Healthy baked goods and cero allergies: the little gem hiding in Lower East Side

Erink McKenna's Bakery in Lower East Manhattan

Erink McKenna’s Bakery in Lower East Manhattan

 

Four out of a 100 children have food allergies in the United States, according to the CDC, and the number grows every year.  While it’s unclear why there is a rise; what is known is that 90 percent of allergic reactions can be attributed to eight foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. This means that most of the sugary treats children normally have throughout their lives are often limited to many kids.

This is where Erin McKenna comes in, a New York-based baker who in 2005 opened a dairy-free, egg- free, gluten-free and soy-free bakery in the Lower East Side called BabyCakes. Her products range from cookies, cupcakes and doughnuts to cakes, brownies and éclairs. The bakery provides sweet treats for adults and children who suffer from food allergies but still want to enjoy a good pastry every once in a while. And her bakery has moved beyond babies to become  a must-go spot for vegans from all over the country and the world.  “Our clientele transcends all demographics,” says owner Erin McKenna. “It’s simply people who have lived without bakery goods for too long, those who want to eat clean and healthy, those who have food allergies, those who are vegan for political reasons. It’s everybody!”

One October morning, Michelle Edelsburg, 22, a student from Miami, Florida said, “With my food allergies, it’s one of the few places I can get delicious and healthy treats!” Edelsburg is allergic to gluten, dairy and soy. She found out about the bakery through word of mouth in 2012, and has remained a loyal customer since then. “I like their cookie sandwich with vanilla frosting. I recommend everyone should try it, but I insist my friends with any allergies try it.”

A similar situation occurred with Natalie Reff, 21, who used to live in upstate New York and also learned about the bakery through her friends. “When I was about 15 I found out I was lactose intolerant and I was devastated. I was told that this place was vegan and everything was lactose free and I went crazy, I was so excited.” So every time her parents came to New York City, she would tag along to make the mandatory stop at Baby Cakes. “I would stock up and put everything in the freezer, and now that I moved here for college, I have been coming ever since,” adds Reff.

Baby Cakes popularity has grown so much that the owner has rebranded it as Erin McKenna’s Bakery, and has opened two additional locations, one in Los Angeles and another one in Disney World, making it the first vegan, allergen free bakery in the theme park, a place visited by millions of children from all ages. But its rise in popularity has not been just about the products. The bakery has developed a solid and loyal customer base that act as brand ambassadors. “People who love it, love it. It’s got like a cult following on Facebook. People who come here, come once and they’re hooked,” says Reff.

The storefront at Broome Street sits between two large restaurants but it doesn’t really have anything that makes it stand out from the outside. There are no luscious decorations nor is there a big bright sign to indicate it is Erin McKenna’s bakery. The window display is dimly lit and it only has a sticker of the new Erin McKenna’s Bakery logo, a large red B shaped as a horizontal heart with the letters NYC inside. “I don’t like to force any vision on the brand, I feel like it’s a living thing and it guides me where it wants to go,” says McKenna. “I believe that the business would do well nationally and we plan to open a few more in the city within the next couple years.”

Within the little shop is a cozy, quirky scene: The staff is dressed up in 1950s aprons and they always greet you with a smile. The atmosphere inside the little bakery shop is reminiscent of a girl’s room from the 80s. The walls are painted pink, and there is an old telephone shaped as big red lips sitting behind the counter, next to a pile of vinyl records, and an old radio. Across from the counter is a big cork board where there is a collage of magazine cutouts and drawings left by creative customers.

“There are definitely people that come here and hang out,” says Nicole Harring, who has been working at the bakery for the last two and a half years. “We have a little space in the corner where people write us notes and some people come in and do these amazing drawings for us too.”

As Harring points to a cartoon a customer made depicting his mad commute across the city to get in time to buy a cupcake, a woman in her 40s walks in and starts picking out pastries. As she gets ready to pay a couple of friends in their 20s walk in, and one of them asks Harring if there are any bagels left. Harring shakes her head no. The older woman turns to him and tells him she just bought the last two, but she’d be happy to give one to him. The guy evidently surprised smiles and accepts, he tries to pay back the woman but she doesn’t let him. “You’ll buy me one next time we meet,” she tells him as she exits through the door.

The shop starts getting busier and Harring has to step away. The customers sit on the bench beside the counter and share their pastries over conversation and laughter. Through the window passersby walk without giving the bakery a second glance, unaware of the budding community and the tasty healthy snacks that brought them together.

Read more here

About author

Maria Gonzalez
Maria Gonzalez 3 posts

Mexican journalist studying a masters in Magazine Writing. Opinionated. Wordy. A little awkward sometimes. You can read more from me at byguadalupegonzalez.wordpress.com or follow me on Twitter @mariainnyc

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