has remained the same: fresh strawberries layered into a pie shell with confectionery sugar and real whipped cream. “It’s so simple,” she says.

For years, diners have been infatuated with the pie, which is only sold by the slice for one week in May. “It’s like an experience,” says one customer. “I can’t explain it. There’s no other strawberry pie like it.”

Because the pie has a limited availability each year, thousands flock to the Fifth Avenue restaurant the week after Mother’s Day, when it’s sold, to savor a few morsels of the dessert before the supply runs out.

“There are lines before we even open the doors,” says restaurant manager Brad Tweel, who also is Carder’s nephew. “We open up and the restaurant is full in five seconds and stays that way all day long.”

To keep up with demand, restaurant staff begin planning pie week months before May. This usually means cooks start making pie shells in January, which are then shipped to a holding place for storage until they’re needed. But that’s the only prep work that can be done in advance. Because the filling is always fresh, pies can’t be assembled earlier than the day they are sold. This means the restaurant has to process between 200 and 300 flats of strawberries during pie week. All pie ingredients are made and assembled in the restaurant’s upstairs kitchen.

strawberry pie

“It’s one of the hardest weeks of work you’ll ever see in the restaurant industry,” Tweel says. “It’s just balls-to-the-wall busy for 10 hours a day.”

Pie week has come a long way since it started nearly four decades ago when Phyllis Elkins, an employee who worked at Jim’s for 60 years, began bringing strawberries to the restaurant from her patch in Ohio.

“We sold a pie or two, or we gave them away,” Carder says. “But then it grew and it grew, and they started selling at a pace where Phyllis’ strawberries weren’t enough.”

Success didn’t stop there. At first, the restaurant sold hundreds of pie slices. Then, as far back as 20 years ago, the restaurant started selling thousands of slices every pie week.

“People would come in and get a slice and take four home,” says Carder, before describing a family that would come in twice a day and eat four to eight slices every visit. “Then four or five years ago, it just blew up,” she adds.

People outside the Tri-State have noticed, and Jim’s strawberry pie has even garnered national attention. It has been featured on the Food Network and in such prestigious magazines as Travel + Leisure and Garden & Gun.

The pie is so popular now, Carder had to institute a two-piece limit last year: Customers could eat one slice at the restaurant and take one home. “But to get the second one, you had to order something else,” she says. Carder admits the restaurant’s limit may sound ludicrous to people who haven’t experienced pie week before, but for business to run smoothly, it’s necessary.

Other than a few hiccups, the two-piece limit has been successful in guaranteeing there is enough pie to go around. Last year, so many people ordered spaghetti and other dishes to get a second slice the kitchen ran out of sauce, which forced Carder to close three hours early. “We’ve never had to do that,” Carder says. But making sure customers are happy is a tenet at Jim’s, so Carder is making sure the restaurant can accommodate the influx of customers this year.

strawberry pie

Carder expects the restaurant will sell more than 10,000 pie slices this year, as much as last year. She doesn’t think the restaurant has the capacity to do much more, though. “As with a lot of things in life, it caps out,” Carder says. “We’re only open so many hours and can only do so much.”

Carder says customers can expect the two-piece limit to be in effect again this year, but “sometimes that changes if pie isn’t ready.” If that’s the case, Tweel says customers shouldn’t have to wait more than 20 minutes to get a slice.

It’s a complicated setup for such a simple product. Carder isn’t sure why the pie has gained such a rabid following, but, perhaps, simplicity is an ingredient in the recipe for success.

Each year during the week it’s available, Jim’s sells roughly 100 pieces every hour the restaurant is open.

“It’s just a very special, sweet thing,” Carder says.

But the pie’s iconic status in Huntington and the Tri-State area is more than the number of slices sold each year; it’s the fact the dessert has made pie week an event in and of itself.

“It’s like people eat this pie because it’s the thing to go to Jim’s in the middle of May and eat a piece of pie,” says Carder, who after years of working busy pie weeks is still perplexed by the craze surrounding the dessert. Carder admits she has no explanation for its popularity.

Tweel can’t offer up a better answer.

“In my opinion, it’s become a tradition for people,” he says, adding that business has seen a boost from Huntington’s youth posting about the pie on social media. “We get a lot of kids who saw their friends post something on Instagram,” Tweel says.

Beyond tradition and free advertisement through social media, the allure of pie week may be the result of the restaurant’s longstanding pledge to serve quality food and be consistent.

strawberry pie

“That’s our motto,” Carder says. “We have the same recipes, and we make the same food every day.”

Carder says pie week’s success and the longevity of Jim’s itself is owed to her late father.

“He was considered the ambassador for Huntington,” she says. “He loved to meet people and people loved him. The saddest part of his passing is that people who come in now don’t get to meet him.”

But Jim lives on through his recipes, and the legacy he left behind is in the very bricks and mortar at 920 Fifth Ave. and the employees and customers who have remained loyal to the restaurant for decades.

“Everyone knows when they come to Jim’s it’s going to be the same as it was last time,” Carder says. “We don’t change anything.”

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