Buzzing like a hive, 150 volunteers scurry around the fellowship hall of St. Clement Catholic Church. It is just one day before the beloved Florida Strawberry Festival, and the church has one of just three booths on the entire grounds that offers the city’s signature strawberry shortcake.
Last year, green-aproned volunteers sold more than 90,000 decadent desserts at the tinseled buffet line. About 70 volunteers, separated into two shifts, are needed each day to run the hectic booth.
But the highly visible stand is just the strawberry on top of the cream. It’s the extensive operation that goes on behind the scenes that serves as the biscuit-flavored foundation to a tradition that has raised the church hundreds of thousands each year.
Throughout 41 years of operating the booth, the church’s booth has garnered much attention as a well-oiled shortcake-producing machine.
The volunteers arrive early, racing back and forth between a truck loaded down with pallets to the church. A total of 550 flats of strawberries have arrived. In the past, Astin Farms and St. Martin Farms have participated in the tradition. But this year, the church ordered berries from a parishioner who also is a grower.
After unloading nearly six pallets, it’s time to clean and slice.
In this industrial town, even the local Catholic church owns a conveyor belt. The first of the berries are dropped onto the belt around 9 a.m. The belt lurches to a start. Everyone cheers.
Trekking their way down, the berries are showered with water then sliced by sharp blades. The delicate pieces fall into a bucket filled with a sugar solution. They soak in the sweet moisture while being topped and crated to the festival grounds.
But, it’s not all work and no play.
“It’s a nice social event,” organizer Paul Hetrick said. “It’s the chance for us all to get together. People love it.”
One of those people is Al Kramer.
“You get to talk to a lot of people and get to know a lot of people,” Kramer said.
Kramer has been volunteering for six years. He used to work in the big room slicing the tender leaves off the fruit. But the operation needs strong hands at the conveyor belt. Today, Kramer lifts buckets of berries onto the machine.
And although many volunteers have experience like Kramer, there are some green newbies, too.
This year is Judy Anderson’s first time volunteering. She worked to prepare the berries before they go to the conveyor belt. Throughout the year, Anderson receives food from church’s pantry.
“I figured they give to me, so I can give back,” Anderson said. “I was just shocked all that goes on here.”
“This is a woman who isn’t involved with the church who stepped up,” said Ken Goldbach, who shared a table with Anderson. “That’s what this is about.”
Throughout the 11-day festival, the demand for strawberry shortcake is constant. The church has cleaned, sliced and carted up to 800 flats in just one day.
But the worker bees don’t just manage strawberries.
Unlike the strawberries, the whipped cream is taken care of on the festival grounds. The pourable liquid is whipped in five restaurant-grade mixers. Patrons consume about 3,000 gallons of the non-dairy cream throughout the festival.
The whipped cream is carried in strong metal bowls to the buffet set up and replaced upon demand. The strawberries also are replaced on the buffet line.
St. Clement’s booth is set up for patrons to have it their way. Going through the line is like a speed eating contest. First choose a biscuit or cake disk. Then scoop as much strawberries as you can, followed by whipped cream which is topped with a ruby red berry. You even get a sticker at the end.
“You can make it the way you want to, get the best bang for your buck,” Hetrick said. “We just like to see people happy eating our shortcake.”
BERRY LONG HISTORY
For 16 years, die-hard shortcake-lover Barbara Caccamisi operated the booth. Even when she was sick with cancer, Caccamisi still remained involved in the project. She died last year at 66.
“She was a fearless leader,” Hetrick said. “She really made this her baby, and she did a really good job. She kept it pure.”
Now, Hetrick and Kevin McFaul have taken on the conductor’s role of the sweet-tooth express.
“We’re a two-headed dragon,” Hetrick said.
Hetrick has been involved with the booth since the mid-1980s. After working some shifts at the booth, he began to make signs. From there, he started decorating the stand with “all the glitz and glamour.”
But before Hetrick, it was local restaurateur Lani Purcell who persuaded the church to get involved in the first place. The booth originally was run by the Order of the Eastern Star women’s auxiliary group. In the mid-1970s, Purcell organized the church’s takeover of the booth.
Last year, St. Clement raised $137,000. Most of the money raised in the past has gone to aid in construction costs of different buildings on the church’s campus and different ministries.
Contact Amber Jurgensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY THE NUMBERS
150: The number of volunteers who are at the church each day preparing strawberries.
70: The number of volunteers who work on the festival grounds at the booth each day.
$137,000: The amount raised last year in shortcake sales.
90,000: The number of shortcakes sold last year.
550: The average number of flats prepared by St. Clement volunteers per day.
3,000: The number gallons of whipped cream consumed at the festival.