Until a couple of years ago, an art gallery occupied the storefront at 21211 Mack in Grosse Pointe Woods. Today, visitors might be tempted to say it’s still a gallery, given the artistic presentation of the palmiers, scones, galettes, and cupcakes baked by Charlie Bowman at Delight Bakery & Café.
His confections are displayed like jewels, on plates covered by glass domes, and in small quantities, rather than in the more traditional style of the average bakery’s overflowing cases.
Bowman bakes just enough to last the day, which ensures that everything is always fresh.
This is Bowman’s third bakery. From 1999 until 2008, he was the majordomo of Charlie’s Patisserie in downtown Birmingham. He might still be there, had he not lost his lease when the landlord decided to do something else with the space.
For a change of pace, he moved to San Diego, where he became pastry chef at a restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter. “I thought I was through with the cold,” he says. But his native Michigan exerted its pull on him and, after a short stay in Chicago, he returned to home base and found the spot on Mack — as unpromising as it looked when he first saw it. “It was just an empty building, with no ceiling,” he says. “And all the walls and floors were covered in green carpeting.” He and his business partner, Tim Bradshaw, gutted it and started from scratch — appropriate given Bowman’s dedication to from-scratch baking. He candies his own orange and lemon and makes almond paste, lemon curd, pastry cream, and fresh-fruit fillings using no commercial components. “The difference in flavor when you can make all parts of it is just tremendous,” he says.
Surveying the elegant pastries at Delight, one could easily conclude that Bowman is the product of an elite culinary school. In fact, he’s self-taught, inspired by his mother, Flora Bowman, who instilled in him an appreciation of homemade foods.
Still, he had no idea baking would become a career when he enrolled in pre-med at the University of Michigan and got a job in the cheese department at Zingerman’s. He remembers proprietor Ari Weinzweig, whose girlfriend was a doctor, telling him what a tough life medicine is and encouraging him to make a nice life for himself.
Working at the quality-obsessed Zingerman’s was, Bowman says, “a great experience and really pushed me into thinking about doing a store.” After getting his degree in biology, he opened a bakery near Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown area and found that “most of my customers were from Birmingham and Bloomfield.” They encouraged him to move closer, and he did.
Now that he’s in Grosse Pointe Woods, he finds that just a few of his Oakland County customers make the trek, but there’s a new audience that appreciates his skill. The door to the kitchen is always open. Bowman, who starts baking at 2 a.m. and generally stays until the shop closes at 6 p.m., doesn’t stay in the back, preferring, instead, to roll out dough on a butcher-block table behind the counter, where he interacts with the patrons who stop by for a scone or a brownie (heart-shaped for Valentine’s Day), two of the most popular items. About his daunting schedule, he says, “I’ve always enjoyed working. It never seems like a job. I can work a 16-hour day and it just flies by.”
Bowman, who grew up in Dearborn and now lives in Royal Oak, says he’s happy to be back in Michigan, where he believes the opportunity for small business owners is exceptional. That pleases his customers, who are happy to have him back.