Friday, March 26, 2010

Cupcakes, Veganism and Fundraising: Fat Bottom Bakery and the East Bay Vegan Bake Sale

"We get to be really creative, create all these really delicious things, and show people that veganism can be delicious and cute."- Ashley Rowe, Fat Bottom Bakery

I'm a big cupcake baker, lover and eater. I have a collection of cupcake cookbooks, cupcake displays, and cupcake carriers. I've also been cooking a lot of vegan recipes ever since I watched Food, Inc., and read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, and The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone.

You can imagine how excited I was to find out about Fat Bottom Bakery, a vegan bakery in Oakland, CA (where I live) that makes all kind of desserts, including cupcakes! Fat Bottom Bakery's creators, Ashley Rowe and Carolynn Webb, describe their bakery as, "a manifestation of our desire to spread delicious, cute, cruelty-free things to the world." They also produce the East Bay Vegan Bake Sale where they sell baked goods to raise money for charity.

I've posted an edited transcript of my interview with Ashley and Carolynn for the Big Vision Podcast. You can also listen to it on the little player below, on the Big Vision Podcast website, or on the iTunes Music Store.

Our conversation began with Carolynn and Ashley describing the path that brought them to start their own vegan bakery.

Carolynn Webb: Ashley and I had both been long time home bakers. One day Ashley was making me and our other friend, who shares the same birthday, some cupcakes. Our friend mentioned that we could probably sell them.

I feel like Ashley and I both have a really short list of things that we could do that would fit our interests, and also be exciting for us. It got added to the list, and we just thought more and more about it. After talking about it, living together, baking, and all that, we decided to try to do it.

Ashley Rowe: The first event right after that, where we decided to go and sell, was San Francisco Pride. The other part of the story was that the cupcakes I was making were rainbow-layered cupcakes. It came up as, "Oh, these are amazing. Everyone would love them at Pride. We should totally go sell them there." We realized that we could, and nothing was stopping us.

It blossomed from there. We made this cigarette girl tray, which we call the "cupcake girl tray," and took it out with us to sell in public. It had a great response, and ever since then we've been trying to find different local events, and branching out from there.

Britt Bravo: Why a vegan bakery?

AR: Well, both of us are vegan, and have been for many years. I think it's generally been appealing to us, and consistent with our ethics, at least in my opinion, to abstain from animal products. I think one of the great things about being a vegan bakery, and a vegan business, is that we get to go out into the public and show people that abstaining from something doesn't mean, necessarily, that you're losing out on anything.

We get to be really creative, create all these really delicious things, and show people that veganism can be delicious and cute. Of course, it's cruelty-free, which is the point.

CW: It's just one of the nicest ways to talk about veganism because it is always on our display, whether it's a table, or our cupcake girl trays. At almost every event someone will come up and be like, "I just ate that. It was good, and then I found out it was vegan and I was like, 'That is great.'" People have a particular idea of what something is going to taste like if it's vegan. People can try it, if they're interested, and also will accidentally get surprised. It's a nice way to talk about it.

BB: What better way to introduce the concept than with something delicious and cute? What do you both enjoy the most about running your bakery?

CW: Something I like the most is that since it's just Ashley and me, we're involved in everything. We get to think of the ideas for the recipes. We get to make it, and then we get to go out and put it out there. We get all the pluses from every stage. We get to use our creativity, have our hands in every part, and see the final product, so every stage of it is our own.

AR: I think one of my favorite things about it is what we were just talking about. People who aren't vegan and who happen to try them and are like, "I never knew that it could be like that. That was delicious." It's really satisfying to talk to people out in public who maybe wouldn't have bought that product, did, and then found out that they really liked it.

The flip side of that coin is that we get to sell to people who aren't used to getting a lot of the types of things that we sell. We've done special orders for folks whose kids have egg allergies. They're like, "My kid has never eaten a cupcake and they just love it." That's really satisfying; getting to connect with all different kinds of people, and spreading the baked good love.

BB: Can you talk a little bit about where your passion for veganism comes from?

AR: I consider myself to be an anarchist, and a feminist. I'm into radical left politics. Those are all things that came from getting into the punk scene as a kid. Veganism was a similar thing that also stemmed from that. I just had my 10-year vegan anniversary, and so it goes back a long ways. I always talk about how I would never know how to cook, or bake something that wasn't vegan, because I've just never done it. By the time I started cooking and baking, I was vegan, and that was sort of my path. For me, it's just something that is consistent with my beliefs about the world. At this point it's really something that is a habit, too.

CW: For me, veganism is an extension of how I was raised. I was raised in a vegetarian household, and a household that was very concerned with living a good life in the world, and lessening suffering in every way that you can. When I was a teenager, it blew my mind when I found out about veganism. When I adopted it, it really felt like a logical extension for all the things that I was raised to believe, and had also come to accept on my own.

BB: What's been the biggest challenge? You guys just started this bakery not that long ago. Six months ago? Seven months ago?

CW: Around six or seven months.

BB: What's been the biggest challenge as creative women entrepreneurs?

CW: For me, it's been really great because it's been an opportunity to take something that was a hobby and an interest, and dedicate more energy into it than I otherwise would have. That part seems comfortable and exciting, but putting in all the business stuff, and learning how to do that in an intelligent and legal way, has been a real challenge. We're taking that on chunk by chunk. That's been the thing that has caused me the most worry.

BB: What's your favorite thing to bake?

