Florida Foodways: A pie pilgrimage to Flora and Ella's Restaurant in LaBelle

Share on Nextdoor

Out in the steamy south Florida frontier of the 1920s, life was hard and amenities few. During the land boom, public and private workers brought development and agriculture to the pristine wilderness of Hendry County.

Two ambitious sisters, Flora and Ella Forrey, started a kitchen for local workers in a log cabin, sharing space with their mother’s general store. Back then they served mostly cold sandwiches, fueling the effort to subdue the Florida wilds.


In 1929, a fire gutted parts of LaBelle, leaving the store and restaurant in ashes. The Burchard brothers, contractors from St. Louis, built a new restaurant with an apartment above. Flora and Ella’s Restaurant was born.

They didn’t know much about cooking at first, with Ella confessing “I don’t know how to cook, but y’all bear with me, we’ll learn together,” according to her granddaughter Debbie Klemmer. The Forrey sisters began with the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook — the first edition hot off the presses in 1930 — and began tweaking the recipes to their liking.

Their improvised efforts attracted a growing clientele among the area’s tough workers and farmers. The sisters’ rich homemade cooking won the loyalty of many customers, including the Burchard brothers. Eventually, both Flora and Ella married a Burchard. I’m not certain if their wonderful pies influenced the brothers’ decision to settle down, but I can testify that they would be a powerful incentive for any bachelor.

Over the years, the sisters became known for certain simple down-home favorites like Flora-Dora fried chicken, which is still a hit today. It’s cooked to order, but despite the half-hour wait for a meal people drive for hours just to eat the fried bird. Ella ate fried chicken for lunch every single day and lived to the ripe age of 86.

The chicken and fresh dumplings are comforting and abundant. Hush puppies are fresh, a bit fluffy, and fried perfectly. Back in the ’30s and ’40s, the restaurant’s hamburgers were topped with mustard, mayo, slaw and relish, but today they get a more typical treatment — onion, lettuce, and tomato — although they’ll do requests.

These days, the menu is lightened a bit by the practice of cooking most vegetables and sides in chicken broth instead of pork drippings.

Thankfully, nothing has been done to slim down the luxurious pies. The coconut pie is the most popular, and it is no wonder why. The filling itself is creamy but firm, flecked with flaked coconut throughout, with a flavor that goes far beyond the muted, artificial tones found in most pies these days. The huge dome of meringue is not only visually impressive, but heaps one extravagance atop another, requiring five egg whites per pie. Together with the flaky crust, the pie takes one back to an age before kitchen short cuts and medical concerns about fat and cholesterol.

Flora and Ella’s key lime pie is also very popular, not quite as tart or sweet as many store-bought varieties. Normally, it’s a dessert I avoid, but I actually found myself enjoying the Florida classic here. “If you ever get a green key lime pie,” Klemmer says with a smile, “it ain’t the real thing.”

The biggest surprise was the cherry pie, which is another dessert I rarely seek out because I always find the same canned, syrupy filling that mocks the complexity of the real thing. Flora and Ella’s cherry pie is not runny or cloying. Instead, the firm slice manages to capture cherries’ tart and sweet delight. The seasonal strawberry pie is a simple, unfussy taste of Florida, but the pecan pie is Klemmers’ favorite, the real McCoy, with flavor unobstructed by molasses or other dark sweeteners.

Why are the pies so good? I asked. Klemmer responded, “We still crack one egg at a time.” Over thirty years ago, Flora and Ella’s pie maker passed away, so Ella taught her granddaughter Debbie and dishwasher Christine Yelling how to make pie the old way. Debbie still struggles a bit when she has to pitch in, but Christine is seasoned after three decades of baking. “It’s an art,” Debbie says. Christine is far too humble. She avoids cameras and doesn’t talk much, but Debbie proudly picks up the slack. “She’s awesome. There’s no one who does it like she does.”

Debbie’s parents built a new home for the restaurant down the street in the 1990s. At the height of the real estate bubble, developer Bonita Bay Group was planning new projects in the area and its leadership fell in love with Flora and Ella’s. In 2007, the group bought the property and asked Debbie to stay on as manager.

The recession has not been kind to LaBelle, or Flora and Ella’s. “My grandmother and aunt went through the depression. We just hope we can do the same thing.” For a moment, Debbie almost seems serious. “I do a lot of prayin.” Then she smiles wide. “Haven’t started fasting yet.” She bursts into laughter.

Not even Ghandi could fast in the presence of Flora and Ella’s fried chicken, never mind the pie.

(Pictures by Andy Huse.)

Flora and Ella’s Restaurant

550 Highway 80 West, LaBelle, 863-675-2891

LaBelle is a small town in the vast green flatness between Ft. Myers and Lake Okeechobee. There are two reasons to go to LaBelle, Florida: You can check out the Swamp Cabbage festival once a year, complete with armadillo races and a rodeo, or you can go for Flora and Ella’s pie.

Pie is as American as, well, you know, and Flora and Ella’s Restaurant raises the flag high. The building and interior look shiny and new but the soul of the restaurant goes deep into Florida’s history. Manager Debbie Klemmer is a descendant of the founders and a jovial soul. As the day’s pies emerged from the kitchen, Debbie told me the story of Flora and Ella’s Restaurant.

Scroll to read more Food News articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.