Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

A Penchant for Cupcakes and Dresses

Written by Elizabeth McKenna
I knocked on the door to the Penthouse at Columbus Circle and heard the B-52’s being played on the other side. I imagined that everyone lounged about glamorously in an attempt to feign disinterest as they anxiously awaited the precious cargo I carried in a brown bag casually slung on my arm.
I knocked on the door to the Penthouse at Columbus Circle and heard the B-52’s being played on the other side. I imagined that everyone lounged about glamorously in an attempt to feign disinterest as they anxiously awaited the precious cargo I carried in a brown bag casually slung on my arm.

Mary-Louise Parker’s publicist, an enthusiastic, young red head, opened the door and showed me a hotel room that was exactly how I imagined it. The Manhattan skyline peaked through the drawn gauze curtains and filled the Penthouse with a warm light. The minimalist design was casually chic and mildly intimidating. I sheepishly crossed the threshold and saw photographers, stylists and assistants draped across almost every available surface.

“BabyCakes!” one of the photographers gushed as he eagerly sat up. “I love you guys!”

“Thank you.” I said, grinning from ear to ear. “I love us, too!”

I walked over to the catering table and laid out the gluten free and vegan banana bread from my sister Erin’s bakery: BabyCakes NYC. Everyone gathered around, ready to pounce like a bunch of fiends. Right then, a stunning and barefoot Mary-Louise breezed out of the bathroom. Dark, dramatic eye make-up perfectly complimented the purple, flowing toga dress.
 
“Jesus!” Mary-Louise, a huge fan of the bakery, exclaimed when she saw the bread. She instinctually reached out her hand to grab a slice, but stopped herself. “This is torture! I can’t believe I’m on this stupid cleanse. What are you tryin’ to do to me?”

Everyone in the room glanced over at Mary-Louise before they refocused their attention on the bread and me. A few people picked up slices and all rapidly asked question after question about BabyCakes NYC.

“Is this really gluten free and vegan?” asked Mary-Louise’s publicist as she absent-mindedly sent emails from her iPhone.

“Where is the bakery?” asked the waifish, middle aged French stylist.

“How is this so insanely good?” asked the photographer’s assistant as he shoved half of the slice in his face.

“There has to be sugar in this, right?” asked the 16-year-old intern as she checked her Facebook account.

“What in the F?” I wondered, as I fielded every question. “When did we turn into such a fancy pants bakery?”

BabyCakes NYC is an anomaly. Despite my hidden pessimism, it stayed open long enough to become a sort of phenomenon with its arsenal of awesome, healthy cupcakes, brownies, cookies, banana chocolate chip bread and cornbread. Models, moms and naysayers alike all seemed to love it.

Four years ago, Erin never even ambitioned to pick up a spatula and seemed more interested in fashion. I thought she was built for styling as she could easily predict trends years before they showed up on the racks at Forever 21. This skill just wasn’t enough to sustain her. Instead, she realized she was destined to open a bakery and spend the rest of her life in the kitchen. She informed me of this change as I drove her to the airport in San Diego to catch a flight back to New York.

“So…” she said, barely able to choke back her excitement, “I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I’ve decided to open an allergen free bakery in the city. And I have the perfect name for it--BabyCakes. Doesn’t that just sound right?”

“What?” I choked on my Red Bull and almost dropped the cigarette that dangled from my fingers. I was in probably the unhealthiest phase of my life and subsisted on a steady diet of Popem doughnuts, French Fries and bagels. Opening a “healthy” bakery seemed like the most retarded thing I had heard. I also wondered why, after seeing her for a week straight in San Diego, this was the first time she brought it up.

“I’ve been trying to figure out what I should do with my life,” she elaborated, “and I realized that a wheat free, vegan cupcake is exactly what New York needs. You have no idea. Cupcakes are so big right now.”

I paused for a moment and thought about it.

“That’s so cool,” I finally responded and nodded my head in approval. “You totally should. I think you can do it. I had no idea that cupcakes were anything special. New York is so rad like that.”

