BABYCAKES’ ERIN MCKENNA
The cupcake cult: It has spawned everything from reality shows to vinyl toys, a wine label and a LA cupcakery stocked with strictly inedible merch. And despite strong signs of a doughnut takeover, cupcakes has remained the dessert du ’jour.
Just as Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw took her bite of frosting-topped Magnolia confection on a Bleeker Street bench and as healthy-types started exploring a gluten-free existence, one-time waitress and wheat-free eater Erin McKenna whipped up Babycakes NYC, a wheat-free, gluten-free, processed-sugar free bakery that snagged NYMag’s Best Cupcake award and a slew of celebrity fans, from Kiernan Shipka to Natalie Portman.
Like a ton of smartiepants business ladies before her, Erin saw a need in the market–yummy desserts made without gluten, wheat and dairy–and filled it. Now, seven short years later, she’s built a tasty empire with three bakeries (NYC, FLA and LA), two cookbooks BabyCakes and BabyCakes Covers The Classics and a die-hard fanbase–all without any professional cooking instruction.
Today, she tells Pstol how she made the magic happen, battled naysayers and how you can get crackin’ on your own baking empire:
Did you do anything in high school to indicate you would start up a business later in life?
Well, in high school ,maybe 9th grade, I was sitting in Brass Plum in Nordstrom. I took a look around at the merchandise and thought, “You know they really need to offer big bold belts and a better line of stretch pants.” I asked my older sister what that job was and she told me it was a buyer. So in 9th grade I was decided that I would be a buyer because I could foresee trends. However, I didn’t want to start a business
(or so I thought).I was an entrepreneur at heart, though. I was always coming up with good business ideas. but never could see them through. Maybe those other ideas weren’t worth the risk.
Fast forward to your twenties, when you discovered you had gluten allergies. How did the idea to start your own bakery surface?
I started out baking for myself without the thought of a bakery in mind. The stuff I’d make for myself was not that great, but I only had to please myself so I didn’t try too hard. But about a year later, when the idea for the bakery came, I put all my effort into making things totally delicious.
Putting yourself out there with your own recipes and business can seem a little scary. When you first thought of opening your own business, were you worried about failure, protecting your ego or what people might think of you if you failed? Did you battle any “What ifs” in your head, like, “What if this recipe isn’t that great after all?”
When it came to being worried about people discouraging me, I knew it would happen but i also knew that if I listened to them, it would destroy me and my plan, so i never listened. There were times that I could sense the eye-rolling when I’d tell people what I was doing, but I just ignored it.
So how did you learn to ignore the eye-rollers?
I would avoid arguing with people when they try to tell you why your idea won’t work just nod and say “thank you for the advice,” and then it’s over with. The less you get into it with them, the less it will bring you down. Everyone has a war story and they all want to tell you why your thing isn’t going to work. It’s their own stuff so let them air it out and move on!
I was reading a book called The Power of Intention–one of the hippie spiritual books. I’m a hippie! Anyway, it discussed intention at great length and suggested to not listen when people begin to judge what you are setting out to do so that you can stay centered in inspiration and it really worked.
How did you know you were ready to turn your baking into a business?
I asked myself, “What I was waiting for?” The recipes were there. The business plan was complete. I just had to take the plunge. I was just ready and realized the only thing I could lose was the very little money I had. I was used to being broke and the worst thing that could happen is that I would end up more broke. I knew I could always go back to waitressing to make ends meet.
Was it at all freaky to suddenly be the one in charge, with ALL the responsibility?
Not really. Well there was one moment when we took the paper down from the windows and unlocked the doors to let in our very first customer. All of a sudden panicked and thought, “What if they don’t like it? What if everyone hates it here?” But that passed because then I was distracted by actually helping the customers that came in; There was no time for worry–daily exhaustion beat it out of me!
I’m not saying it was easy. it was really tough and we were not making money in the beginning. But slowly, the sales crept up. After six months, we got (New York Magazine’s) “Best of New York” award for our cupcakes and then it was all up from there!
How do you deal with bumps in the road?
I’ve dealt with a lot of failures, bad decisions, and bad “luck.” Whenever these things happen, I examine them, take responsibility for my part of what happened and then add it to the list of lessons learned. Then I make sure to follow it up with focusing on what is going RIGHT and expanding on that.
but you never throw in the towel …
NEVER! No way. No. It’s not an option. That’s a thing–giving up can never be an option.
One thing that sets BabyCakes apart from other bakeries is its unique aesthetic. Your stores have a vintage feel spiked with cheeky, pop-culture references and topped off with stylishly-outfitted staff. This vibe is reflected in your logo, packaging, and web content too [Hey Readers: if you haven’t seen Erin’s videos, you must have a look; they are the cutest damned things!–Erika]. It all reveals a lot about you as a person–someone who appreciates classic glamour, zeitgeist and fashion. How can someone who is just starting out achieve their own authentic vibe? Why is this an important ingredient in business building?
I would encourage (someone just starting out) to look at their business like an outfit: Start with an incredible black dress–the foundation–and build on that. Add a bracelet you found in Buenos Aires and your mom”s necklace. Splurge on some heels and cut your hair yourself. It’s about personality. All those layers become the personality of your business.
People visit businesses as if they were friends. You want them to see your business like their favorite friend–a place they go to feel better to feel at home and inspired.
What else would you tell a girl who wants to make her own recipes and open her own bakery?
I would tell her to:
- put her social life on the side, and spend every living non-working (or non-schooling) moment making those recipes over and over until they are mind blowing.
- Gather up all the courage you have, get yourself a thick skin and get to it! Stay creative. Think about things differently. Do weird things that come to mind. Stay inspired and work your booty off.
- Anything that doesn’t come naturally, anything you don’t understand, you can hire someone to do. Like if you need help with your business plan, go see the folks at the Small Business Administration they will help you write it. [The SBA also has a lot of great–and free–resources just for young entrepreneurs looking to start a business –Erika]
- If you get denied on a loan, ask your friends and neighbors. There are so many people who will want to help if they see passion and drive.
Speaking of helpers, how important is it to find a mentor to help guide you through the process? How do you go about finding one?
Mentors are very useful. (In terms of finding them,) they just show up. and present themselves the more you get into your business. Melissa Sweet, a wedding dress designer, walked into the bakery one of the first days I opened and we became fast friends. She offered a lot of advice and guidance.
Aside from passion, what are two vital things a girl needs to get the ball rolling on her own bakery?
I think the first investment was buying ingredients in bulk from the brands to save money in recipe testing. And you need lots of time to test recipes and develop your products.
Follow Erin on twitter @itserinmckenna and @BabyCakesNYCLA