The beehive-high meringue of Charlotte’s signature pies tells you you’re in the right place.

 

Keo, Arkansas is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of town, home to only about 200 people. A word of advice, though: don’t blink, or you’ll miss the town’s crown jewel, Charlotte’s Eats and Sweets, an iconic lunch spot with pies fit for a governor.

 

The history of Charlotte’s begins in 1993, but the building it occupies dates all the way back to 1926. The building was once home to Leak’s Drugstore, which closed in 1963, and because the spot remained closed up until Charlotte Bowls took over, much of the original hardware from that time is still intact, including an old-fashioned soda fountain and glass cabinets that display Charlotte’s famous collection of teapots.

 

Charlotte rented the location and started a restaurant from scratch with nothing but a few family recipes. She didn’t have the budget to advertise, but people came nonetheless, and they didn’t stop coming.

 

Over the next few decades, Charlotte earned numerous awards and visits from the likes of Southern Living, which named her coconut pie as one of the best in the South. Then the pandemic came, and times were not kind to even the best restaurants. Despite achieving far-reaching fame, Charlotte, who is now in her mid-70s, had to think about shutting down.

 

“My Achilles tendons in both feet convinced me it was time to get off the concrete,” Charlotte said. “I knew I could not and would not just close the doors. I had worked too hard for us to do that. I started praying.”

 

This is where Maegan Norsworthy entered the picture. A dental hygienist by trade, Norsworthy hails from the nearby town of Sherrill, which boasted a population of just 84 at the time of the 2010 census. Charlotte’s had been her favorite restaurant since she attended high school in England, Arkansas, which lies barely 5 miles away from the eatery. Unable to bear the thought of Charlotte’s closing down for good, Norsworthy decided to make a radical career change.

 

“Maegan Norsworthy had called my cashier, Casey Jones, to see when we would be opening,” Charlotte said. “She wanted to know if Casey thought I might sell the business. Casey replied, ‘Now is the time to ask.’ She called me, and two weeks later she owned Charlotte’s Eats and Sweets. I was so happy it was [being bought by] a little girl that had grown up coming to eat at Charlotte’s.”

 

“She shut down in March, then I reopened it in July,” Norsworthy said. “Besides all the hurdles with COVID and whatnot, I just came on almost as an extra employee. Charlotte and her daughter, Misti Morris, taught me everything in those few months and then slowly started just letting me have it by myself, if you will.

 

“When I bought this place, I did not want to change anything. I wasn’t trying to turn this into Meagan’s or do anything different. I really wanted to keep a good thing going.”

 

That goal was made easier thanks to support not just from Charlotte and Misti, but from the restaurant’s employees, many of whom have longstanding ties to the place. One employee, Sandra Cox, has known Charlotte since she was 14 and has worked at the restaurant for well over two decades. Another employee who joined at about the same time retired only two years ago.

 

“I was honestly kind of the new guy coming in,” Norsworthy said. “So [the employees] took me under their wing and helped me. We all helped each other, and we made it work. It was hard; the business wasn’t booming for sure, as most restaurants know, during those couple years. But as far as learning everything, Charlotte was right there with me, and taught me. She was wonderful.”

 

Charlotte’s Eats and Sweets is famous above all for its pies. The three original flavors, coconut, chocolate and caramel, come topped with a veritable mountain of meringue that more than triples the height of the slice. The list of options has expanded to include pecan, egg custard, pumpkin, apple, chocolate peanut butter and more. A major fan favorite is strawberry pie, but getting your hands on one might take some patience.

 

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“It’s really such a finicky pie,” Norsworthy said. “We have to have good strawberries, so we really don’t offer that until usually around May, June, July and into August.”

 

The most recent addition to the list is chocolate bourbon pecan, another old family recipe, though not one belonging to either Charlotte or Norsworthy.

 

“We had the wonderful honor to do the desserts for Gov. Sarah Sanders’ inaugural ball,” Norsworthy said. “The chocolate bourbon pecan was her family recipe, and she was so gracious and let us have it. We had to make 500 pies in three days, so it was a very large task, but it was one that we were just so thankful and so honored to be given.

 

“Our kitchen is very small and from the 1920s, so we really didn’t have the capability to do that many pies in such a short amount of time. And so the Marriott was so gracious and let us use their kitchen. We made 500 pies, and I was really proud of everyone. Everyone stepped up, and it was three hard days, but we got it done.”

 

Pies and other dessert options often sell out quickly here, and this goes doubly for the strawberry pies. Norsworthy recommends that if there’s a dessert that you just have to get your hands on, call ahead and have it reserved. Some days, all of the pies are spoken for before the restaurant even opens.

 

Charlotte recounted a story of a woman who once came to her and said, “I have been all over the U.S., and every time I have ever ordered coconut pie I have been disappointed. Today I found my mother’s coconut cream pie.”  The woman began to cry, and Charlotte cried with her.