“Seriously,” Erin replied. Just then we pulled up to the curb for JetBlue.

“Well,” I said as I lifted her suitcase out of the trunk. “I’m really excited to see how this works out. I am super proud of you.”

“It'll be perfect,” she said confidently as she gave me a hug good bye. "I can feel it. Trust me.”

I tried to trust her, but not two seconds later I was on the phone with my sister Sarah. Visions of Erin’s kitchen, bare of all utensils and only used to cook eggs, passed before my eyes.

“Ummmm…” Sarah responded when I told her Erin’s plan. “What? Are you sure she wasn’t joking?”

“That’s what I thought, too,” I said. “What does she think? That she can just pull recipes out of her ass?”

Apparently, she did and, with little direction, she dove willy-nilly into the world of baking. Once my mom found out about her plans, she tried her best to convince Erin that she just wasn’t cutout to open a bakery.

“You’re crazy,” my mom, aka “doomsday,” said. “I don’t know who the hell you think you are. You can’t bake. I mean we baked cookies together when you were a kid, but that’s about it. I don’t know where in the hell this idea came into your head…”

“Jesus mom,” Erin cut her off. “Those were my happiest memories. Don’t reduce them! I have a really good feeling about this. I can’t explain it, but I know it’s gonna work. I am going to bake cookies just like yours.”

This was a pretty bold statement. Everyone knew my mom’s cookies were the best ever created. Erin was aware of this and suspected that all she needed was to replicate them without using butter or wheat and her hypothetical bakery would be a guaranteed success. She used these cookies as her guiding light throughout the next year of non-stop experimentation. She furiously whipped up test batches of confections with expensive and weird ingredients by day and waited tables by night. Repeatedly, Erin invented dozens of barely edible rocks that wound up in the trash. She winced as she watched the garbagemen weekly pick up her hard earned tip money and hauled it off to the dump.

One day, just when she was about to give it all up, something clicked. Through instinctual baking, she had attained the Holy Grail. She pulled out a batch of cookies from her oven, which would fluctuate temperature from hot to flaming hot with no notice, and noted that they looked kind of perfect. Unable to wait for them to cool, she burned her fingers as she pulled one off the sheet to test it out.

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god…” was the only thing Erin could say as the buttery cookie melted in her mouth.

She tried to fall asleep that night, but her heart pounded too hard. BabyCakes NYC was going to happen whether she liked it or not.

After this success, Erin finally mastered her ingredients (i.e. coconut oil, agave nectar, fruit purees and gluten free flours) and amazing desserts filled her 2’ x 5’ Brooklyn kitchen. This was around the time she began her crusade to uproot my life from Berkeley to New York. I wasn’t thoroughly convinced about the bakery, but I started to entertain the idea that, maybe, she wasn’t just crazy or desperate.

“Elizabeth,” Erin told me over the phone with hushed excitement, “this is going to be the funnest place to work. You’ll get to wear uniforms like the old women at See’s Candies, but they’ll be smaller, pinker and less grandma-esque. Seriously, all you’ll have to do is talk to New York eccentrics and eat cookies.”

Being a fat kid with a penchant for sassy dresses and sweets, I was actually already sold by the time she told me I could eat cookies all day. Publishing just proved to be a good excuse because I couldn’t see myself telling everyone I had moved across the country for a cupcake. A few months later, I had thrown out everything I owned and moved into Erin’s Brooklyn apartment.

The bakery was then only a dark, dirty hole in the Lower East Side that I was completely in love with. The cramped, musty space with its orange walls covered in penis/vagina/sex graffiti was definitely not where one would imagine “delicate sweets” could be made. In fact, it seemed better suited as an underground sex dungeon, which was what all the neighbors later told us it used to be.

Erin, Derrick (her friend/construction worker) and Sabrina began the grueling build-out before I got to New York. They dragged thirty bags of trash, tons of useless lumber and broken toilets to the curb, which takes on a distinctly halitosis scent in the thick of summer. The street smell was at its prime at this point.

