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For the love of baking — Charleston bakery owner is on 30 years of baking pink champagne cakes

Debbie Crowl sprinkles coconut on the side of a pink champagne cake at McGavin
Debbie Crowl sprinkles coconut on the side of a pink champagne cake at McGavin's Bakery Tuesday.
— image credit: Kristin Okinaka/staff photo

A woman walked into the bakery on Callow Avenue and burst into tears. She had moved away from Bremerton and had not been to McGavin’s Bakery in 25 years. To her, everything looked the same and she took a pink champagne cake to celebrate the reunion.

“She came to see if it was still here,” said Deloris Lichter, who has worked at the Charleston bakery since December 2007. “It’s a real tradition.”

Bill Sheldon has owned the bakery, known for its pink champagne cake, since 1981. He came from a bakery in Tacoma and bought McGavin’s because of the location and the longstanding history of the pink champagne cake there.

“This was the place to be and I’ve been here ever since,” he said Tuesday.

Sheldon said it’s up for debate as to exactly how long McGavin’s Bakery has been around. He said it has a history of about 74 years.

“The historical society has taken a couple shots, but I don’t know if anyone can agree on it,” he said.

Sheldon began baking as a 16-year-old when he worked at a bakery while in high school in Tacoma. He started out frying doughnuts and soon learned everything else. He enjoyed it and knew he wanted to make a career out of it.

His family didn’t bake but it was something that he just took a likening to, Sheldon said. He was one of the last generations to participate in a three-year apprenticeship sponsored by the state at the time.

“I do it because of the actual baking,” he said.

Sheldon wakes up at 5:30 a.m. on days when he works, which is every day except for Sundays and Mondays when the bakery is closed. Half of the work day is spent on making cakes, he said.

And regardless of its actual name, there is no champagne in the cake.

“It’s a combination of things,” said Sheldon of the staple cakes that draw customers in, adding that people probably like them because they are pink.

The cakes are multi-layered and are softly coated with coconut. The smallest size comes at 7 inches and can be made upward to double sheets for special orders, Sheldon said.

During a “good” weekend, they sell about 100 cakes, said Sheldon. In a typical weekend, the bakery sells from 40 to 60 cakes, he said.

In addition to the pink champagne cakes, the bakery produces other cakes including chocolate champagne, red velvet, and angel food. They make danishes, many different types of cookies ranging from gingerbread to chocolate chip and serve up pies to order.

Sheldon said he stopped baking an assortment of breads about three years ago because it took too much labor and was unprofitable. Yet, on some Saturdays, Sheldon will bake his cinnamon raisin bread.

“I like just watching it and trying to make it perfect,” he said of breads and baking in general. “I’m fussy about things.”

For the breads, he likes to get a perfect “bread-and-shread,” which is the line that runs around the outside of the loaf on the upper part without any breaks or cracks.

“Timing is everything,” he said. “This is an art.”

Aside from himself and Lichter, Sheldon has one other employee at the bakery. Debbie Crowl has been working at the bakery for more than a year-and-a-half and said that she has learned a lot from Sheldon about baking.

“I couldn’t ice a cake to save a soul,” Crowl said when she first started.

Like Lichter, Crowl said she enjoys working at the bakery because of the tradition. She said there are people who come in to order a cake who say they cannot remember a birthday when they didn’t have a cake from McGavin’s.

“It’s nice to listen to the nostalgia,” Crowl said.

Of his six grown children, Sheldon has one son that works for the government “but bakes all the time” in San Antonio. The others never took an interest in baking but that never bothered Sheldon.

“I always told them, you should enjoy what you do, or not do it,” he said.

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