When Charlie Tola first opened his Fresh Meadows bakery at 23, many in the neighborhood said he would never make it.
But Lulu’s bakery, which celebrated its 15th anniversary Jan. 13, proved Tola’s naysayers wrong.
“People used to stand outside and say you’re not gonna last three months here,” Tola said. “I was scared — really scared. If I had to do it again today, I wouldn’t be able to take that risk because I have people who depend on me. I didn’t make a dollar in my first year.”
The baker, who grew up in Astoria, has now been involved in the pastry business for more than 30 years. He first started working at his uncle’s bakery in Sunnyside when he was 10. He started as a cleaning boy and by 12 he was decorating cakes.
When Luisa, Tola’s wife and the bakery’s namesake, moved to Fresh Meadows in 1995, Tola noticed his then-girlfriend’s new neighborhood did not have an Italian bakery nearby.
“I asked her when you need pastries, where do you go?” Tola said.
Luisa responded that she had to go all the way to Brooklyn to get baked goods.
Tola figured Fresh Meadows would be the place to open his own bakery. He set about putting a business plan together, got a loan from his father — who refinanced his house to help — and opened Lulu’s in 1999.
Shortly after opening, Tola soon realized he needed to make more than just the traditional offerings of an Italian bakery. He started to diversify his products to meet customers’ needs and his business took off from there.
“I got a lot of feedback and adjusted. I can make what I love, but if it doesn’t sell it’s pointless. So I listen to what the customers want and that’s what I owe my success to,” he said.
The bakery, at 185-26 Union Tnpk., now provides a wide assortment of cakes, cookies, pastries and bread to the neighborhood. Tola makes Irish soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day and challah bread around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. He also sells many products made with whole wheat flour for those seeking healthier options.
Lulu’s also offers a variety of fondant cakes, which have been Tola’s passion and specialty since he started decorating cakes in his uncle’s bakery.
One of his new cakes is a cannoli mousse cake which he named after his daughter, Giulia.
Tola attributed Lulu’s success to the quality of his products and his staff’s warm service.
“I’m a strong believer that if you put out a fresh product with good ingredients and provide good customer service, people will come back,” he said.
Reach reporter Alex Robinson by e-mail at arobinson@