Kim Thompson loves to bake, and she’s especially skilled at baking pies.

Visitors at Bush’s Family Café tend to fall in love with her signature desserts — and always walk away completely surprised that the main ingredient in two of them is pinto beans.

“People always ask me if beans are really in the pie,” says Thompson, assistant manager at Bush’s Family Café. “The pie looks and tastes like a pecan pie, but is not as sweet. People are always surprised at how good it is, and they compare it to pecan pie.”

Thompson took up the pinto bean pie mantle after Sue Henry and Sharron “Momma” Hatchett, the original “pie ladies” at the café, retired. They’re credited with the initial experiments, settling on a pinto bean pie that fools everyone who tries it.

Introduced in 2010, it quickly became the most popular at the café, selling 2,500 annually and beating out the coconut, peanut butter, and chocolate pies.

So how did beans get to be in a pie, anyway? The business, Bush Brothers & Co., is the largest manufacturer of canned beans in the market, producing millions of pounds of them annually. You’ve probably seen the blue cans on store shelves, or the TV commercials featuring Duke, the talking golden retriever who tries to “spill the beans” on the “secret family recipe” of Bush’s Best Baked Beans.

But long before the commercial aired, the company drew a lot of attention to the Chestnut Hill community of Dandridge, Tennessee. Although the bean factory now spans acres of quiet countryside only 20 miles away from the flashier and more famous Pigeon Forge, the original A.J. Bush & Co. General Merchandise store initially sold many types of produce and other items. Bush opened a tomato cannery in 1904, entered a partnership with his two oldest sons — changing the name to Bush Brothers & Co. — and added other locally grown fruits and vegetables to the cannery line.

The company was hit hard after World War I, when a crash in the tomato market almost forced it out of business. It soon recovered, and in the early ’50s, one of Bush’s descendants thought of concentrating solely on baked beans as the signature product. The concept, and the secret family recipe, took the brand from the regional level to the national.

Today, the Bush’s Visitor Center and Family Café, located in the old general store, draws over 150,000 visitors annually, many of whom hope to get a glimpse of the famous family dog. (The in-demand retriever keeps a busy schedule and is on location only on certain days.)

Among the exhibits describing the company’s history is a giant can of Bush’s Best Beans that visitors can walk through. But what’s more fun than learning about the beans is eating them at the café — and the most surprising way to do so is in a pie.

“When we were opening the visitor center, staff employees thought we needed a dessert that featured our beans,” says Scott Schroeder, general manager of Bush’s Visitor Center.

After Henry and Hatchett’s pinto bean pie gained popularity, Schroeder didn’t stop there. While eating chocolate chess pie, he got the inspiration for a chocolate version of the pinto bean pie, so he asked Thompson to make one. She made several attempts and launched the chocolate variation at the café to great success in September. In fact, it threatens to out-sell the original pinto bean pie.

This is one recipe that the Bushes don’t mind spilling the beans on, so consider making the regular or chocolate version this holiday season and starting a new dessert tradition.

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