Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Lake George Baking Company on a roll

By Zander Frost, Chronicle Staff Writer

Lake George Baking Company is a comeback story.

Carl “Buster” Alberino and his wife Debbie started it roughly 15 years ago — just after the demise of their Vanilla Bean bakery in Troy. Now, they have 15 employees and locations in Lake George and Queensbury.

Their signature products are “Eclairs, Fudge Fancies — those are number-one,” Buster said. Plus bread, cinnamon buns, and popular lately, stromboli.

It was not a given the “Queen of American Cakes” would get to where it is today. They had to start from scratch after losing Vanilla Bean. At its peak, “104 employees” and nine properties, says Debbie.

“We left the Vanilla Bean with $40,” Debbie adds. She said they lost their farmhouse home and were “counting change for pizza.”

They have a photo of themselves, smiling on the Vanilla Bean’s final day.

“I don’t know why we were so smiley,” Buster says.

They said a variety of factors, including health, forced Vanilla Bean to go under. It’s still an emotional subject. Buster notes he had his first heart attack at 38.

Their life changed when the Cholakis family approached them with an opportunity for a fresh start in Lake George.

Buster said he knew Tom Cholakis in Troy since childhood. “He put the key in my pocket. He says ‘get started.’”

Getting emotional, Buster adds, “He says ‘I know you’ll take care of me.’ Next thing I know I had the keys up here to the first unit.”

Proprietors/bakers Carl “Buster” Alberino and his wife Debbie. Chronicle photo/Zander Frost

Debbie emphasized “Lake George, and how good it’s been to us for 15 years, and how they’ve accepted us.”

They started to little fanfare.

“There’s no customers, we can’t pay money to have any print [advertising] or anything done,” Debbie said.

So they turned to a tried and true method — free samples.

“The kids came in after school. I’m gonna cry,” she said, holding back tears. “And we gave them cinnamon bread…and fudge fancies cut up.

“It was the kids that came back from school and went back and told their parents,” Debbie said.

“And it was all good from there, thank the lord,” Buster said.

Then they grew.

The bakery counter and a table with a little seating belies the big operation beyond.

“I just started with this one unit,” says Buster. The two next door were unoccupied. Buster says he asked if he could store equipment in one.

“Next thing I know I’m liking that space and I’m putting more stuff in there,” Buster laughs. “And that happened twice.”

Now the bakery spans all three.

“We bake with love,” says Debbie. “If we don’t put it on our table, we’re not going to put it on yours!”

The LG Baking Company team. L-R: Manuel Cintron, Carla Camilla & Candice McMillan (Debbie’s sisters), Debra Alberino, Carl (Buster) Alberino, Alexis Koenig (Debbie & Buster’s niece), Brian Stone and Venena Kennedy. Chronicle photo/Zander Frost

“I use quality and I say this humbly and proudly,” Buster says. “I can get cheaper meats and stuff like that. I won’t do it. I want it the way I would eat it.”

Baking for Buster runs family deep.

“In high school, my father and my brother were just bread bakers then — we had a bakery in the alley,” all wholesale.

“In high school, I was buying doughnuts…from Golden Cross” — brothers to Gamble’s Bakery, he notes — “and I would go around to the country stores and sell them in trays.”

He, his brother and father operated Alberino & Sons Italian bakery in Troy.

“I came out of the Navy. I was going to go to college,” he said.

Instead, “4:30 in the morning, I walked in the bakery. I started putting the bread in the boxes in my dress blues. I never left. There was no college. It was the bakery,” he said.

“My first bakery on my own was Pop’s Bake shop in Troy — that was very successful for 10, 12 years.” He and Debbie operated it and lived next door.
The Vanilla Bean came after, then Lake George Baking Company.

Buster calls Debbie a “master baker.” This year marks their 50th together, thought she points out it took him 15 years to marry her.

Debbie said she started baking when they got together — and learned from others along the way.

“Out there, I’m Princess Di with heels on and whatever. In here I’m a truck driver and I’ll run you over to get the job done,” says Debbie.

“It’s true!” Buster quips.

Most of their business is retail.

“We’re just a little mom and pop bakery — even though the numbers aren’t that,” Debbie says.

They’ve moved away from wholesale. “We had to cut it back,” Buster says.

“Unless you’re set up for it. You’ve got a big unit and you got machinery and stuff like that. It’s too time consuming.”

“She does great cakes, wedding cakes,” Buster says of Debbie. “Last year, we did almost 200 wedding cakes.”

He said they did well overall during the pandemic, though the market for wedding cakes disappeared.

Last year, he says, “We would get weddings on Wednesday, Friday and Monday…because they were doubling up.”

Buster says the downside to their Lake George location — 43 Amherst Street, between Canada Street and the Mini-Chopper — is they’re off the main strip.

“But there’s our advantage,” Buster quickly adds. “I got parking all over.”

Five years ago they opened an additional store on Aviation Road in Queensbury, just up from the mall.

Buster says expanding was a fraught move he “never wanted to do.”

“We got the key, we made a deal with the landlord. And five days later, we changed our mind. We were scared to death,” he said.

“We would sit across the street at The Silo after three, four o’clock, and watch it. And we said we can’t do it. So we gave the key back.

“Two days later. We slept on it, thought about it. Called the realtor. ‘I still got the key. I knew you’d be back,’ he says.”

“It’s been a good move,” Buster said.

Buster has a thought process — and history — behind seemingly every item.

“The first fudge fancy that I knew in my life was from Golden Cross bakery in Troy,” he said, pointing to a poster.

He held up his own version of the cookie, “It’s 50/50. We call it marriage. It’s got to be half and half” cookie and fudge.

“It’s my life. It’s been my family’s life,” Buster said. “My wife Debbie, she loves it. She’s so good. She’s a master baker.”

“When you have somebody, a good partner — we helped each other. I was down, she’d be up. We got through it. Well.”

Copyright © 2023 Lone Oak Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved

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