Ahhhh, I’m so excited to talk to you about Erin!
Erin McKenna here is the super cool founder of the BabyCakes bakery. A “bakery” here in the US is where you find cupcakes (yum), donuts (aaaaah), cookies (iiiiiih), and often they have lattes and you always leave with a big smile… and a rather guilty conscience.
Not at BabyCakes though. You see, not only are their cakes incredibly delicious, but they don’t contain any refined sugars, eggs, gluten or dairy. You almost feel like you’re eating a donut that’s purely good for you. :-)
So here’s a few questions Erin answer about how she decided to leave her dream job as a fashion assistant to go off with no safety net and create Babycakes at 29… And a few years later had a real American success story with 4 bakeries all over the states (one of them in Disneyland!), multiple cookbooks, courage and humor for every curveball thrown her way (you HAVE to watch her videos), and even with all that, right now as I’m talking to you, she’s also got… a baby on the way!
Wow. Inspiring, Erin…
You used to work in fashion right? How did you get your start?
Yes! I had to work very hard to get my first fashion job. I studied communications at school. Then, I got an internship with the design editor at Flaunt magazine for six months. It was really competitive. But over time they saw I was totally dedicated.
Eventually they offered me a job as a fashion assistant!
What was your dream job?
To be a buyer!
So how did you make the transition—from fashion to baking?
It was a funny transition–fashion to baking–but I found that I wasn’t fulfilled with my fashion assistant job. I would dread going to fashion shows and showrooms to see the next season’s looks. I should have been excited but I just didn’t get it. So to shake off my work-related depression, every night after work I would go home and bake.
Those were the times when I was truly happy. So I quit my job after eight months because, honestly, I missed the food industry and wanted to get back into waitressing. Three days later, at a friend’s child’s birthday party, I had the idea for BabyCakes, and that was that! Fifteen months later I opened the doors to our first shop on a deserted stretch of Broome Street in the Lower East Side.
You loved being a waitress? Really? I used to be one and I hated it!
Yes! If you go back to what my dream was when I was really really young, I wanted to be a waitress. I was always in love with restaurants and the food service. But I always made sure to work at places I really respected.
Wait, but I’m sure BabyCakes didn’t happen just like that! What did you do during those 15 months?
I had two waitressing jobs and I was occasionally cocktailing at night. I was just trying to make as much money as possible to buy ingredients at the health food store, which are super expensive! [Erin is allergic to dairy and gluten!!!] I would bake all morning and take notes on my recipes and then work on my business plan before heading back to my jobs. If there was a recipe I was thinking about, I’d make another round when I got home. I was very obsessed and very focused; it was all I thought about, so to me it was fun! But I completely dropped my social life when I decided I wanted to open my own business—BabyCakes took priority.
How were you able to find the money to open BabyCakes?
At first I thought I would do it with a bank loan, but that didn’t come through at the last minute after I had already signed the lease on the bakery. So I went to everyone that had mentioned in the past they might want to invest and that’s how we did it—with 10 investors.
When I was waitressing I would make treats and bring them to work, people would try them and they’d be impressed and say, “If you’re looking for an investor, let me know!” I met with all of them, but only a handful put down money. A lot of people say they want to help you but only a few of them will actually write the check. But we did it!
And I lived hand to mouth for the first year to make sure the bills and all of my employees were getting paid.
What have been the best and worst parts of being a small business owner?
The best part is seeing all the jobs that are being made available because I rolled the dice on opening this bakery!
The hardest part has been letting people go whom I like personally, but who just aren’t a good fit for the company.
You also have locations in LA and at Disney in Orlando! Has it be difficult to be here in New York and away from your other shops?
It’s still the most difficult part of my job to not be at all four stores at once. I was warned by other business owners how difficult it would be, but you don’t really know until you’re in it. It’s hard not to see what everyone is doing and to observe customer-employee relationships. The key to pulling it off though is to secure each place with someone you have a lot of confidence in, but without giving them too much room. I’ve had to learn the hard way but it’s definitely a balance of trusting other people, and to be constantly checking their work. What’s that expression, “give them enough rope, but not enough to hang themselves?”
What has your spending style been with your business?
I think that’s an instinct you’re born with. I’ve always been a big risk taker and I don’t fear anything—except heights maybe! I’m really confident with what I’m doing and I’ve put all my bets on it.
I also grew up as one of 12 kids and we didn’t have any money, so I knew what it was like to be poor. To me, the fear most people have is being broke and I know what broke feels like, and I’m fine with that.
Did you have a mentor figure that helped you figure everything out?
Meditation was my mentor. I would sit for 30 minutes every day and make it a point to focus on being grateful for all I’d accomplished and learned, and also for all that was to come.
For example, the frosting. I didn’t know how it was going to happen, and I was like, I am not going to stress, I am just going to meditate and just be grateful for what I see about the final outcome. I did that forever like–months and months–and I never gave up hope I was like, “I know it’s coming!”… And finally the frosting that came is what made us famous.
Have there been any moments of desperation, with tears, where you gorged yourself on cupcakes?
So many! One memorable one was on January 2nd, 6 years ago, just five months after we opened and on the tail-end of a busy holiday season. The bakery was dead–I think we had three customers all day. By 5pm I turned to my sister in tears crying,
“BabyCakes is over! People don’t want us anymore!”
Of course, it was dead because it was the day after New Years and everyone was on a diet, but I took it really personally.
So we’ve seen your videos… a) Have you lost your mind? And b) We LOVE THEM! Who came up with all of these ideas?!
I am lucky enough to be married to a very clever, hilarious, and talented man named Chris Cechin. When we started dating he really got what BabyCakes was and came up with the idea of creating fun little two-minute videos to give customers who had never been to the bakery an idea of what the personality of the bakery was.
Now tell me the truth…you’ve been on the show 3 times now. So what is Martha Stewart like?? Is she the Anna Wintour of the food business ?
She is outstanding and she totally is! I think it’s a combination of fearlessness and vision that they both have. I think a lot of people, especially women, have a problem asking for what they need but she’s just cutthroat. She doesn’t care if she’s making anyone uncomfortable; it’s brought her extreme success!
I’ve noticed that a lot of people around her are nervous but I’ve found that if you are just yourself and don’t try to be what you think she wants you to be, you’re safe. It’s like she smells fear!
Ok now let’s get to the most important point !!! :) How do you stay fit? You are the tiniest cook I’ve ever seen ! And you’re pregnant !
Well first of all, I just ripped my pants. I was so determined to get them on! And then I ripped them. I exercise pretty much every day for about 10 years now. I did it when I stopped smoking and it’s really like drinking coffee for me in the morning: after working out I’m just a different person. Before my pregnancy, I loved Soul Cycle. I had heard so much about it from a friend, and I tried it and I’ve never been excited to exercise but I was so excited to go back – I would like, rather go there than go out on Saturday night! I was growing into one of those crazy people – but then with my pregnancy I had to stop cause you’re not supposed to do exercises that are so intense
Now, I do Physique 57 and Bar Method. Bar Method is really serious, and it feels so good when you get through the really hard parts. It’s getting difficult though – it feels like I have this ball being pregnant, the pushups are so hard!
What’s next for Babycakes and for Erin McKenna?
I’ve just launched our cake, cookie and brownie mixes on our online store, am about to open the 4th location on Larchmont in Los Angeles next week and writing the next cookbook. You know, not too much…
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Hmm..that’s so hard! It would probably be from my brother Frankie who also started his own business. He said to never waver from your vision and don’t let anyone else influence on you, no matter what’s involved.
Check out my other career posts here !!!