CLEARWATER — The best key lime pie in America can be found on Sunset Point Road, according to some folks who ought to know.
Zukie Tzekas, baker, cook and manager at the family-owned Sunset Grill, just east of Old Coachman Road, recently won the commercial division of the American Pie Council's national championship.
"I was ecstatic, I couldn't believe it," Tzekas said.
She had only been baking pies for a little over a year at the restaurant, which she runs with her mother, father and sister. On a typical day, Tzekas, 47, bakes pies and cakes, cooks specials and manages the restaurant as part of what she calls her "seven days a week love affair."
A self-described visual learner, Tzekas honed her pie skills watching YouTube videos. Once she mastered the technique, Tzekas experimented with new flavors and ingredients, a skill she has honed with more than 30 years of experience in the restaurant industry.
Tzekas entered the contest at the behest of her customers.
"I had my customers saying that these were the best pies they'd ever had," Tzekas said. "They've traveled everywhere and had homemade pies but they really loved my pies."
This praise led her to Google "pie contests" and to discover the APC national championships, held in Orlando.
Tzekas competed against companies like Publix and Village Inn, as well as professional pie companies.
The pies were laid out on a display table, where they were judged on appearance, consistency, flavor and other criteria.
A separate competition was held for each type of pie. Tzekas entered two pies, a coconut cream and a key lime. According to Tzekas, some of her competitors entered as many as 40 kinds.
For winning, Tzekas was awarded $200 and a plaque that is now displayed prominently near the entrance to the Sunset Grill.
Tzekas thinks her key lime pie stands out because of its crust, which is made from butter, graham crackers, vanilla wafer and an ingredient she wishes to remain a secret.
"It's really creamy," said Kayleigh White, 27, a regular at the restaurant. "A lot of key lime pies are super tart, but this one is just right."
Business at her restaurant has picked up since Tzekas' contest win, especially sales of key lime pie.
"I just feel good that finally in my life someone recognizes me," Tzekas said. "I mean, they all recognize me from here anyway, but to win the nationals is amazing."
Next year, Tzekas plans to enter more pies and expand to cake contests so she can show off her carrot cake, which she insists is amazing.