It was a slow process, but within three months the interior of the BabyCakes NYC was mostly built. We had a cold case, working refrigerator, an oven, paint on the walls, coffee cups, some cake boxes and, most importantly, our uniforms. That was more than enough for Erin, who just needed to throw the doors open, start selling cupcakes and recoup some of the money that had already been dumped into the bakery.

On that first day, we woke up at 5:00 am to get the bakery open by 9:00. At 10:55, we didn’t even have cash in the register. I ran to the bank as fast as I could before someone came in and gave us a $100 bill for a $2 purchase. We jumped when we heard a knock on the door at 11:00; it was Erin’s friend Betsey, ready to be the first customer. At that time, we only sold three flavors of cupcakes (vanilla, lemon and chocolate) and cookies. Betsey contemplated our meager selection and eventually ordered a gluten free chocolate cupcake. I handed it over to her in a piece of parchment paper. Before I could ring her up, I realized I didn’t know what to charge her.

“Erin,” I yelled back at her as she frantically stirred vanilla cupcake batter in the kitchen. “How much is a cupcake?”

“Ummm…” she said, as panic registered on her face. We stared at each other; we both realized neither of us had any idea how much each cupcake cost to make.

“2.50? I guess,” she squished her face up and shrugged her shoulder.

“Ok…” I responded, half distracted by the register that I didn’t even know how to open.

Despite this stilted beginning, the first day was a hectic success. We may have only had 20 customers all day, but we somehow broke even with $500 in sales. It might have helped that every person who walked in was either friends with Erin, Sabrina or myself. On average, everyone paid about $30 per cupcake.

By the next day, the party was over. We had somehow misplaced the $500 we had earned the night before, the cold case broke and only a couple of customers walked in. Both Erin and Sabrina had exhaustion and panic induced breakdowns and we only had $75 in sales. This didn’t even cover the cost of ingredients.

In the beginning, even though we didn’t have many customers, Erin, Sabrina and I were ALWAYS at the bakery. We felt that if we weren’t all there, running in aimless circles, BabyCakes NYC would fall apart. We were all exhausted, crazy and loved every minute of it; Sabrina and I even did it all for free for a couple of months.

With the same energy we devoted to keeping busy, we did anything and everything to keep customers. Since we catered to a particular, high-maintenance clientele, they made it their business to see how many hoops we would jump through. People read our mission statement to mean, “We will do whatever it takes to make sure that you can have a cupcake even if it means we break our backs and sell our souls in the process.”

Their requests usually required that we spend money we didn’t even have. One woman, whose son Tommie had an anaphylactic allergy to everything, berated my sister after she was informed that none of our recipes could be modified to accommodate her son’s coconut oil allergy. Coconut oil was in everything. To do so would’ve meant we’d have to purchase uncontaminated cookware, which wasn’t cheap.

“What’re we supposed to do?” Tommie’s mom screamed into the phone. “Tommie’s never even had a sweet before. If you make up recipes without coconut oil, I can guarantee you that we will spend at least $200 every week.”

$200! We were going to be so freaking rich. That was just a little over two days worth of sales and It would’ve meant we could actually pay for some of our ingredients without worrying about draining the account. Erin also felt pretty bad about the kid never having had a cupcake in his life and agreed to do it.

Sabrina was sent out to withdraw $100, almost all the money in the account, to buy Tommie special pots, pans and utensils so he could safely eat desserts. Erin invented new recipes that she needed to have ready to be eaten in less than 24 hours. I tried one of her coconut-oil-free-cupcakes and deemed them “ok.” It’s not like Tommie knew what cupcakes tasted like anyway.

The next day, Tommie’s mom picked up her order. She wore the wealthy mom uniform of oversized glasses, yoga pants and a well coifed do. She dipped her perfectly manicured hands into her purse and pulled out an American Express card.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said. “We’re cash only.”

“Aaarrre you seeerious,” she sighed, as if I had just told her that we had misplaced her order. “Ugghh.”

