News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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April 21, 2011

B-SIDES: Cooking up a family atmosphere in New Jersey

Hoboken, N.J. — Imagine hundreds of out-of-towners standing in a line two blocks long, down Wabash Avenue in downtown Terre Haute, waiting for two hours to get into, say, Square Donuts.

Envision tour buses pulling up, unloading dozens of people who snap pictures of the shop and gaze at its modest facade before joining the long line.

Now, picture that scenario continuing all day long, seven days a week, all year.

Sound surreal?

It happens daily in Hoboken, N.J. The visitors’ ultimate destination is 95 Washington St., home of Carlo’s City Hall Bake Shop. (Hoboken City Hall is directly across the street.) Locals simply call it “Carlo’s Bakery,” just as they have since it opened in 1910. But to the rest of the world — at least the portion of the population with access to the TLC channel — the small, two-story building in the middle of the block is the setting for the reality TV show “Cake Boss,” starring master baker Buddy Valastro.

When he emerges from the back room to the storefront perpetually “packed to the gills” with customers, the fans go nuts. Thus, to avoid bedlam, Valastro rarely enters through the front door, where the visitors have been lining up by the dozens since the show debuted two years ago. “I have to sneak in the back door,” Valastro said in a telephone interview this week, “where I used to be able to come in the front, the back, it didn’t matter.”

Thanks to that program, the planet is now divided, basically, into two demographic groups of humans — those who know what “fondant” is, and those who don’t. To the fondant-aware, Valastro isn’t merely a 34-year-old baker in a blue-collar town on the Jersey side of metropolitan New York City. In their eyes, he’s a confectionery Picasso, “Buddy” (no last name necessary), the “Cake Boss.”

(If you’re clueless on the subject, don’t despair. Until my wife and daughter — both avid “Cake Boss” viewers — explained it to me, I didn’t know fondant from fondue. Fondant, it appears to me, is like wallpaper made of icing. Bakers drape it over cakes, like the base coat of paint in the decorating process. It’s mentioned on “Cake Boss” as often as GSR, or gunshot residue, is on “CSI.”)

Valastro, his family’s bakery and the “Cake Boss” show were the reasons our family spent a day in Hoboken during a trip to New Jersey earlier this month. Lots of people had the same idea, even on a chilly, blustery Sunday morning. After inching toward the entrance during a two-hour wait in line, a young guy at the door gave us an ordering number and let us inside, where rows of cakes, cannolis and pastries awaited us. Though we saw no sign of Buddy that morning, my daughter caught glimpses of other familiar faces from the TV series descending the staircase into the bakery’s back room. Their appearances aren’t surprising. The shop churns out sweet items in three shifts, 24 hours a day. Valastro’s innovative cakes might resemble a nearly life-size NASCAR, motorcycle, a flushable toilet, an Egyptian pyramid, or the set of “Sesame Street.”

(The bakery’s goodies were colorful, all right, but my biggest concern was whether the stuff tasted good. Trust me, the cannolis made me forget the 30-degree wind chill we braved to get them.)

Our experience was precisely the kind Valastro hopes others take away from a trip to the shop in which he grew up, literally, helping his late father, Bartolo “Buddy” Valastro Sr. That’s the upside of the “Cake Boss” mania that has grown in Hoboken since the first episode aired April 19, 2009. On the downside, some Hobokenites aren’t crazy about day-trippers looking for restrooms or quarters for the parking meters. Locals also lament having to stand with the tourists in those long lines outside Carlo’s, instead of being able to just pop in for a quick cannoli.

The reaction has “been kind of two-fold — some people love it and see the value in it, and some people hate it,” Valastro explained. “Some people hate it for the fact that they’ve got to wait in line, too. We’ve been their local bakery for years, and they don’t want to have to wait in a two-hour line, which I understand. But I also can’t turn around, to people who’ve been standing in a two-hour line, and say, ‘These people get to come in first’ — [if that happened,] there’s gonna be fistfights in front of the bakery.”

Remedies are under way. Valastro plans to expand the shop, add a factory, and open other Carlo’s Bake Shop locations. For now, though, an excursion to Hoboken offers the best opportunity to see the actual “Cake Boss” operation. The “Mile Square City” of 38,577 residents was best known as Frank Sinatra’s birthplace and site of the first recorded baseball game in 1846. Now, Hoboken’s newest claim to fame is Valastro, the Jersey-accented son of a Sicilian immigrant. The elder Valastro bought the shop (first opened by Carlo Guastaffero in 1910) in 1964. Buddy Sr. came from a long line of Italian bread bakers, but focused on pastries upon arrival in America, because he didn’t want his son — Buddy Jr. — working the overnight hours of a bread baker.

Family mattered to his dad, and it still does to the son.

The Valastro clan anchors the team of Carlo’s employees, turning his wife, their four kids, his four sisters, brothers-in-law, cousins and family friends into “co-stars” to the TV audience. Despite the demands of success and guest appearances on network morning shows, Valastro still works in the shop five to six days a week. He’s still amazed by the response he gets from visitors.

“Man, what a feeling,” Valastro said. “I mean, they treat me like a rock star. And it’s great, because it’s all family. That’s the thing that sometimes gets me a little upset, because sometimes people in my community dislike it — you know, the line, or whatever. But you look on that line, and who is it? It’s families. It’s families coming from all over the world to spend time, as families, and come into our little community, Hoboken, New Jersey — putting it on the map for good things. Hoboken’s usually in the news, and it’s not in the news for good things, you know what I’m sayin’?”

Longtime Terre Hauteans would understand. You have to wonder how our town would handle such attention.

The G-rated, family emphasis of “Cake Boss” leaves Valastro at peace with it all. He intends the shop’s expansion to include classrooms for moms and daughters, or entire families to spend a day learning to bake and decorate, and possibly get to utter Valastro’s trademark line, “Now that’s how you make a cake, baby.” Valastro gets 75 to 150 letters a day from fans, and the shop’s e-mail queue typically has 15,000 messages in its inbox. For the families who actually get to see his place in person — just as ours did — the moment is simple, pure fun.

“They’re just happy to be there,” Valastro said of the visitors. “It’s like going to see something that you see on TV, and it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s really real.’ It’s funny to me, because I just look at it like home.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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