Several years ago, when I still lived in New York, a vegan friend of mine introduced me to BabyCakes bakery on the Lower East Side. At the time, I just thought they were yummy cupcakes. I had no idea that one day they would change my life and save my sanity. Over a year ago I developed health issues that I’m still trying to get past, the result of which is a truckload of food intolerances that include all the main ingredients of comfort foods. Namely tasty, sweet comfort food treats that help you cope with things like life.
Enter Erin McKenna. This lady started BabyCakes from scratch. While there are currently three locations – New York, LA and Disney World – her cookbooks have made her incredible dessert recipes accessible to everyone within a thirty-mile radius of a Whole Foods. What’s more, she has a flair for design (she used to work in fashion, which explains why the bakers’ uniforms are so cute) and is one of the most brilliant businesswomen in New York today, competing with the city’s top bakeries despite her unconventional ingredients.
I recently had the (really exciting and fun and fascinating and other adjectives) pleasure of chatting with Erin about her bakery, its inspiration, inception and blossoming. From a small Lower East Side storefront, the bakery quickly inspired lines out the door and down the street, an enthusiastic celebrity following and the opening of two more locations. It’s not just a go-to for vegans and folks with gluten allergies. Most customers are perfectly fine with any range of ingredients, they just prefer BabyCakes – a true achievement considering there is also no refined sugar in anything!
Erin not only developed recipes that avoid potential allergens, she did her homework and created sweets from “the different natural things that you can eat that propel you to better health”. She wasn’t always a baker, though. Her previous career was in fashion and about six months before moving from LA to New York, she was diagnosed with wheat, dairy and soy allergies. Through letting go of these ingredients, she also decided to cut out preservatives and chemicals in general, even sweeteners like Splenda. A lifetime of snacking and desserts gave her a good idea of flavors and textures to aim for and after the offerings of the gluten free aisle fell short, she set to task with a mission to appease her cravings.
Erin says that she “would read home recipes like Julia Child’s dessert recipes and kind of just figure out what the ratio of sugar to flour would be and convert it on my own and, you know, mess around with replacements for eggs. It really was a blind approach.” Apparently her first experiments were really disgusting and while it may be hard to believe considering her current skillz, it’s inspiring to say the least. Her methods were intuitive and ambitious: “I’d meditate a lot and have a clear mind and would just kind of intuitively start throwing things in a bowl and take notes about how things would turn out. Over time I developed an understanding of the ingredients and how they worked and what they did in a recipe.”
The inspiration for Babycakes came from seeing parents of children with gluten allergies struggle to give their kids normal treats. Initially she took the idea to a chef friend, who replied that she should just do it herself. According to Erin, her response was, “No, I could never do that, I don’t even know how to be in a kitchen!” Soon after, however, she decided to forget about being intimidated and just go for it. Somewhere, Marianne Williamson was really proud. After a year of recipe testing (and quitting her day job), she had two solid ones to go forward with. Babycakes opened to eager customers and hasn’t closed its doors since.
This doesn’t mean things are free and easy, however. Because the ingredients list is unusual, the bakery also spends more on ingredients than its conventional counterparts. People are used to spending $3 on a cupcake and with all the expensive ingredients, it’s tough to price competitively. Erin says that if she followed Magnolia’s or Crumbs’s business model, she would have to mark up her cupcakes to $8 a piece. Keeping them around $5 means sacrificing profit, not just for the benefit of being able to sell a cupcake but also for the customers. I was pleasantly surprised to learn how much Erin cares about people like me, who can’t just grab sweets anywhere and really appreciate a place where we can partake of every goodie offered.
“It looks like there’s a line out the door all the time and we’re so busy and on paper it probably looks like were rolling in dough, but the reality is the profit margin is considerably lower than the other bakeries out there. What I’ve done is written two books to support the bakery and our expansion. We’re working on other projects and ideas to help boost our cash flow so that we can bring BabyCakes everywhere. I don’t want it to be like a Starbucks situation, where there’s a BabyCakes on every corner [I DO – Julia], but what inspires me to open in cities is to have that option for parents and people … it does take a lot of hard work and it’s really stressful doing it but the payback is seeing all these people from everywhere who are just so excited that you’re there.”
Erin gets it because she’s in our boat and that makes all the difference. Whereas most lovable bakers get fulfillment from feeding people treats, Erin gets it from knowing she can feed them to everyone and promote their health simultaneously. While her diet is not 100% vegan, she only eats fish or meat at restaurants and only if there is a selection of locally raised options. “My philosophy for my diet is keep it natural and follow the body’s signals when it needs protein nourishment. I look at each meal as an opportunity to uplift my energy and all around health. It has been working great for me!”
Healthy baking isn’t just about ingredients, though. The vibe at each bakery is fun and there’s always music playing. I didn’t even bother to ask Erin if she listened to music while baking, I just asked who she loves to listen to most: “When it was just me back in the day baking in the bakery, it would be Mary J Blige, Aaliyah, Kelis. I’m just really into soul music.” She still loves Aaliyah and made this little video tribute on the tenth anniversary of the artist’s untimely death recently. Erin is also a big fan of the Cults (only partly because her niece is half the band) and loves She & Him. Apparently each new girl in the bakery inevitably puts them on when she first puts her iPod into rotation and who can blame them? I swear, the way Erin puts coconut oil in the frosting, She & Him put crack in their sound waves. Both are equally addictive (we may have geeked out over how we both love to bake while listening to She & Him).
The chain is expanding, with a new location opening up in the Larchmont area of LA and plans for a space in Chicago. Apparently rumors of a San Francisco store are false (colon + frowny bracket) because the space they looked at fell through. “We’re just waiting for the perfect, right home. I want it to be cozy and in a great location.”
She’s also “pumped about Larchmont. The energy is so right and it just feels so happy over and I feel really lucky to be on the block. It’s going to look exactly like our New York shop. In Downtown we made a bit of a separation between the kitchen and the front of house but I really miss that connection. When I’m baking in LA I just feel so disconnected with customers and I think that they really like to peek over the window and see what we’re doing and talk to us. Ask us what we’re making, take pictures, it’s just part of the whole experience.” There will also be more donuts in this shop, as Babycakes just got crowned the Donut Kings at the 2011 LA Donut Summit for the best overall donut! There will also be more waffles, pancakes and breakfast goodies and I will be there to devour them all. The famous Bingo Night will still be happening.
What inspires me so much about Erin is not just how she feeds my poor, deprived little palate. She left a job that was unfulfilling to pursue her passion, and while we see it often in films and literature, how many of us actually do it? When she wanted the treats she craved, she worked tirelessly to make them accessible, instead of waiting for a solution to drop into her lap or complaining that it wasn’t. Instead of just eliminating the allergens in her diet, she went the extra mile to eat truly healthy. She gets things done and gets them done right. From a food allergy diagnosis, she has created award-winning pastries that feed hundreds of happy customers each day, many of whom would otherwise be stuck a donut and cupcake-less hell. I, for one, am immensely grateful and inspired to incorporate her spirit into my own life.
Find Erin on Twitter @itserinmckenna