Baker Erin McKenna on Success: Make Things Happen For Yourself

When Erin McKenna decided to opened a specialty bakery in 2005, she had very little baking experience and had never run a business.  But she taught herself to bake vegan, gluten-free, and soy-free goods, one recipe at a time. The business lessons came on the fly. Once year after she opened the doors of Babycakes NYC, her cupcakes were named the best in New York.

"It wasn't just best gluten-free or vegan cupcake," said McKenna. "It was just best across the board.  But it was this — such huge praise.  So it was very much overwhelming and a beautiful moment for me."

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Before working in the food industry, McKenna had a brief stint with a fashion magazine.  Shortly after leaving her magazine job, she came up with the idea of a bakery for people with food allergies. McKenna's interest in creating and selling vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, and wheat-free baked goods stems from her personal experience with food allergies. As a child, she would often be sick hours after eating certain foods. "From a very young age, I loved Sundays because we would have pancakes," she explained. "But I knew that I'd be sick for 12 hours after. I would just think, oh it's the pancake hangover. Everybody gets that, right?"

"When I removed everything from my diet, I was vegan, gluten-free, soy-free," she said. "I realized quickly that the cost of being so rigid was that I couldn't have any fun. I wanted a place where someone as crazy as me was creating the recipes and approving the ingredients so that they didn't have to think about it."

McKenna opened Babycakes with minimal baking experience and money borrowed from friends and family. Her initial focus was to create one successful recipe for a vanilla cupcake. She quickly added five more cupcakes, a cookie, and a banana bread to her menu. With that, she was ready to open up her bakery to the public. She decided against putting up signs in her store that advertised her baked goods as vegan or gluten free, and would only tell customers if they asked. Instead, the focus was on taste. "If they wanted a cookie, I would just sell them a cookie," she said. Today, Babycakes has expanded to three locations in three states — New York City, Los Angeles and Orlando — and Erin has published several cookbooks.

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"I think, if anything, what I wish my legacy to be is to inspire young women and men to know that they can do anything.  'Cause really, I used two sticks to rub together to make this bakery. I hope that it inspires people to make things happen for themselves."

McKenna said she had a difficult time transitioning from her daily role in the kitchen to more of a business role. But she needed to evolve with her business if she wanted it to continue to grow. "I had to step out, work in an office, and stay on top of the business end," she said.  "And some days are fantastic and some days are depressing, because I just want to be back in the kitchen.  But I'm extremely happy.  And I wouldn't — I wouldn't backtrack."               

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