Like the lyrics from the Frank Sinatra song, “I did it my way,” Charlie Tola does it his way in his retail bakery, Lulu’s Bakery, in the Fresh Meadows neighborhood of Queens, near St. John’s University. Like bakers of a previous generation, Tola is completely self-taught, having grown up working in his uncle’s bakery. In his early 20s, he worked in a bakery café, and he knew that he wanted to own his own bakery. He just needed to find a location.
His now-wife’s family had recently moved into the Fresh Meadows neighborhood and had to travel four miles to the nearest retail bakery to buy pastries. Tola found a storefront for rent in the area along a major thoroughfare, which offered a lot of visibility, and he knew it was the right location. “I was scared. I opened the bakery when I was 23,” he says. “I’m still scared, but I think I made the right move at the right time. If I’d had a family, I wouldn’t have made it. I was able to establish myself first.”
He and his father, who worked in the construction industry, remodeled the interior of the building. To this day, Tola does annual tweaks to the interior, painting the walls or doing some minor rearranging.
The bakery opened its doors in January 1999. “We actually had the store ready in the middle of December, and my dad wanted us to open right away,” Tola says. “But I knew that people would have high expectations for their Christmas pastries, and if I disappointed them, they wouldn’t come back. So I decided to wait until after the holidays when there was less pressure.”
The decision proved beneficial as Tola and the neighborhood had to find a compromise on the bakery’s product line. The first indication that he might be facing a tough crowd came before the bakery even opened its doors. Tola had installed a large “Bakery” sign on the building’s roof, and early one morning, he heard a knock on the door. It was a man from the neighborhood. He pointed to the sign, and said, “You need us; we don’t need you.”
“That’s all he had to say,” Tola laughs. “I took that sign down.” He replaced it with a less obtrusive sign for Lulu’s Italian American Bakery.
His dream of running an Italian-American bakery also took a hit after he opened his doors. “Italian baking is my real passion, but the cannolis wouldn’t sell, so I had to figure out what sells. It was hard,” he says. It took him about two years to develop a product line that fit his baking expertise and was what the neighborhood wanted. The cannolis ended up staying. “Now the customers trust me. They see something new and they want it,” Tola adds.
Diverse product line
The product line includes a variety of cakes–strawberry shortcake, chocolate mousse, Italian cheesecake, New York-style cheesecake–pastries, such as sfogliatelle, fruit tarts, napoleons, bread pudding and the namesake Lulu, as well a variety of cookies like butter cookies, biscotti and black and whites. Breakfast items include croissants, a variety of Danish, muffins and brioche. Lulu’s offers a variety of breads; however, Tola does not make them in-house. Instead, he buys them from two area bread bakeries.
“We don’t sell a lot of bread, but I felt I needed it to fill out the product line,” he says. Customers are aware that it is not made by Lulu’s.
Most products are available on a daily basis, but Lulu’s does offer a variety of seasonal items, some of which have evolved into daily items. The torta Americana was created for the Fourth of July, and has become a year-round seller. It’s based off the three colors of the American flag–red is strawberry, blue is blueberries and the white is represented by both banana cream and vanilla cake. The torte features a vanilla cake base made with strawberry juice and filled with banana mousse with fresh blueberries. The torte is then coated with a strawberry glaze.
New products also sometimes come from a place of desperation. During the Easter holiday five years ago, Tola sold out of product more quickly than expected, leaving an empty space in the showcase that he needed to fill. He had chocolate sponge on the worktable, and he quickly began grabbing everything he could find that was chocolate, like chocolate chips, chocolate mousse, etc., and he created the Seven C’s. Each “c” stands for a different chocolate component, and customers loved it. “I just used what I had available, and now I can’t discontinue it. They love chocolate.”
The torta bacio is another Tola original that has taken off. “You won’t find it in an Italian cookbook because I made it up,” he says. The torte is composed of a chocolate cake base soaked in rum with chopped hazelnuts and chocolate chips and is covered with ganache.
Lulu’s also does a decent business in the very un-Italian cupcake. “What’s big right now is my jumbo cupcake,” Tola says. “They taste good and they are different.” The cake-size cupcakes took off when he was interviewed by a television station at a food festival and he had one sitting next to him.
“We sell so many of them, I had to buy more moulds,” he adds. The jumbo cupcakes are offered in the usual varieties, which include red velvet, chocolate chip and parfait. He also decorates them for holidays. This past Easter, he made chicks, bunnies and flowers.
