Kai Ryssdal: Chocolate is, of course, the go-to gift for Valentine's Day. But may I humbly suggest a donut instead? A refined, sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, soy-free, vegan, kosher donut.
I'm here to tell you such a thing does, in fact, exist 'cause I made some the other day. Erin McKenna is the co-founder of BabyCakes. It's a chain of four bakeries, so far, that specializes in allergen-free baked goods. I went to see her at one of two BabyCakes stores here in L.A. Before we got started on those gluten, dairy, egg, soy-free, vegan kosher donuts, though, I asked Erin to tell me what exactly gluten is.
Erin McKenna: Gluten is a protein found in wheat, and it binds it. It gives it that chewiness.
Ryssdal: And you have to replace that somehow, right? Cause people want that even if they can't tolerate the gluten.
McKenna: Yes. Well, we start with rice flour.
Ryssdal: All right, so rice flour. What else?
McKenna: And arrowroot, and these give a little bit of chewiness.
Ryssdal: Remind me what arrowroot is? I should know.
McKenna: Arrowroot is just a root.
Ryssdal: Of the arrow, if you will?
McKenna: Made of arrows.
Ryssdal: There you go, all right.
McKenna: And then we need salt to bring out the sweet.
Ryssdal: Always. Is this your recipe?
Ryssdal: So was it your drive for a gluten-free, vegan donut that made you start this business?
McKenna: Yes. Well, I mean it was a drive for gluten-free sweets in general. Everything that was on the market was just honestly nasty. I just started baking at home for myself.
Ryssdal: This was 2005ish, right?
McKenna: Yeah, it was '04.
Ryssdal: And what did you do? Did you just pull out your credit card and say I'm going to start a business?
McKenna: No, I got two jobs. The ingredients are expensive, so I had to work a lot in order to be constantly replenishing my pantry.
McKenna: OK, so this is melted coconut oil.
Ryssdal: This would replace butter, right?
Ryssdal: So we have the molds here.
McKenna: These are the baking molds. We're just going to coat it a little bit and then finally...
Ryssdal: Looks like soy sauce, but I'm sure it's not.
Ryssdal: Whoa is all that vanilla?
McKenna: A lot of vanilla.
Ryssdal: That's about a gallon of vanilla.
McKenna: It's about a gallon of vanilla.
Ryssdal: No, I'm kidding. It's about half a cup. But most recipes are like a quarter teaspoon. All right, let me stir it. Let me get my hands dirty. All right, is that good?
McKenna: Yeah, that's perfect. OK, that's enough.
Ryssdal: Well, you know. How did you know there was a market for gluten-free, vegan sweet stuff?
McKenna: I was noticing more and more people picking up the gluten-free stuff. But I also saw, not only that, but a transition from people eating just whatever to being more conscious about what they ate.
Ryssdal: You have four shops now?
Ryssdal: You went from nothing six years ago to four stores.
McKenna: When I opened the first one, I didn't really think that I was going to open four. I just saw it as one little neighborhood shop that I wanted to have for my own. Over the years, people come from all over the world to our New York store and they're constantly asking us to open here, there, wherever. Yeah, it just kind of happened organically. I was tugged to come to L.A.
Ryssdal: That's great. All right, let's bake and we'll talk some more in a minute.
McKenna: OK. So you're going to pipe.
Ryssdal: Wait, no. Really?
McKenna: OK. So this is the trick for piping.
Ryssdal: Can't you just like pour it in there? You can't pour it in there?
McKenna: Get a little piping bag. Hold it and when you're done piping around, squeeze it.
Ryssdal: Oh man.
McKenna: So you've done this before kind of, I can tell.
Ryssdal: Well, this is going to sound really stupid. It's amazingly labor intensive.
McKenna: But donuts are amazingly labor intensive -- the mixing, the piping. Actually, you don't have to do the hardest part, which is cleaning the pans.
Ryssdal: That's right.
McKenna: That's the worst.
Ryssdal: How did you know and when did you know that you weren't going to go broke and that you were actually going to be able to make this -- whether it was one store or 20?
McKenna: It was seven months in in the first store.
Ryssdal: Seven months?
Ryssdal: That was break even?
McKenna: That was break even.
Ryssdal: Wow. What did you know about running a business before you did this? That's a horrible question, but...
McKenna: Absolutely nothing. Writing my business plan, I just got a book and it gave you the outline. I was like OK, this is how I write my business plan.
Ryssdal: Wow. That's too funny.
McKenna: My mother called it. She was like OK so you have no business experience, you have no money, you have no credit. Thinking back, I don't think I could ever get through those times. But I was young and really motivated and I just knew what was possible and I just did it.
Ryssdal: It seems to me there's expansion possibilities into supermarkets and all kinds of different things.
McKenna: Yeah. I actually just launched our cake mixes and brownie mixes. And we're deciding where we're going to put them right now and I'm thinking some of the gourmet grocery stores -- testing out the one by my house in New York and see how it does.
Ryssdal: I'll be able to say, "I knew you when." That'd be cool.
McKenna: Yeah, and then I'll ignore you. I'll act like I don't remember who you are.
Ryssdal: Erin, thanks a bunch.
McKenna: Thank you.
Ryssdal: I was a skeptic, but honestly, those donuts -- not so bad. We've got a video of me in the kitchen. Scroll up to the top of the page to watch it.