I Accidentally Started a Vegan Bakery That Turned My Life Upside Down
Jobs | August 7, 2019
A local paper called me the “Non-Dairy Queen.” My linzer cookies were renowned by bloggers. A man got on a mic at the New York City’s Vegan Drinks meetup I’d catered and said, “I’ve been vegan for twenty years, and these are the best chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever had.”
None of this was planned. Despite my secret teenage dream of being a pastry chef, I went to college and majored in English, and had settled into copyediting at a major magazine’s website. This brought with it the requisite restlessness of one’s mid-20s, and I’d started to bake a lot. Like, a cake every few days a lot. I was constantly at Williams-Sonoma, caressing KitchenAid stand mixers until finally ordering one for myself. In my downtime from work, I’d obsessively read recipes and look at the cost of culinary school. It didn’t seem doable, so I kept up the amateur baking, even as I transitioned to veganism. When basic vegan recipes were turning out to taste like crap—all greasy Earth Balance frosting and dry canola oil cake—I developed a coconut-oil-based butter that perfectly, richly replicated dairy in buttercreams and cookies.
The only thing I could think to do with all these excess vegan sweets was bring them to my yoga studio, where they would be happily greeted without judgment by the kind of people who desperately want any excuse to feel less guilt in indulging their hard-won, lithe bodies. All of a sudden, I had an order for 200 cupcakes for an event, birthday cake requests, and a connection at a local natural grocery store. Considering my dreamy teenage aspirations and the fact that when watching marathons of the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, I’d fantasize about what I would name my bakery. I didn’t think I should pass up these opportunities despite having absolutely no idea how to run a business. I had a logo designed, bought a domain name, and developed a full-on menu for La Pirata Kitchen—a name none of my friends liked, which made me love it more.
I didn’t name it La Pirata because I knew that the way I was running it—out of my apartment’s kitchen, with no paperwork or food handler training—was illegal. It was just that I liked pirates, and Spanish, and thought it was cool that it was explicitly female. Giving it “kitchen” rather than “bakery” would also allow me, in some distant future, to branch out into savory items. This was delusional thinking, but it wasn’t until I accidentally started a food business that I discovered what a special kind of hell it is.
Rude awakenings are par for the course when one tries to professionalize a passion, and it seems like when food is your passion, they’re even ruder. Once you start to properly price your products and see what you’d have to charge to make a profit, it’s very hard not to spiral into terror and self-loathing. The organic, coconut-oil-based butter that’s blended with a whole lot of organic, fair-trade powdered sugar is beautiful and delicious in theory, but in practice, it costs $.50 per cupcake. Chocolate cupcakes, made with, of course, organic, fair-trade cocoa powder, run $1 each. An unbleached, chlorine-free cupcake liner is maybe a penny, if you buy a ton of them from the right place, so at least you’re doing OK there. But if you package your $1.50 cupcake in a corn-plastic container, add a sustainably made label sticker printed by a fellow vegan small business, and print an ingredient label on your house Deskjet, you’re adding on another $.75. And that is how a cupcake becomes $4.25. If you’re selling it retail, you’re making $2, but if it’s going wholesale, that gets cut depending upon your deal with the store. Upping the price might make it inaccessible and allow it to languish on a shelf, a constant fear when your product is perishable, niche, and a luxury.
The margins were so slim that I couldn’t consider paying myself. Every little bit of money that came in went right back into the business, for new pans, pastry tips, and a big food processor when one night my tiny one started smoking during routine marzipan-making. I still had my job at the magazine, so I would wake up at 5 AM, bake muffins, and frost cupcakes that I’d frozen the night before, go to yoga at 7 AM, make a delivery, and come home to sign on to work for eight hours. As the bakery grew and took up more of my time, the pirate aspects of its operation began to make me nervous and I knew I’d never quit my job without legitimizing the business by registering an LLC, buying insurance, getting certified with the Department of Agriculture, renting a commercial kitchen, and more. To do that, I needed about $3,000. The most polite way to beg all of my family and friends to help out was Kickstarter, so a friend made me a video and my campaign was fully funded in just a couple of days. It was so successful so fast that the Long Island Business News paper, a local news channel, and other tiny media outlets were covering me. Steam was building, I finally had some money, and all the certifications were going through. I just needed a real kitchen.
Research led me to a few different small-business incubators on Long Island that offered kitchen space at relatively low rates and promised help with expansion. At one meeting with an incubator that also expressed interest in investing, they asked—after my spiel about everything being made from scratch, from organic ingredients—whether I’d consider adding M&Ms to my cookies. A privately owned commercial kitchen wanted $135 per four hours, with no additional cleanup time. My third and final option was a Stony Brook University–run small-business incubator way out on the North Fork, Long Island, an hour from where I lived in Huntington. They were offering the best support and the best rate, though, so I signed on with them, took my food handlers’ course, and booked the only time slot I could ahead of my major re-launch events: Thursday, 10 PM to 2 AM. Going legit was not going to make this any less exhausting.
The legal La Pirata Kitchen debuted at the Long Island Vegan Festival on Saturday July 14, 2013, a year to the day since the delivery of my first 200 cupcake order. Since the kitchen shift on Thursday, I’d been getting ready nonstop: packaging cookies and cupcakes, making rustic chalkboard signs, and promoting the bakery as much as possible. I sold out at the festival despite making hundreds of cookies, which would have been cause for celebration had it not meant I had nothing for the farmers’ market the next day. After all the effort spent getting into a commercial kitchen, I was still awake Saturday night replenishing stock in my apartment kitchen again, forever a pirate.
Adding weekend farmers’ markets to the three wholesale deliveries I was making every week, along with special orders, was the real make-or-break time for the business. Either I would plow through the exhaustion until I could pay myself a meager wage and quit my full-time job, or I would have to disappoint all the people in my life who’d believed in me enough to give me so much of their money. There were also all the customers I’d grown to adore, crying after every thank-you phone call from moms whose kids with dairy and egg allergies enjoyed their birthday cakes.
The decision ended up not being mine to make. At the start of August, my boyfriend and I broke up. He’d been a background supporter—writing a computer program that priced products, keeping kitchen time well-managed, and explaining to people better than I could why veganism was a valid choice (despite being omnivorous himself). It was clear to him that to stay with me meant running a bakery, and that wasn’t what he wanted; it was clear to me that I couldn’t run it completely alone. While in a daze for the next few days, I had to bake the final birthday cake that had been ordered. No cake was ever so hard to get through. Every movement that had once been my joy—the holding of the mixing bowl while I stirred with a whisk, the piping of a name—was labored. It would be my last cake for months.
I moved almost immediately from Long Island to Brooklyn, far from the commercial kitchen I’d been using. There was no room to bake in the kitchen I was sharing with four roommates. When a few months later I thought I had the strength to make cookies, the scent of vanilla made me fall to the floor in tears. The end of the relationship was rote; what truly hurt was that my bakery, my dream went with it. I needed the community of friends I had in the city; I needed to figure out my life without the person who was once closest to me—there was no room for the business that I depended upon our relationship to support. Now I can bake again, but I will never try to open a bakery. The naïveté and magic and momentum that were essential to it are gone. Only the recipes, about 25 pounds of organic sugar, hundreds of labels, and a few grand in debt remain.