While still in its infancy, every business ends up with a few frustrated customers. Babycakes NYC is no exception. Due to our past relationship with Babycakes NYC, they contacted us and wanted a chance to clear the internet air, so to speak. I politely, yet clearly, told them a few things they needed to change in order to gain the confidence of some of their customers with serious allergy issues. I’m happy to report that they eagerly took the friendly advice and have made some big changes.
One change you will notice is that the Babycakes NYC website no longer uses the term "wheat free" in connection with spelt flour products. When the bakery first opened some people were concerned about spelt products being labeled as "wheat free".
Even though calling spelt "wheat free" is a misnomer, I’ve always understood this probably for two reasons: Every gluten-free person has to eventually learn that gluten-free always means wheat-free, but wheat-free does not always mean gluten-free. The second reason, more than likely from before the days of gluten-free food awareness, is that some people who have an allergy to traditional wheat have found that spelt flour, which is indeed a form of wheat, didn’t bother them. For years now in Oregon (my hometown, which is alternative in every way, including food) spelt goods have been available. A lot of people that just don’t eat traditional wheat have come to refer to spelt products as "wheat-free". Now, and with good reason, it has been realized that this is technically incorrect and needs to be addressed when it comes to accurate food labeling.
The other big change at Babycakes NYC is they now have a list of ingredients for each item available on both the website and in the store. Erin McKenna, the owner, told me she used to be very protective of her recipes, but now she realizes that in order to put her allergic customers at ease she needs to honor their requests for a full disclosure of all the ingredients she uses. Along with this each item is clearly labeled as gluten-, wheat-, dairy-, egg-, or soy-free. Notes are also included for items using spelt, agave or regular sugar.
When I spoke with Erin recently, she explained how she started her alternative baking endeavors because of her psoriasis combined with IBS which was triggered by wheat and dairy. She wanted to create a fun and tasty bakery that would be able to serve people with special diets. It turns out that Erin is not bothered by spelt, a cousin of wheat. Although she seems fine with these restrictions, once she gets a break from one of her 14 hour bakery shifts she’s considering getting tested for celiac disease just to make sure she doesn’t have it.
Here are some highlights from my conversation with Erin:
Kelly: "What about the issue of cross contamination in your bakery?"
Erin: "We really care about our ingredients and we’ve done all that we can at this location to avoid cross-contamination starting with calling all of our vendors and buying all new equipment for our gluten-free items. Most items, including even sponges and spatulas, are color coded: items used for our spelt based products are red or blue, and gluten-free items are coded white and yellow. We don’t have the space for a separate oven, but we wipe down the oven in between batches of gluten-free items and spelt items. Our display case is organized too in such a way that the top row is gluten-free, middle row is for spelt items and the bottom is for our cupcake tops (like the Seinfeld reference to muffin tops) are coded by the color of the decorative flower on top. Green means gluten-free, pink and white is for spelt. Our bakers train for 3 weeks and then have to pass a quiz to make sure they fully understand the seriousness of keeping things separate. We’ve had to let a few employees go due to reports and observations that they just either didn’t care or they didn’t fully understand the importance of keeping things separate and accurately advising our guests. Now we have some great employees that are very much a about the cause."
Kelly: "What about additional food allergies – like nuts- can you accommodate them?"
Erin: "In the beginning we started getting requests for soy-free so now, other than items that have chocolate chips, we are soy-free. We do not use any nuts, but we have checked with all of our suppliers for possible cross-contamination of nuts and at this time we can’t guarantee they are nut-free. For example, we use Bob’s Red Mill flour products for their quality since they are certified and tested to be gluten-free, but they also produce almond and hazelnut flour in their gluten-free facility, so we can’t technically tell people with nut allergies our products are 100% safe. I’ve suggested to Bob’s Red Mill that when they build a newer gluten-free facility it would be helpful to their business, our business, and our customers that have to eat nut-free, if they would somehow separate the nut flours from the rest of the facility.
Kelly: "I didn’t see you on the Martha Stewart show, but I heard you looked dumbfounded when she asked you to talk about the canola oil you were using in the recipe you made on the air. I’ve heard that this has made some people nervous as to whether you really understand your ingredients or not, which I’m sure was fueled by spelt being labeled as "wheat-free" in your store. What really happened while you were on the show?"
Erin: "I know that didn’t look good, but the truth is, we didn’t use canola oil in our original recipes at that time. I prefer coconut oil because of its health benefits to other oils, but due to its bad reputation in the past as an artery clogger the show told me they didn’t want me to use it in the recipe. Even Food & Wine magazine didn’t want me to use coconut oil in my recipes they printed. People are still freaked out and misinformed about coconut oil. So, I had to substitute canola oil last minute on the air and it totally threw me off when she asked me about canola oil. Now we do use canola oil in a few items in order to have something for the people that still don’t feel comfortable eating coconut oil."
Kelly: "Thanks for clearing up any confusion for us, Erin. For fun, is their any new and exciting exclusive information you’d like to give to us about Babycakes NYC?"
Erin: "Yes! We are opening a bakery in West Hollywood, CA hopefully by March 2008. It’s in a really hip area and our store will have a patio and more space for people to stay and enjoy the treats they have bought. We also are designing the store so the gluten-free items will be on one side of the store and the spelt items will be on the other side. We think this will make picking things out easier for the customers along with minimizing cross-contamination even mor
e. I’m also working on a cookbook so anyone anywhere can enjoy Babycakes goodies! I’ll let you know more about dates as soon as they are finalized."
So, as you can see, Babycakes NYC has grown out of the awkward beginning stages of business by taking some big steps to please their rapidly growing customer base. Any further requests or suggestions for the bakery can be emailed to info at babycakesnyc dot com.