Vegan cakes and cookies are easy to come by these days, but those of us who were vegan before it was cool remember the days when you couldn’t walk into a Whole Foods and buy a vegan cherry pie like it was no big deal. If you were vegan and gluten-free, you were pretty much out of luck in the early aughts. Enter Erin McKenna. A true pioneer in allergen-friendly baking, she calmed the cravings of vegans and celiac-suffers and won over the skeptics with her doughnuts, cupcakes, and cookies in 2005, opening her first adorably pink bakery in New York City. Now with four locations (Orlando, New York City, and two in Los Angeles), nationwide shipping, and three cookbooks, McKenna has established a sweet, gluten-free empire. VegNews sat down with this baking empress at her newest location in Santa Monica, CA to chat about her rise to the top.
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We met McKenna one week after her new shop opened and found her hard at work alongside her employees—the bakery was packed with customers and we had to pry her away from restocking the doughnuts as they flew off the display case. Even with four locations (and three children), she still manages to be hands-on in her business.
“I never envisioned myself as a baker or owning anything, but when I had the vision for the bakery, it drew me in so intensely that I dropped everything and devoted my life to shepherding this thing into existence,” she says while packaging a box of cookies. “I now see myself as the keeper of this vision and feel a profound sense of responsibility to keep its integrity on point.”
So while the bakery décor exudes sunshine and rainbows, there’s no question it was built with her relentless determination and grit. She even went through a rebrand in 2015, changing the bakery’s original title from BabyCakes NYC to Erin McKenna’s Bakery—a change that she hoped would better represent the scope of her products. And she’s not just a sweets gal—she can do savory, too. From incredibly tender focaccia to legit bagels any New Yorker would approve of, her gluten-free baking prowess knows no bounds.
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McKenna is known for her delightful cake doughnuts, crumb cakes, cookies, and cupcakes, but Santa Monica customers can take home so much more in their bakery box. The sweets in the display case are now joined with focaccia, Veggie Bombs (the best veggie-packed savory scone you’ll ever eat), bagels, and even a selection of vegan pizzas—all gluten-free and plant-based, of course.
The bakery also provides a full menu and table service for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; beer and wine; and a selection of espresso beverages. Waffles, salads, roasted vegetables, avocado toast, biscuits and gravy … all is fair game here. While McKenna professed to prefer sweet over savory (“Chocolate. Forever,” she declared without hesitation) she noted that people should really try the bagels. They often get passed up as customers ogle over the mouthwatering sweets, but those who have tried them never leave the shop without one. On the sweet side, she highly recommended the Chocolate Crumb Cake (her personal favorite) as well as the Maple, Samosa, and Mocha Cookie Crumb doughnuts.
Our tip: come with friends, try it all, and visit often.
Tanya Flink is a Digital Editor at VegNews as well as a writer and fitness enthusiast living in Orange County, CA.
Photo credit: Erin McKenna’s Bakery