 

Before the sweet treats, don’t forget the savory eats. The most popular lunch item on the menu is the Keo Klassic, Charlotte’s own personal take on a Monte Cristo sandwich, dipped in Parmesan garlic cream and grilled to a golden crisp. Another favorite is the Rueben, which differs slightly from the standard by substituting the usual Thousand Island  or Russian dressing for a mayonnaise-and-horseradish sauce.

 

It should come as no surprise that food at Charlotte’s is made the old-fashioned way. Things are done by hand wherever possible, from rolling out pie crusts to slicing sandwich meats. Every type of pie has its own pot; chocolate pies are always made in the same pot, coconut in another, and never the twain shall meet.

 

“We cook bacon on our grill every morning, and the grill is about 30 years old,” Norsworthy said. “The burgers that come off of it are just amazing.”

 

If you were hoping to get a few of their recipes, you’re unfortunately out of luck. Almost every recipe, especially the pies, is a closely guarded secret, and no one knows them all except for Charlotte, Misti and now, Norsworthy. That said, Norsworthy was willing to share a few tips.

 

“A lot of people ask what the biggest tip to do that meringue is,” Norsworthy said. “We say a stand mixer with a wire whisk. That’s the big thing. Don’t use a hand-mixer, you have to get those big stand mixers. And most people don’t do it long enough. You have to be patient.

 

“Charlotte always said with crust, you don’t flour the surface. You don’t want your crust to taste like flour, you want it to taste like crust. So we use a plastic wrap and roll it out. Crisco-based crust is always the way to go, we think. Some people don’t, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Another thing is, we don’t temper eggs. We mix them in with the sugar and all of the dry ingredients.”

 

Someone who hasn’t visited Charlotte’s since before 2020 would notice very little change, save that Charlotte herself is not there as often as she used to be. Norsworthy explained that Charlotte and Misti still come to help sometimes when she needs it, and Charlotte can still wipe the floor with her when it comes to making meringue.

 

Norsworthy’s philosophy is: “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” and few would argue that anything about Charlotte’s Eats and Sweets is in need of fixing. Many of the decorations are still Charlotte’s, from her teapot collection to the antiques and black-and-white photos that adorn many of the restaurant’s walls. Others have been added by Norsworthy, such as a wall adorned with paintings by her grandmother.

 

“One of my favorite things about this place is this table we’re sitting at now,” Norsworthy said of a long table in the back of the restaurant just outside the kitchen. “I’d almost call it the local table. I will look up and see one person coming in and then a few minutes later the next and it’s such a fellowship of different people around here. And they know each other; they don’t plan to come eat lunch here together, but they end up all congregating around here.

 

“I’ve always felt whenever I came here that I was getting my mom’s or my grandma’s food. Just good comfort food in a comfort atmosphere. It’s kind of homey.”

 

Though Charlotte’s has its local regulars, most of its clientele actually are not from Keo or the surrounding area. Many are from Little Rock, but it’s not uncommon for them to come from even further afield, such as Jonesboro, Fayetteville, Hot Springs and nearby states, with the occasional visitor from as far away as Hawaii or Africa.

 

“We get asked all the time, ‘Can you just open up a shop there [in Little Rock],’” Norsworthy said. “We’re not that far! You can come down any time you want.”

 

Another significant portion of the restaurant’s clientele comes in the form of large groups, most often from churches and the like. Norsworthy noted that it is not unusual for the entire back room, roughly half of the space in the restaurant, to be booked for a group before standard reservations open. These large groups dried up entirely during COVID, but have since started to make a return.

 

“It’s definitely picked back up,” Norsworthy said. “I feel like it’s almost back to normal. We still have some issues with the supply chain. Prices of food are just astronomical. It’s definitely a hindrance to us, but we’re working through it. We’re getting there.”

 

Many businesses may claim their team is like a family, but the workers at Charlotte’s actually act like one, chatting playfully with other staff and customers alike. This is likely assisted by the unusually long tenure of most of the employees, not to mention that a few of them are actually kin. Multiple employees also made sure to mention that Norsworthy throws them the best birthday parties.

 

“I have stayed at Charlotte’s because this restaurant has been good to me and my family,” Cox said. “My whole family has worked here at one time or another. My husband cooked fish on Saturday nights, and both my son and daughter worked here on Saturdays and during the summers all through high school. My daughter is working here now and so is my niece. I like the way we treat each other, like family. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”

 

“When you’re in a small space like [the kitchen] for so many hours a day, you definitely become like family. We like to have a good time back there. Cooking is fun,” Norsworthy said.

 

This July will mark the 30th anniversary of Charlotte’s Eats and Sweets. While there have been hard times, full recovery is within sight, and all signs point to the crown jewel of Keo shining for many years (and many pies) to come.

 

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