An Orlando Sweets Institution: Charlie’s Gourmet Pastries
It was 1979, eight years after Charlie’s Gourmet Pastries first started its ovens in the Conway neighborhood of Orlando, when Charlie Hawks, Jr. and his team landed the candy of a lifetime commission. The Job: Baking a 5,000-service cake for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to mark the celebration of the 10th historic Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969e birthday. The Specifications: Create a 5ft by 10ft yellow cake with buttercream frosting. Decoration: Design an image of an eagle landing on the moon, planet Earth in the background, and the inscription “Apollo 11, 10th Anniversary, 1969-1979 Launch and Lunar Landing, Kennedy Space Center”.
That job was one of many highlights since Charlie’s opened 50 years ago, days after Walt Disney World Resort opened in October 1971, says Gary Hawks, Charlie’s youngest son and current baker-owner of the Conway area candy supplier. , renowned for its pies, cakes, cookies, pastries and holiday offers.
Creating KSC’s delicious party dessert was no easy feat. After the math and baking was done, it took 50 sheet cakes, stacked and spread over a two-by-four support frame and plywood, to complete the order. The bakery rented a space next door to have enough space to assemble and decorate the colossal confection, Hawks says.
“It was really something. My brother, Stanley, did the moon and eagle stroke – he really put the art in it, and daddy did the edging and frosting. Getting him out the door and into a waiting van was the next challenge, Hawks says. “On the morning of the event, 20 guys showed up at 6 am and lifted this thing out the door at an angle, hoping it wouldn’t slip out of the frame. It was crazy! “
And it was a huge success at the Space Center event. KSC Director at the time, Lee Scherer, presented Charlie’s with an autographed photo of the cake scribbled with a message: “To Charlie — Our deep appreciation for the beautiful cake which greatly contributed to a very special day…”
All in the family
Charlie Hawks, Jr., who died on Christmas Day in 1996, was 50 when he started his gourmet baking business after two decades of baking at Wolfie’s deli and Bakery in Miami Beach. His father and grandfather had been bakers, and Charlie and his wife, Mae, raised six sons in South Florida while Charlie honed his cooking skills at Wolfie’s. Their eldest son, Charles III, was working in real estate in Orlando in the summer of 1971 when he discovered the abandoned bakery space in a small mall on Curry Ford Road in Orlando. He quickly called his father in South Florida.
The family packed their things, moved to Orlando and opened the bakery in October, says Gary, who was 17 at the time. Charlie cooked and Mae ran the counter until 1981, when Gary took over the blenders and ovens so his parents could spend more time with their grandchildren. Over the years, most of Gary’s brothers, his children and his wife, Candice, were instrumental in helping the baking team of six and a half-dozen loyal employees, especially during the holidays.
Hawks still follows his father’s recipes and sticks to the family motto that “butter makes a difference”. The bakery menu is packed with over 150 items and hasn’t changed much over the years, but Hawks recently introduced his version of a black and white tuxedo cake inspired by his daughter, Carey Ellen Adams.
While running a business six days a week can be tiring, Hawks says working as a baker is as instinctive for him as pairing milk and cookies. Some of her favorite projects include making her popular éclairs and rainbow marzipan cookies and cakes.
“Pastry is essentially chemistry,” he says. “I do it because I feel creative and it makes me happy to make people happy. It’s very rewarding and that’s what keeps me going.
Sam Butler, a longtime friend of the Hawks family, says Charlie, and now Gary, had the personality, community spirit, expertise, and drive to keep the bakery going, even through tough times. “It’s very difficult for a business to survive unless you have friendly, accommodating staff and a quality product,” says Butler, a local resident and professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who has traveled the world in the past. as a pilot for Pan American Airways. Butler has shopped at the bakery at least once a week since moving to Orlando in 1979. “I probably haven’t missed more than a week or so.” His family prefers the strawberry cheesecake from the bakery, and Butler regularly picks up cookies for the staff at his doctor’s office. “I can’t see the doctor until I bring the toll, which is a box of something from Charlie,” he jokes.
Become a local institution
After opening in 1971, the bakery built a stable community-wide business. So Charlie decided to open a second larger bakery with a delicatessen on Corrine Avenue, near the former US Naval Training Center base where Baldwin Park is now located. But the recession of the 1970s hit the community hard and the Corrine store closed in two years, Hawks says.
Despite these difficult times, Charlie’s on Curry Ford was able to expand its customer base. Carol Holcomb became a devotee and stopped by to buy pastries for snacks with friends, cookies for the Girl Scout troop she co-led, and brownies for the school bake sale. Holcomb, now in the early ’80s, has since cut back on sweets, but can’t resist Charlie’s egg custards. When her adult nieces come to town for a visit, they always drop by Charlie’s house first. “They think her brownies are the best,” she says.
Another Conway resident, Florida State Senator Linda Stewart, has been a regular at Charlie for decades. “I’ve probably tested all of their stuff,” she laughs. “But the best, in my opinion, are their pies – the crust melts in your mouth. And if you need croissants or cookies for the office, the ladies get you in and out quickly, so I can fully understand how they’ve been in business for 50 years. I’m so glad they survived the pandemic. “
While summer is generally a slower season for baking, business during the pandemic summer of 2020 actually exploded and remained 20% higher throughout the year, Hawks says. “People weren’t going to restaurants, they weren’t going on vacation, to the movies or taking the kids, so if you still have a job you have money,” he says. “They wanted good food, good wine and good dessert because, if you want to sit at home, you have to have a little fun! You want something good!
Celebrate milestones over the decades
At first, when 1960-70s television conductor Lawrence Welk was performing in Orlando, Charlie Hawks was asked to bake a cake for the celebrity’s 70th birthday.e birthday, says Hawks. “My mom and dad watched this show every time it was on,” he says. “Dad was honored to bake this cake for him.”
A few decades later, in 1996, when Walt Disney World Resort was preparing to celebrate its 25e anniversary, Charlie’s Gourmet Pastries made desserts for a promotional party hosted by Disney officials at Amway Arena in Orlando. “We provided squares of cheesecake, cream puffs, Napoleon wrasse – premium miniature pastries – thousands of pieces of dessert,” Gary explains. “Almost all of our regular work was interrupted and it took all of my staff to get it in and out.”
Of course, it was also Charlie’s 25th birthday, and Hawks decided to celebrate with a special offer for his customers. He and his team made 25 different flavors of dessert cakes, from strawberry shortcake to German chocolate, cut them into small squares and sold them for 25 cents each. “They were such a success, I had people standing at the door like at Disney for 12 hours a day from 7 am to 7 pm. We were full every day, ”he recalls. “This year I won’t do anything so crazy. I was young and energetic at the time.
For Charlie’s Gourmet Pastries’ 50e birthday, Gary invites readers to follow the bakery on Facebook and Instagram, and to party with him and his team. “This is an important step. People have called us an institution for 25 years, and I’ve never paid much attention to it – I don’t need the hype to get through the day, ”says Hawks. “But I guess we’re an institution at the end of the day. It is a rarity. And I thank all of our loyal customers and our wonderful staff for staying with us and making this possible. It is very rewarding.