Happy Foodie Friday! This is the third installment of our series on successful female food entrepreneurs. If you missed them, check out our previous interviews with Cowgirl Creamery and Coolhaus Ice Cream.
The It Girl: Erin McKenna
For Erin McKenna, BabyCakes Bakery wasn’t just a business—it was a personal challenge. After she was diagnosed with food allergies and couldn’t indulge in the cookies, brownies, and other treats she used to enjoy, she became determined to make sweets for the sweetless.
Almost seven years later, with storefronts in NYC, LA, and Orlando, an Inc. magazine cover with Tom Colicchio of Top Chef, multiple guest stars on Martha, and two incredibly popular cookbooks touting her wheat, gluten, dairy, casein, refined sugar, and egg-free baked goods, some might call it a day.
But not our girl—in fact, Betty Crocker better saddle up to meet her hipper, healthier, and infinitely more stylish competition. McKenna already has cookbook #3 in the works and BabyCakes just released a line of brownie, cookie, and cake mixes on its website.
McKenna stepped away from the stove to give us the skinny on the business that brought vanilla-glazed donuts and chocolate chip cookies back into the arms of the allergy afflicted.
What was your main motivation for wanting to call the shots?
Actually, I never wanted to be my own boss. I think it was just a few months before I had the idea for the bakery that I told someone, “I never want to own a company! That’s way too much stress. I’d much rather collect a salary for the rest of my life and not have to deal with all that heartache.”
Then [the idea for] BabyCakes came to me, and I did it—despite my strong aversion. I knew I’d have to grow up a lot and expand as a person. And I have!
What do you think is the difference between people who talk about starting businesses and those who actually do it?
The ones who actually do it have a little bit of recklessness and a burning fire inside. It’s impossible not to do it! It would drive us insane to see someone else doing what we have been dreaming to do.
What the best and worst part of being your own boss?
The best part is seeing talent in the girls who work at the bakery and extending opportunities when I can to help them along their path.
The least favorite part is firing someone, when you like them but know they aren’t right for the job. That always hurts!
Was it difficult to find startup funding as a young female founder?
I think the hardest part of starting a new venture is getting investors on board—whether you’re male or female. However, I didn’t find it hard to get the right people to invest, and being a 20-something girl never even crossed my mind as an obstacle.
I guess that’s part of the trick. If you fear that something will hold you back, you’ll experience problems. I simply saw myself as a girl with a great idea, delicious product, and a clear vision of how I wanted to execute it.
Can you name the single most important business lesson you’ve learned in the past seven years?
It’s good to trust employees with things that are easily fixed—but don’t trust others with the big stuff. You need to stay on top of everyone in the areas that really matter—especially, especially, especially the money.
What roadblocks are unique to starting a food-related business?
One of the biggest challenges is that young people run the food industry and sometimes they can be flighty—and there is massive turnover because of it. That said, there are always some gorgeous golden eggs that become the heartbeat of your business.
The other most challenging part is waste. You can’t serve food the day after you made it, unless it’s marked 50% off and day-old. That gets complicated.
Any parting words of entrepreneurial inspiration?
Don’t label yourself. Be authentic, don’t rip off other people’s style—what comes from an inspired place in you will put you on the right track. Once you identify what that is, don’t budge or let anyone talk you out of it (including you).
Photos courtesy of Horacio Salinas and Tara Donne.