Before Rob Cooley went off to West Point in 1985, the cake for his going-away party came from the Longordo family’s sought-after Chester’s Bakery, a couple of towns over in New Jersey.
It was a cake–and a connection to home–that wasn’t lost on Cooley the first time he walked into Apple Annie’s Bake Shop in Wilmington.
Headed by its patron, Frank, and with some of their employees in tow, the Longordos relocated to Wilmington to open Apple Annie’s at its Kerr Avenue location soon after Cooley’s send-off sweet treat.
In a small-world twist of fate, Cooley bought Apple Annie’s in 2013 following Frank’s death. With Cooley now at the helm and behind the counter, the local fixture is set to celebrate its 30th birthday later this month. Ahead of the bash, the store is asking customers to email their photos and memories of the shop.
Although baking was a new venture for Cooley, continuing the tradition of service and quality founded by the Longordos was an easy transition. Cooley, a U.S. Army Reservist, said he and Frank–a Korean War vet who learned to perfect his signature handmade cakes in the Marines–were of the same mind about running a business.
“We shared four core principles: customers, employees, product and community,” Cooley noted.
It might sound simple enough. But each of those principles cannot exist without the other, and each builds upon the other to achieve overall success.
Customers, Cooley said, are the top priority. Since the original Apple Annie’s on Kerr Avenue has become a bit of a “destination location,” he said, the bakery has to remain a place people want to come, even if it is a little out of the way.
And treating employees well, he added, is essential to bringing in the crowds.
It’s no surprise that happy employees are hardworking employees, and it’s a concept Frank had down pat, and one Cooley continues today. Several of Frank’s staff from Chester’s Bakery–including one of the top bakers, Jamy Giufurta, relocated with the Longordos to Wilmington. And they’re still there today.
A majority of Apple Annie’s craftsmen (Cooley considers pastry-making an art form) have honed their skills through decades working at the bake shop.
“And with that, we’ve brought in a crew of younger folks we hope to keep around for years,” Cooley said.
That’s where the fine product comes in. Apple Annie’s has staked its claim on gourmet goodies, using the freshest ingredients and a creative flare in its ever-growing assortment of cookies, cannolis, cupcakes, pies, breads and, of course, cakes.
As for the latter, Apple Annie’s has long been the place to go for personalized designs. Cooley said they’ve made everything from Nikon cameras and toilet seats to bassinets and touching tributes to grandmothers.
“We’re creating lifelong memories everyday,” he said.
That’s where the community component of Apple Annie’s structure comes in. In addition to taking pride in the personal connection, the bake shop reaches out through participation in fundraisers and donations to non-profit organizations. Apple Annie’s always gives discounts to students, active military and veterans and first responders.
“We give back to the community everywhere we can,” Cooley said. “These people are helping our community, so we want to make sure we recognize those who are giving back by giving back to them.”
Apple Annie’s was also instrumental in helping Cape Fear Community College’s fledgling baking program, and currently offers on-the-job training for two of its students.
When those four principles come together, Cooley said it creates a shop people want to come to again and again, whether it be at the Kerr Avenue spot or the smaller store that opened nearly 20 years ago in the Landfall area and has since relocated to The Forum.
“We have people come in and say, ‘I cannot imagine Thanksgiving without an Apple Annie’s pie,'” he said.
And there are those who have told their friends they are coming to visit Wilmington from elsewhere in the state and are sent to Apple Annie’s with a list of baked goods to bring back. Cooley said a customer even recently brought his newborn son into the shop, announcing his baby’s initiation as a “third generation Apple Annie’s eater.”
“That’s the stuff that really means a lot to the guys in the back,” he said. “That’s why we do this.”
As a way to pay tribute to longtime and new customers alike, Apple Annie’s will hold a free birthday party from 2 to 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 25, at the University Square Mall location, 837 S. Kerr Ave. The celebration will include a specially brewed Apple Annie’s Pumpkin Ale from nearby Wilmington Brewing Company, savory goodies from Carolina Table Salt and, of course, a custom-made cake.
Customers are encouraged to submit their memories of the shop–both in writing and in photos to be featured at the party. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at email@example.com.