Other new products include macarons, raspberry almond cookies and lemon chocolate cheesecake. “The traditional products, they don’t get tired of. Other items, they get tired of and sales start dropping,” Tola says. “When I see sales start dropping, it’s time to get something new in there.”
Products can be found in the same place in each showcase every day, with the less expensive items in the front and more expensive, colorful items in the back to gradually draw customers into the store. “We try to keep the color at the ends because that’s where your eye goes,” he says.
To reflect the direction the bakery has taken, Tola recently dropped the Italian and American from the bakery’s name, and created a new logo with just the Lulu’s name. He has yet to replace the sign outside. He also stopped putting the Italian names on all the products as customers often didn’t know what they were and had trouble pronouncing them. The more obvious ones, such as cannoli, or easy to pronounce items, like torta Americana, he kept. “A cannoli is a cannoli. It isn’t anything else,” he says.
The bakery’s name comes from the Lulu pastry, to which he was introduced while working in the bakery café. The pastry is composed of pate-choux filled with French cream (a combination of whipped cream and custard). He also met his future wife Luisa around that time, and occasionally called her Lulu.
It seemed a no-brainer when it came time to name the bakery. The couple also now has a daughter Luisa, who is known to all as Lulu. “And of course, she thinks the bakery is hers,” Tola says. “She calls it ‘my bakery.’”
The entire product line, save for a few cookie varieties, is made from scratch, and Tola is a stickler for using only quality ingredients. If a supplier tries to switch brands, he refuses.
“I use good ingredients, and I pay top dollar for what I use,” Tola says. For example, the rum he uses costs $80 a bottle and is imported from Italy. He never uses rum extract. The tiramisu is made with espresso; and the rainbow cookies are made with almond paste. Danish is made with 100 percent butter.
Production begins at 5 a.m., when the first of six bakers arrives to start the morning’s bagels, Danish and muffins before another baker arrives at 7 a.m. to start on the turnovers, brioche, scones and cookies. The remaining bakers work on pastries and cakes. At the end of the day, they remove the next day’s products from the freezer to proof overnight. Most of the production for the week is done Sunday through Wednesday with Thursday through Saturday dedicated to cake decorating, while products for the day are baked in the morning.
The bakery produces about 120 lbs. of Danish dough a week, 30 lbs. of croissant dough, six 80-qt. batches of vanilla sponge and four 80-qt. batches of chocolate sponge.
Tola does most the cake decorating himself, and only bakes on Wednesday, the other bakers’ day off. During the height of the cake season, cakes account for almost 50 percent of the bakery’s business, with specialty cakes making up 30 percent of that. The bakery averages between 15 to 30 fondant cakes per week, which range from 50 to 300 servings. Lulu’s sells about 400 to 500 8-in. store cakes a week.
When Lulu’s opened in 1999, the bakery employed three bakers, and now it has six. Wilson Castro, the production manager, came on board to help Tola and his father remodel the interior before the bakery even opened its doors. He stayed on after the construction was done as a baker’s apprentice, and he is the perfect example of what Tola looks for in an employee. “It’s passion all the way,” he says. “My way is not always the best way, but it’s my way.”
The bakery also has grown from using a small, 12-pan revolving tray oven, three-door refrigerator, a small sheeter, 60-qt. mixer, 20-qt. mixer and two worktables to using a 24-pan revolving tray oven, a large sheeter, two three-door refrigerators, a three-door freezer and another walk-in freezer, a fryer, a gas stove and 80-, 60-, 30-, 20 and 12-qt. mixers. The bakery also includes the back areas of two storefronts as well the entire basement for the two stores. Eventually, Tola would like to take over the other storefront and remodel the bakery to have all the production on one side of the building with retail running from front to back on the other side.
Lulu’s no longer does traditional advertising, but Tola has found Facebook to be an invaluable marketing tool. His wife posted some photos of his cakes to her personal page a few years ago, and they generated a lot of comments and queries if Lulu’s had a page. He now updates the bakery’s page regularly with photos of new cake designs and new products the bakery is introducing. In 18 months, the bakery is up to 1,200 fans. “Facebook is the best tool in the world. It’s the fastest link to your customers,” Tola says. “It’s one of the best things I’ve done.”