She pulled out a wad of $20’s, peeled off two and picked up her bag. She glanced into it with a grimace and left without thanking us.

We waited for her weekly orders to start coming in, but the phone didn’t ring. Eventually, Sabrina lugged the newly purchased and barely used items down to the basement. For months they sat, unused, in a box labeled, “Tommie’s Stuff.” We held onto the hope that her large orders would eventually come.

As former cooks and servers, Erin, Sabrina and I understood the concept of customer service and baking. Yet we lacked all foresight necessary to open a business and were kind of confused about everything beyond counting down our drawer, taking orders, food prep and making batter We started off not knowing how to strong-arm our purveyors, who would never deliver our products on time. Since they hadn’t yet realized they were dealing with a rising star, they all made BabyCakes NYC the lowest priority. We would humbly ask that they please, please, please deliver us the coconut oil ASAP since the bakery would go out of business without it. We quickly realized this strategy didn’t work and that we had to emulate the pushy, annoying people the world loves to hate. But these are the very people who get things done, so we sucked it up.

We loosely maintained our books and didn’t know why we were supposed to keep any of our receipts, which is why Erin, when questioned by New York Magazine as to what BabyCakes NYC’s books looked like, responded in-grammatically. “What’s books?” The day the magazine hit the stands, everyone in the City collectively slapped his or her foreheads and thought, “ouch.” Our accountant promptly called the bakery and fired us.

Her sweet naïveté ended up being a blessing in disguise. People felt sorry for us and trickled in to lend the struggling bakery a helping hand. After one bite of a cupcake, we were no longer charity cases. The customers became regulars and little by little more people came to the bakery.

Although the bakery’s first mention in New York Magazine helped a lot, we still had a bit more growing to do before we were out of the danger zone.

With one write-up, though, that downward trajectory changed. New York Magazine, the go to guide for all New Yorkers, included BabyCakes NYC in another one of their issues and deemed ours the best cupcake in the city. Not best vegan cupcake. Just best cupcake. Period. People flocked to the bakery, ready to test it out. Almost everyone who came in agreed and we watched excitedly as our sales and range of products increased. A year later, Erin made an appearance on Martha Stewart, a segment that re-aired three times. Spontaneous tears gush out of my eyes every time I see our name in print or on TV.

What started off as a three-girl operation has grown into a mini company. Now there are twelve people working here and I don’t even know all their names. Conversely, they don’t fully realize what went into making that business start so that they could eventually work at the counter. Sometimes I get a little territorial. “They probably don’t even realize how hard it was to figure out that the cups needed to be right next to the coffee machine,” I think. Then, I realize that at least now there are more people to blame when crap goes wrong.

A few months back, I answered the phone at the bakery.

“This is Tommie’s mom,” a woman said without saying hello. Her voice sounded strained and panicked. At that point, I had grown accustomed to the stressed tone of an Upper East Side mom. “I would like to place an order.”

“Tommie’s mom?” I asked, even though I knew exactly who she was. “I’m sorry, I don’t know who that is…”

“Let me talk to Erin,” she sighed.

I usually didn’t pass the phone off to her, but I thought this was a phone call she would want to take. Erin’s eyes lit up as I passed the phone to her and I listened to her side of the conversation.

“Oh hi!” Erin said in a painfully sweet voice. “Where’ve you been? We missed you…Oh, in Spain for a year? That sounds A-Mazing…You know, we actually don’t have those pans anymore…yeah, I am sorry…No, I couldn’t buy you anymore…Well, you see…Tommie’s mom, let me talk…You actually made us buy those pans when we had zero dollars in the account…Yes…We were counting on all those orders and were pretty upset when they didn’t start rolling in…Yeah, so I don’t think we can do anything for you…Thank you for calling and good luck on finding another gluten free, vegan, agave sweetened bakery…Bye!“

I was amazed.

“Looks like we’re not in the red, anymore,” I said.

“We’ve arrived!” Erin said through her big smile. We high-fived each other and went back to running in circles around the bakery.
 
Photos courtesy of Elizabeth McKenna

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