Icing on the cake
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A visit to the Spring Hill Pastry Shop will have you wondering who is smiling more, the customers or the employees.
"This is one of those places that you hope you'll get locked in to and can't get out," regular customer Jeff Winter, of Spring Hill, said with a grin in the standing-room-only bakery.
Behind the colorful filled bakery cases are four smiling clerks eager to take orders and three cake decorators making amazing-looking sugary creations.
"I enjoy seeing the kids' faces when they pick up their birthday cakes and when the brides see their cakes and they are so excited. This is my art. My mother is an artist and I guess this is my way of showing my artistic talent," said a smiling Dawn Bradshaw, the head decorator and store manager. Bradshaw is a 20-year employee of the business.
"I've been coming here a long time. I get all the goodies, cakes, pies, little bit of everything," Erma Raynes said with a smile as the Spring Hill woman lifted two large white bags emblazoned with a pretty cake and heart logo.
The Spring Hill Pastry Shop has been in business for 65 years. Robin Williams, the owner, will soon be celebrating his own anniversary with the business this year -- 40 years of employment there, 20 as the owner.
He was asked about the multiple one-way streets complicating entry to the bakery. Williams responded with a smile, "I know that people make a special effort to come here."
Williams is planning an expansion this fall that will nearly double the size of the bakery. He will also restore the original entryway into the pastry shop so that two doors will be available for coming and going.
He worked for the previous owners, Bob and JoAnn Williams for 20 years, starting as a janitor and learning the business literally from the bottom up.
Bob Williams was the son of Jimmy "Pappy" Williams and his wife, Marie, who started the cherished neighborhood business in 1948, where it remains today, at 600 Chestnut St.
Although Robin is not related to this Williams family, he shared their surname. A bond began with the childless couple when he began working for them as a teenager in 1974.
As time went on, people often mistook Robin as being a relative of the family-owned business. He said that Pappy added to the confusion when he started calling him a grandson and JoAnn decided to call him their godson.
Williams has kept it a family affair with his teenage son recently joining him full time in the pastry business. Will, 19, is learning every task at the shop, much like his dad did. He's been helping his dad at the shop on school breaks for several years. Both father and son said in different interviews, "Hard work doesn't hurt you."
"It gets more fun every day here. My dad is inspiring. I'm kind of following the road Dad did. Being here and doing things, hands on, is the way to learn," Will said. He explained that he had completed a year at WVU and decided that working in the family business and taking online courses at WVU was a better way for him to obtain his career goals.
Daughter Anna is a senior at WVU and works at the shop when she is home from college on breaks.
Elisa, 12, is a student at Charleston Catholic High School. She especially enjoys the chocolate chip cookies that her father occasionally brings home for her.
His wife, Chris, is a pharmaceutical representative, but helps out at the bakery whenever it is necessary, usually during busy holiday times.
Seventeen employees round out the roster. Roger Burdette has worked at the bakery for 26 years. Timothy Young, a baker for five years, said, "I enjoy making good stuff for the customers, and I like knowing they appreciate what we do."
Williams described his team as hardworking and said production has greatly increased in the four decades he's been there.
"For a little tiny place, we turn out a lot of stuff," Williams said. For example, in 1974 the shop made 12 dozen of the customer favorite "Hot Dog" daily. Today, the bakery makes 125 dozen of the specialty pastry every day. Williams described the doughnut as being shaped like a hot dog with an éclair-type "bun" and a delicious buttercream filling. According to the West Virginia Hot Dog Blog, it has earned an honorary "Five Weenie" rating, the highest rating available.
"On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, we do 20 to 30 birthday cakes a day, 120 to 130 on Friday and 40 to 60 on Saturday," Williams said. He recommended that customers call the shop and his employees will help them decide on the shape and size to order.
"People can bring in pictures and we can scan them onto the cakes," Williams said. He said that images of almost anything could be placed on the cakes -- including family photographs, sports teams, entertainers and logos. "We need a day's notice on birthday cakes," he said, when a specialty cake is wanted. Otherwise, they have regular cakes where simple messages can be added when customers have forgotten to order in advance.
"We are probably the only bakery that still makes the German chocolate cake. It takes four hours to make the German chocolate cake icing, then we add the pecans and coconut," Williams said.
"We also make a very popular cake called the tango cake. It is three layers of yellow cake with a pineapple filling, iced with a butter cream icing and topped with toasted coconut."
Williams said, "We do most of our wedding cakes on Thursday. We need a week's notice to make one, but we will take advance orders four to six weeks before the wedding. Depending on the season, we make five to six every week."
Peanut butter cups are also a customer favorite. The miniature chocolate cakes are baked in Mary Ann pans and the hole is filled with peanut butter icing, with a chocolate dipping icing on the top. During the Valentine's Day season, the delicacies are baked in heart-shaped pans and called peanut butter hearts.
"I think a lot of people from Charleston started coming here after Dutchess Bakery closed," Williams said. He said he was very friendly with Eddie Rada, who owned the bakery and whose specialty was bread baking. He said that out of deference to Rada, his business did not focus on breads.
"I'm more into pastries and the decorated cakes. We do make butter bread, French bread and Parker House rolls every day. My kids will no longer eat store-bought bread," Williams said.
After Rada went out business, Williams said he decided to try making King Cakes, a bread-based specialty. "Every Mardi Gras season we make about 150 to 175 King Cakes. They are pretty to look at and they taste really good."
The pastry shop makes 15 different types of fruit pies, cream pies, egg custard pies, and pecan pies. In mid-October they begin making the customer favorite pumpkin pies.
They make many kinds of cookies, including chocolate chip, sugar, peanut butter, hermits, butterscotch, starlights and, another customer favorite, star cookies.
Eight types of Danish pastries are made at the pastry shop as well as elephant ears, pecan crispies, pecan rolls and Hungarian coffee cake.
Their French pastry shelves are filled with white and chocolate cupcakes, peanut butter cups, white Mary Anns, chocolate cake squares, nutty devils, Neapolitans, apple and cherry turnovers, petit fours and white and chocolate snowballs.
Williams said his shop is certified as kosher under the supervision of Rabbi Victor Urecki of the B'nai Jacob Synagogue.
He added that he never has to worry about any of his good food going to waste because "St. John's takes the leftovers every day for their soup kitchen." He's glad to help out, Williams said -- with a smile.
Spring Hill Pastry Shop, 600 Chestnut St., is open from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The shop's telephone number is 304-768-7397.
Reach Judy E. Hamilton at judy.Hamilton@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.