This Trailblazing Vegan and Gluten-Free Bakery Is Celebrating a Decade in Business
Erin McKenna knew her vegan pastries were delicious, but others weren’t so sure. When her bakery, then called Babycakes, opened its doors 10 years ago, now-common terms ‘gluten-free’ and ‘vegan’ were alien to many, and the bakery — serving up vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free desserts — had to win over often skeptical customers one rich, chewy chocolate chip cookie at a time.
“We were this odd ball bakery,” McKenna says, laughing. “No one even know how to say gluten, they would pronounce it ‘glutton’ and thought it was diet food.” When they opened, McKenna didn’t advertise in the windows that it was gluten-free or vegan “because everyone associated that with gross food. People would want to walk out, but we’d say, ‘Just try a cookie,’ and they’d walk back in a few seconds later and say, ‘I’ll take a dozen!’”
Today, the bakery, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and now called Erin McKenna’s Bakery, looks the same as it did a decade ago. At the shop on a sunny weekday morning, the sounds of Missy Elliot are pouring out of the speakers as the small staff gets ready for the day, stocking the display case with plump pastries and frosting a row of vanilla cupcakes with lavender-colored frosting in sugary circular strokes. The room itself is small, but undeniably charming — quirky, quaint, and a little rough-around-the-edges. Signed photos from customers like Betty White are tacked up alongside press clippings and gushing postcards from fans proclaiming their love for this sweet haven from their food allergies and dietary restrictions.
A selection of Erin McKenna’s cupcakes (Photo: Gillie Houston.)
McKenna has always cooked, but wasn’t always a baker. Growing up as one of 12 children in San Diego, McKenna started helping prepare meals for her siblings when she was in the 6th grade. “I was used to cooking for a lot of people, so I wasn’t afraid of being in the kitchen,” she says. However, her love of baking didn’t come about until later in life. After attending school at St. Mary’s College in California, McKenna had ambitions to be a costume designer for Saturday Night Live. She worked at restaurants while designing costumes for the likes of SNL alum Fred Armisen on the side.
In 2003, McKenna moved to New York City to work at a fashion magazine, but quit, feeling deeply unfulfilled by the work. Around that time, she was also diagnosed with allergies to gluten and soy, and discovered her intolerance to dairy and sugar. She fell into a depression, overwhelmed and uncertain of what her path in life should be, and turned to baking as a nightly source of solace.
That’s when she got a vision: A bakery that served the desserts she loved and could actually eat. “When I got the idea, I almost fell over in love. Nothing like this existed. I could find something that was vegan, but not gluten-free. Or it was vegan and gluten-free, but nasty. I was like, this could be huge; how do I do this?” She began to “obsessively” plan the business and testing recipes in the little spare time she had between working three restaurant jobs.
Photo Courtesy of Erin McKenna
The first recipe she tackled was the vanilla cupcake — a feat more challenging than originally anticipated. “I really thought making the recipes was going to be easy,” she said, finding her first attempt at vegan, gluten-free cupcakes to be “hard, crumbly, dry, and gross.” But she stuck with it, spending every scraped-together nickel and dime she had to buy the “highest quality ingredients” for testing. After months of tweaking her recipe teaspoon by teaspoon, it was done — and delicious. Once she had that base recipe down, the rest was a piece of (cup)cake.
After that, McKenna put her business plan into motion. She found a space on a quiet street in lower Manhattan — a somewhat ramshackle room, occupied at the time by a man and his cat who inhabited a loft in the rear. To most it would look shabby, but to McKenna it looked like pure potential, and she set out to give it a DIY makeover to fit her style. She christened the bakery “Babycakes" (a beloved name it kept for most of its run, only changing it recently due to a proprietary legal issue) and was ready to sell some sweets.
A box of Erin McKenna’s Bakery’s gluten-free goodies.
When Babycakes opened its doors in 2005, it quickly won over customers and media alike. As a result of great word of mouth and good press — including appearances on Martha Stewart and being named the “Best Cupcake in New York” by New York Magazine — business started booming, and hasn’t stopped growing since. In the past 10 years, McKenna has released three cookbooks, “Babycakes: Vegan, (Mostly) Gluten-Free, and (Mostly) Sugar-Free Recipes from New York’s Most Talked-About Bakery,” “Babycakes Covers the Classics: BabyCakes Covers the Classics: Gluten-Free Vegan Recipes from Donuts to Snickerdoodles,” and “Bread & Butter: Gluten-Free Vegan Recipes to Fill Your Bread Basket.” She has also opened two more retail locations, in Los Angeles and in Downtown Disney in Disney Springs, Fla., a shining example of how the gluten-free movement has been embraced on a national scale.
Though some of the bakery’s most popular items still include the beloved cupcakes and chocolate chip cookies, the menu — which is entirely vegan, gluten-free, wheat-free, soy-free, dairy-free, egg-free, and kosher — has expanded significantly to include everything from pillowy cinnamon rolls, to fruity crumb cakes, to their rotating selection of unique donuts. Recently, they also began serving vegan soft serve at their Los Angeles and Florida locations, and McKenna plans to install a soft serve machine in their New York shop soon.
Vegan soft serve, available in L.A. and Florida. Photo: Erin McKenna
In addition to her business family, which now includes some 80 employees, McKenna’s own family has grown as well, to include husband, Chris, and her two children, ages 3 and 10 months. Though McKenna says it can be a challenge to balance business and family, it’s been worth it for the experience of seeing children with food allergies overjoyed to find sweets their kids can actually enjoy. “Their reaction is priceless. I wish I could have all of them on camera, always,” she says.
Now, with the gluten-free industry booming, McKenna’s shop — one of the first, and in many opinions best, gluten-free bakeries in the country — is more successful than ever. Going forward, McKenna and her husband hope to open more shops in New York and beyond, even setting their sights on Japan.
McKenna on the cover of Cherry Bombe Magazine (Photo: Jennifer Livingston.)
But first, they’re throwing a party. A decade in business calls for an epic bash for those who have lent their love and support to the bakery formally known as Babycakes throughout the years. Just as they celebrated their opening 10 years ago, McKenna says the occasion will be rung in with friends, drinks, music, and — of course — lots and lots of cupcakes.
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