AR: Well, my favorite thing to bake is actually cupcakes. That may or may not be a popular opinion, depending on who you talk to. A lot of people love them; they're really cute, they're fun, but the whole cupcake fad has exploded so much over the last few years that they're also sort of passe. I really like them because they're like fun, little individual units, and you get to decorate each one, and make it look just how you want. I prefer the regular size cupcakes to the mini cupcakes, because the mini cupcakes are half the size, and four times as much work.

CW: Right now, this minute, I've become really interested in pies. We've been working on a variety of mini pies, so that's something that I'm really excited about.

BB: What do you use in your experiments to make the crust flaky? Isn't that always the tricky part of the pie?

CW: It's just using Earth Balance and shortening, and then a very light hand. It's more of a technique thing than a pure ingredient thing. It's tricky, so that's one of the reasons why it's a challenge and I'm interested in it.

BB: The way I found out about you two is because in my neighborhood you had the very first East Bay Vegan Bake Sale in January. It was not just a fun opportunity to eat and buy vegan treats, but also the money you raised, which was something like over $2,000, was for the Bad Rap Pit Bull Rescue, and for Laurel Elementary School to build a school garden. I want to hear about why you did that, how you organized it, and tips you might have for other people who hear that and think, "That's cool! I want to do something like that."

CW: We have participated in the San Francisco Bake Sale for the past several sales. I just fell in love with that event; it was so fun. A lot of people had a stake in it because they brought something to contribute, and were also so excited about the other things people brought. It had a lot of good energy to it. Then, Ashley came home one day and was said, "Why don't we do that in the East Bay?"

AR: I can't take all the credit for that. It actually stemmed from a conversation that I was having with our friend, Chelsea. I think the San Francisco Bake Sale was coming up, and I said, "Oh, are you going to go?" And we were thinking it would be so much more convenient to have one here. It just makes sense. So, Chelsea is actually the third organizer of the East Bay Vegan Bake Sale.

Between the three of us, we pulled it together over the course of about six weeks. We called in some favors from some of our connections. Our friends who own Issues magazine shop, where we had the bake sale, very generously allowed us to set up in front, and we got in touch with all kinds of people who participated in the San Francisco one, sent out a lot of emails, made a Twitter account, and just spread the word. I'm not going to say that it wasn't a lot of work, but it was not nearly as hard as I expected it to be. For anyone who's considering pulling together their own bake sale, I would definitely say go for it. You're totally going to be able to do it.

BB: How did you choose the recipients of your profits?

CW: We all had a meeting and talked about the different things we had in mind. We had the idea of having an animal-based charity and a human charity, and having both represented at each bake sale.

I work at Laurel Elementary, and they have had a plan for a garden on the books since I started working there two years ago. It was basically a financial issue. After the bake sale, they're over one-third of the way done with everything they need to make the garden. There's so many different organizations that are so worthy, I basically brainstormed a list and decided to go with a couple of them.

BB: I think I heard about the bake sale on Twitter, so that gives me the impression that you used a lot of social web tools to get the word out. Can you talk about how you did that? Lessons learned, what worked, what didn't work?

AR: Right from the start with Fat Bottom Bakery, and then later on the East Bay Vegan Bake Sale, we decided that the Internet was going to be a great tool and asset for us. We immediately got a blogspot set up for the bakery, and a presence on MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. After seeing how well that all went for getting us exposure for the bakery itself, we decided to extend that to the bake sale.

It's amazing how much a little bit of networking on the Internet can go. The great thing is that all of these things are free. We haven't paid for anything, we haven't needed to, and we've reached hundreds of people. Twitter, especially, is so great because it's so minimalist, and yet allows you to get out what you need. It takes two seconds to retweet, so people tell their friends, and those people tell their friends. It's been a really, really good tool for us.

BB: As you know, I have a blog called Have Fun, Do Good. It's my impression that you guys are pretty much doing that: having fun and doing good. What do you think is the secret to that combo?

AR: I think the secret is to find something that you're interested in, find some good people to get on board for it, and just go for it. You can choose to be an activist for any number of different causes in any number of different ways. I've always thought of the bakery as being a way to do exactly that: having fun and doing good. It's one of the more fun ways for us to spread the word about veganism.

CW: It comes down to having that short list of things that we would be happy doing. It's being authentic to yourself and doing something that you're passionate and care about, but also bringing your entire personality to it; which hopefully has a little bit of fun in it.

BB: How can people who are listening get involved with the East Bay Vegan Bake Sale, or find one in their community? I think there are other ones going on across the U.S? Internationally?

CW: If you want to get involved with the East Bay Vegan Bake Sale, we are so excited and it would be wonderful. You can contribute in all kinds of ways. If you have a blog, just mentioning it on there is really great. You can bake something, and we always want people to come and eat something. You can email us at, or find us on Twitter at @EBVeganBakeSale.

If you want to find one near you, there's a website called, and they have a whole list of vegan bake sales. There are a lot more coming up as time goes by. If there's not one near you, you should definitely start one.

AR: is also a really great resource if you are interested in starting your own bake sale. They have a lot of tips, tricks and advice. One more tip is, if you are going to have your own bake sale, when it comes time to price items that people have brought, price them higher than you want to. It's a bake sale, everyone will totally pay for it, and that is how you're going to make the most money for your causes.

Update: Last week Ashley and Carolynn had the 2nd East Bay Vegan Bake Sale and raised close to $1,200 for Animal Place and the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund.

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