ALBEMARLE — After 30 years with the Albemarle Fire Department, Shawn Oke, fire chief for the past decade, is now devoting his days to managing his downtown bakery, the Albemarle Sweet Shop.
Oke officially stepped down from his role on June 1 and is already fully transitioned to his new role.
When asked if he was able to take a break after his last day with the department, Oke said, “I did. I took yesterday off. Being on the go has been a lifestyle for me, so I don’t see myself slowing down just because I stopped being a fire chief.”
He said his employees are trying to get used to the idea that he will not just be around a few hours on the weekends but will be a hands-on part of daily operations.
“Honestly, I’m so blessed to have such a great crew here,” Oke said. “All the employees here have done such a marvelous job. They’ve essentially kept this business going the past nine years.”
He says he made clear to them that he is not looking to hover over them in his new role, but to support them and fill in to make their jobs run more smoothly.
“I’m looking to take a good thing and make it a great thing,” Oke said. “I don’t know what the future holds or where we’ll go, but I definitely want to explore getting into shipping. Seems like a great time to own a business downtown with Pfeiffer coming and finally seeing a surge of activity in Albemarle.”
Looking back on his time in the fire department though, Oke said, “I’m glad it all turned out the way it did. I wouldn’t do anything over again, and honestly, as I get older, being able to say that, then I knew I did it right. I’m so glad that I did because the opportunities that I was given, not only here, but in the national fire service, and things that have presented themselves as a result of me being here. I’m so blessed.”
Fighting fires is a family tradition, with Oke being a third-generation firefighter and both of his sons, 22 and 19, starting careers in the same line of work.
He said being able to see his sons move down the same path that has been so fulfilling for him is something “you really can’t put into words.” His father, a retired firefighter himself, was very proud and emotional this week as he watched Shawn retire, and Shawn likewise is very proud seeing his sons moving forward in their careers. The Concord fire chief let him ride along on one of his son’s shifts recently, and it was another proud moment.
“I actually spent 24 hours with him driving a fire truck in the fire station, and it was pretty cool to be able to that.”
Baking is another family business though, with two uncles on his mother’s side having run a bakery for many years.
“That’s honestly one reason why I bought the bakery when the opportunity presented itself,” Oke said. “I knew that I had them as a resource I could fall back on. They had a very successful scratch bakery in New England, so I had that in my blood.”
Oke said that a big part of running this bakery is maintaining it as a traditional staple of the community. He’s restored much of the building to appear as it did when it opened about a century ago and has even kept the original recipes.
“We’ve introduced some new stuff, but the custard pies, the cream horns, the clown cookies, the fruit bars, the cake, all of that is the exact same formula dating back to when they came up with them,” Oke said.
“It was kind of crazy,” he said, remembering the day he bought the bakery. “After we were done with all the paperwork at the attorney’s office, the previous owner pulled a big old box from underneath the table and said, ‘Here’s what you just paid all that money for.’”
Although he’s staying busy with his new role, the scale of operations is a quite a bit different, he says. “The Fire Department is basically a $3.4 million operation with 42 employees, and the sweet shop is a lot smaller financially and only has five employees.”
As to how Oke is going to fill any remaining time from this slower pace, he says, “I’m a strong person of faith, so I think God’s going to make that clear to me. But right now, I don’t know.”
He does plan on continuing to run the Leadership Stanly Program through the Stanly County Chamber of Commerce and to be active with his church, First Lutheran Church in Albemarle. One way he is giving back is in partnership with the senior center: Any senior 90 or older who has a birthday, he’ll provide them with a birthday cake. But he says he will just be open to wherever God wants him to fill in in the community.
“That’s what so great about living in Stanly County is even though we’ve got metro Charlotte right on top of us, there’s no better place to raise a family because we’re still that hometown.”
Albemarle is in the process of finding a new fire chief, and until they do Michael Ferris, the city manager, will be filling in as the interim fire chief.