Quit Your Job! A Q&A with Erin McKenna of BabyCakes

The Awl: So the founding of BabyCakes is actually fairly well-chronicled. You were allergic to wheat and dairy! You borrowed some money and started up a bakery, and you did it on a shoestring, and your finances were really tight. But what doesn’t get mentioned in all this is: why! Why did you want to become the cupcake and cookie and muffin gluten-free, dairy-free queen?

Erin: Thank you for not asking the obvious. You are the first on record. The reason I wanted to open a bakery was pretty simple: I wanted to open a place I’d like to go to. I’ve never been a big partier—going to a bakery after dinner was my kind of club, and in New York, there are so many incredible specialty bakeries. I felt left out. So I figured I’d just open a place that I’d be stoked to find.

The Awl: All that whey and wheat, taunting you.

Erin: Yes. The dairy never stops taunting. So, it doesn’t go much deeper than that. I really wasn’t setting out to be a baking goddess or whatnot. I just wanted to open a fun place and make some good food, share it, listen to the music I like, dress girls up in uniforms, eat cookies all day. That’s it! I think I read once that Keith McNally had the same M.O. He just opened places he’d want to go.

The Awl: That’s actually a great driving force in entrepreneurship—that’s like people who start magazines they want to read, and hairstylists who give haircuts they’d want to wear. People should be driven by making places they’d want to enjoy.

Erin: Once you start thinking too hard, making gimmicks or whatever, that you think are going to be a draw, it loses authenticity. I believe we’re all here on the planet expressing beauty in our own way.

The Awl: Oh my God, you hippie.

Erin: Sorry to sound new-agey! Cosmopolitan hippie. Big carbon footprint.

The Awl: So how would you describe your first year? Did you cry a lot?

Erin: I cried once. It was January 2nd, almost 6 months after we opened, and it was dead. No customers, after what was our first sorta busy push. And I cried to my sister. “BabyCakes is over”! I thought everyone had come in out of curiosity in the first months, and they all tried it and hated it and wouldn’t return. They started returning end of January, because they all stopped feeling fat, I guess. It’s about three weeks into the new year.

The Awl: Oh! The New Year’s resolutions worked against you! That’s fascinating.

Erin: Every single year, people restrict for three weeks. It’s like it’s set to a watch.

The Awl: That’s a really useful thing to know in your industry.

Erin: There are a ton of patterns. Anyhoo, then we got “best cupcake in New York” in March—not best vegan or gluten-free, but best of all the shops, so everyone and their mother came in to try it, but I thought, they are just in here cause they want to talk S about it and how it’s not the best. I told everyone that worked at the bakery it would die down after a week. But it never did. We’ve pretty much been raging ever since.

The Awl: Were there other things that you did to try to grow the customer base? Things that worked or failed?

Erin: Oh yeah, I mean, that’s sort of the fun part, doing things to appeal to people without being too attached to the result. I started to get different small designers to create new uniforms once a year, like Built by Wendy, Earnest Sewn, then In God We Trust, just to give people something to talk about. Then I had to do a blog because [my husband] Chris said I had to, which I usually just put random stuff on cause I don’t know what the H anyone is reading a baking blog for. Maybe they are hoping for recipes! And then the videos started. I basically do them to give people of feeling to attach to the bakery. I want everyone to have a hysterically happy feeling when they think of the bakery, like WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. OH YES DONUTS! I want people to feel like they are coming into a party when they get to the bakery. And if they have to ship, they can just watch a video and party with us at home. I’m not sure what else I have consciously done to market.

The Awl: So one thing that seems notable to me about the business is that it expanded when it was very young. You opened an L.A. outpost very quickly! How did you weigh that decision?

Erin: I opened in L.A. cause most of our shipments (we ship product all over the US) were going to L.A. And emails were non-stop, requesting that we open there.

The Awl: How very sensible of you. Well, it is the wheat allergy capitol of America.

Erin: I think they think it’s going to make them skinny, and while the grains I use are much more healthy, the grains to replace gluten, that is, it’s not going to make you skinny, but who knows? L.A. is very health conscious and obsessed with food I think, or eating organic and clean and such, so it was a good fit.

The Awl: And by what means did you finance that expansion?

Erin: By bakery profit mostly, and then I signed on to write a second book to pay for the final bit. So no loans or anything. I didn’t want to sell any more shares either.

The Awl: Can I ask about how much of the company you gave up to investors?

Erin: At this moment, I still own 78%. I had to white knuckle it through the hard times. After we opened, after a few months everyone wanted to invest and, as poor as I was, I didn’t do it. I knew If I got through the challenging times I’d be happy I didn’t sell any more in the end. I think the hard part before you open is placing a proper value on your company. It’s an imaginary number! But the way I did it was I asked myself, “What would I sell this company for on this day?” When all it was was a concept and some recipes. It was tempting to go under, because I was so desperate for anyone to invest, and I felt like they were going to think I was crazy at what I was saying it was worth. But I think the few people who laid their money out believed the same thing as me: that the chocolate chip cookies were really good. And the uniforms were cool. So I got lucky with recipes. I mean, I worked really hard to get things to taste good but I was also lucky. I understood it for some weird reason.

The Awl: And the cookbooks came soon after you opened?

Erin: I signed on for it about a year and a half after bakery opened, and then it came out a year later. I did it mainly because everyone kept asking me to do it, and honestly, I needed a new project, so I did it. And everyone told me it would be great for business. I didn’t really understand how good it would be. Our sales tripled after the publishing. I have to thank Martha though. She’s a powerhouse, and after I went on the show to teach her a few recipes, it went nuts. We sold out of the first printing in about 2 weeks. We’re on the 8th printing now.

The Awl: So, where do you go from here???

Erin: Well, I want to open one in SF. And my donut shop in New York! It’s going to be a 24 hour donut place that also serves waffles.

The Awl: YOU LIE.

Erin: No! I want to go to a 24 hour donut shop that serves waffles. I’m looking for a place but it’s hard. The space is just as important as the donuts. it’s gotta have that feeling. It’s the block, the actual physical store, it’s gotta be right. And then there’s the next cookbook in a month, and probably one more
after that!

The Awl: How many recipes could there BE?

Erin: Jeez, I have no idea. They somehow keep happening, so I just let it flow. I think that’ll be it
after the third. No mas. But then I want to open a beauty shop. Hair and nails. It’s, again, a place I want to go. It’s never done right! So I want to make a fun place you can go with your ladies and do your nails, and get a hair fashion just for the hell of it. So let me back up. After the two shops, and another book, I’m also doing packaged cake mix too. Once those are all steady, I want to sell.

The Awl: Wow, an exit plan!

Erin: Yes. My brother sold his company after about six years, and constantly warns me not to wait too long. He encourages me to sell and go enjoy my life, take a vacation that’s longer than five days. He just sold about a year ago, and then there’s a year or two he’s on contract to train the people who bought. And then he wants help my brothers and sisters build businesses for themselves. (There’s 12 of us.)

The Awl: THERE’S TWELVE OF YOU?

Erin: Yes! 12 weirdos. They are the best. Everyone is very funny, and we are all devoted to each other, so it’s fun.



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