SweetMan’s Baked Goods: After a career in the kitchen, a dream takes shape
By Jackie R. Broach
When 4 a.m. rolls around each morning, Frank Capalbo is not only up, but already hard at work on the day’s baking.
The hours and the work are nothing new to him. He’s been a baker for more than a decade and working in kitchens for even longer. However, the satisfaction of working in his own kitchen and baking for his own shop is still a novel experience, and one he’s thoroughly enjoying.
Capalbo, 58, opened SweetMan’s Baked Goods last month in Pawleys Plaza, fulfilling a dream he’s been nurturing for nearly 20 years. He has no doubt it’s providence that has brought him to this point.
“I say God wanted us here, because every time we’ve hit a snag or run into an obstacle, the very next day somebody came and helped us,” he said.
That started with the article he read three years ago about Georgetown County’s plans to start a farmer’s market in the Pawleys Island area. Capalbo and his wife, Karen, hadn’t been back home long after spending three years in Louisiana, where he worked as a baker on an oil rig. Karen’s father was dying of lung cancer and she spent his last seven months as his nurse.
“It was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen anyone do,” Capalbo said proudly. But Karen worried that her husband was being held back from being able to finally start his business. He shrugged it off, saying that when the time was right, God would show the way.
Capalbo’s father-in-law died on a Monday in June. The following Thursday, he saw the article and signed up to be a vendor at the farmer’s market. That’s where he developed much of his following and the reason he had customers lined up when he opened the bakery. He built a reputation with a selection of breads, assorted sweets and his specialty, tomato pie.
“The first year at the farmer’s market there was a lady making tomato pies and selling quite a few,” Capalbo recalled. “The second year she didn’t come back and my wife said ‘you need to make your own version.’ ”
He did, testing the result on his wife. She wasn’t impressed.
“She said, ‘Frank, you’re much better than this,’” he recounted.
Six versions of the dish later, he had a winner.
That’s the process he uses for many items. He finds a recipe that looks promising and makes changes until he gets it just right. By the time he’s done, it’s something special; something uniquely his. Something like his Creamy Dreamy Peanut Butter Pie, root beer cake or the delectable sweetness of his palmiers.
“I’ve always been a foodie,” Capalbo said from a little café table in the corner of his shop. The air is redolent with the smell of fresh bread.
“I’ve loved food and been in restaurants my whole life, but I came late to baking.”
He grew up in an Italian family, where his grandmother ruled the roost. No men were allowed in her kitchen, so her recipes were off limits to her grandson.
Capalbo eventually talked his mother into letting him in on some of the family’s culinary secrets. He learned family recipes, including one for his grandmother’s Easter bread. But sadly many of her recipes went with her to her grave.
Capalbo started out working in the restaurant business as a young man, but got out of it to join corporate America when he started a family. He was a victim of poor economic times in the late 1980s and that’s how he ended up in Pawleys Island, though he planned to move his family to Maine.
“We headed for Maine and ended up in South Carolina. I’ve got no other explanation for that except God wanted us here,” he said.
They detoured through Atlanta first, where he spent a month looking for work. When he didn’t find anything, they went to live with Karen’s parents who had retired in Pawleys Island. With the exception of the few years spent in Louisiana, it’s been home ever since.
Capalbo was unemployed for the first nine months, then held down three jobs: baking bread in the wee hours for Pawleys Pastries, which once existed in the plaza, then heading to a job at a carpet store and ending the day cooking at Litchfield Country Club.
The oven he bought for his shop is the same one he used in his days at Pawleys Pastries. He bought it from his landlord and when he found out its history, he couldn’t help but laugh.
“I said, Yeah, I’ve already got scars from that oven,” he recalled. “I’ve come full circle.”
Capalbo also worked at Webster’s restaurant and Eggs Up Grill.
Sweetman’s is a family venture, he said. After he’d talked about owning a bakery for so long, it was his daughter, Nicole, who finally pushed him to get things rolling. She’s the president and CEO, traveling from Charleston once or twice a week to attend to things.
Karen works at the bakery at the end of the week and their son Stephen came home from out west to help out.
“He lends an artist’s touch,” Capalbo said.
The couple has another son, Michael, who “gives moral support from Nevada.”
They considered Murrells Inlet and Georgetown for the bakery, but Capalbo really wanted to be based in Pawleys Island, where people already knew him and where he would get more of the tourist business. He thought he’d found a good spot, but it fell through.
Karen took him out for ice cream to cheer him up and that’s where he ran into the owner of Pawleys Plaza. The next thing he knew, he was looking at rental space.
“It was a lot of work to clean it up and paint it and get it right, and to get an A from DHEC, but the numbers worked. Everything worked,” he said.
He views it as another sign from above.
The pride Capalbo takes in the place now is obvious. When people come in, he said, he wants them to feel like they’re walking into his home. He’s worked almost as hard to create that kind of atmosphere as he has on his menu. He’s still in the process of seeing what customers want, taking requests and trying out new recipes, so the variety in the glass display cases will grow along with the business, he said.
He tries to focus on items customers aren’t likely to find elsewhere and meet customer needs, whether that means offering bread in small loaves for people who live alone or researching recipes for someone who wants to serve a variety tray of Italian cookies.
“You can’t please everybody, but I try a broad-stroke approach,” he said. “We’re keeping the quantities small right now, but there are a lot of unexplored areas we want to cover,” Capalbo said.
He’s also very careful about his ingredients.
“I travel up and down Highway 17 looking for the perfect tomato,” he said. “I haven’t found it yet, but we spend that much time thinking about what goes into our products.
“I think we’re just different,” he said, comparing SweetMan’s to other bakeries in the area.
“We’re very homespun and that sets us apart.”
SweetMan’s is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Call 314-3833 or visit their website.
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