Fireman Derek's Bake Shop in Miami is more than a burgeoning pie empire—it's a tribute to friendship and a labor of love.
Miami doesn’t want for establishments where you can get your fix of desserts like pies and cakes. But if there’s one thing the founder and face of Fireman Derek's Bake Shop isn’t worried about as his pie shop pursues an expansion that’s underway now in southern Florida, it’s standing out.
Because when you’re a 6-foot-2, tattooed, 300-ish-pound former fireman—who loves to bake key lime pie, squeeze the key lime fresh himself and make his own graham cracker crust—standing out is kind of a matter of just showing up.
“I’m a big guy,” admits Kaplan, who retired as a City of Miami firefighter at the end of 2016 and who used to spend some of the downtime baking a few dozen pies a week. “I played football in college. I don’t look like your typical guy who bakes pies or just bakes, in general. If people ask me what I do and I’d say I’m a cage fighter, it probably wouldn’t be a shock to them.”
Now, he muses out loud as he prepares a cheesecake, “It’s like baking is all of a sudden this cool thing to do. So you see all these guys that bake. I was watching one of those shows on the Food Network and it was, like, America’s best bakers. And it was all dudes. And it was like, where did these guys come from, you know?”
No question where Derek came from—or, at least, how and why he’s here now. The provenance of Fireman Derek’s, which includes a production kitchen in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood that’s about two miles up the road from the bakery at 2818 N. Miami Ave., comes in large part from the encouragement Kaplan always got for his pies and desserts from his longtime friend and fellow firefighter Pat Murdock.
Pat died suddenly of an enlarged heart in 2013.
If I had the money, I’d give it to Derek so he could start a pie shop. That’s what Pat, who once worked the same shift at the same Miami fire station with Derek, would always tell his wife, Kim. And that’s how much he loved Derek’s pies, the pies Derek has been baking ever since he first started teaching himself how to do it as a kid in his father’s kitchen at home.
Which is why Fireman Derek’s, in a storefront with a red brick exterior design and huge slices of pie in bright graffiti on one side, is more than the culmination of a lifelong talent for the last guy you’d expect to see in an apron working a pie crust. It’s also a tribute of sorts. A way to keep a departed friend’s memory alive. To say thanks for believing in him and pushing him.
Derek thinks about his friend every day. And how can you blame him, when his business partner is Pat’s wife, Kim, who decided to put up the money for a shop for Derek after Pat died.
“If he could walk in today, I think he’d be blown away,” Derek said about Pat, and about the operation which is set to expand soon. Derek is in the process of locking in details for store number two, which he hopes is a prelude to as many as maybe eight to ten stores.
“He’d be proud of it. I think all of us genuinely believe he looks out for us, wherever he’s at. Wherever his energy’s at. We definitely have turned a negative into a positive. Obviously, I know Kim would do anything to have him back. She still feels connected to him, I think, through the business.”
You don’t start a food business to make a ton of money. There’s a ritualistic side to preparing something for people to consume that goes a hell of a lot deeper than the commercial imperatives of keeping the lights on. And then there’s Kim Murdock who, when she says it’s love that drives her support of Derek’s, you get it. Where a neighborhood might see a homey storefront offering an abundance of everything from the signature key lime pie to Oreo cheesecakes to s’mores pies with chocolate ganache and toasted marshmallows, for Derek and especially Kim, this is partly a way to fill the empty space in their lives.
They press on. And between the two of them, they have an expansive vision for the Sunshine State.
“Working with Derek is challenging at times, because we come from two different places,” Kim says. “He likes to be in the kitchen creating, and I like to focus on the finances and procedures with growing the business. But we make it work.
“Pat had a great sense of humor and was a practical joker. I always feel Pat's presence with me. I know he’s watching over and is probably flashing his great smile and laughing right now. Smiling, because he knows that the kids and I are doing well, still grieving but moving forward with life. And laughing about how hard we’re working to make this business successful. Building a brand and a business is hard work, and I'm trying my hardest to make this the best in Pat's honor. Love is what drives me and keeps me pushing for this business.”
Derek, meanwhile, is the big man in the kitchen who’s planning more stores around the state. The brash baker with a gruff voice who makes pies and cakes so gooey, so covered in frosting and cream and icing and all manner of sweet extravagances that you feel your blood sugar rise just looking at it all.
His signature item is key lime pie, the thing he started teaching himself how to bake when he was a teenager. “It’s very simple,” he says. “The secret to is it I’ve essentially always used fresh key limes. I squeeze all the juice fresh, which makes a huge difference. I make my own graham cracker crust. It’s just very simple. And that’s my philosophy on a lot of things. Simple food is usually the best food.”