NYLP: Welcome to the New York Launch Pod, a podcast highlighting new start-ups, businesses and openings in the New York City Area, I’m Hal Coopersmith and my guest in this episode is Asha Carroll, the Founder of Cake in a Crate which is a vegan, gluten-free, processed sugar free cake mix that you bake. I think it tastes great. It is so easy to make that I was able to make it myself, and for anyone who knows me that just goes to show how easy it is. I brought the cake to my Thanksgiving dinner for some actual reviews. Here’s my cousin Lindsay Amper that noise in the background is our actual Thanksgiving dinner going on.
What’s your name?
Lindsay Amper: Lindsay.
NYLP: And how do you know me?
Lindsay Amper: You’re my cousin
NYLP: How did you like the cake that I made?
Lindsay Amper: I thought it was pretty good!
NYLP: Did it taste like it was gluten-free?
Lindsay Amper: It tasted good. Really good.
NYLP: And here’s Lisa Salerno, married to my cousin Brian.
Lisa Salerno: I really liked it. I liked how it was nice and densely chocolaty. I liked the little bit of saltiness to it.
NYLP: If you want to try Cake in a Crate yourself, Asha is offering all New York Launch Pod listeners 20% off with code “NYLAUNCH”. I think it’s a great product to try particularly this time of year around the holidays or maybe you’re headed to a pot luck. Now let’s go to the interview.
Stepping onto the Launch Pod we have Asha Carroll, Founder of Cake in a Crate. Thank you for stepping on to the Launch Pod Asha!
Asha: Thank you for having me, Hal. I’m excited to be here.
NYLP: So what is Cake in a Crate?
Asha: Cake in a Crate is the plant-based baking kit. Every ingredient comes perfectly measured to make an impressive homemade dessert, and we make it easy for you. We source the ingredients, we curate beautiful recipes and we break it down step by step. So that it is easy to make whether you’re a first time baker or whether you’re an old pro.
NYLP: And what does plant based cooking mean? Because that sounds a little bit weird to me.
Asha: Okay. Sure, plant based is anything that is derived from a plant as opposed to derived from an animal. So I would say plant based is a more modern term for vegan. You’re seeing it more and more with plant milks, with alternative to butter and dairy and eggs. More and more we’re getting plant based as the term in news and the media. But plant based essentially means like I said anything derived from plant. Chocolate can be derived from a plant, flax seed can be derived from a plant. Almonds are a plant, we’re not just talking about spinach, and carrots and all that good for you vegetable stuff.
NYLP: So I was looking at your website, you’re gluten free, vegan, kosher friendly, processed sugar free. Anything else that I’m missing?
Asha: A lot of our kits are paleo, which seems contradictory to vegan, but there’s actually a lot of synergy between those two diets when you get into baked goods. And yeah, we try to make things taste as great as possible, and simultaneously as good for you as possible.
NYLP: And they’re desserts, so good for you.
Asha: No, it’s dessert. Oh, it’s not… and don’t get me wrong, I love a good avocado pudding, but I mean you have to use sugar, you have to use oil, you have to use salt. It’s all those things that make for a wonderful decadent baked good. We’re taking those classic ingredients and we’re healthing them up so to speak. It’s still an indulgence. I wouldn’t say that you’re going to be eating it for every meal but it’s probably healthier than most breakfasts you’ll have.
NYLP: Does it taste good? Because I couldn’t believe that.
Asha: Yeah, so we take taste very seriously and we know there are going to be some skeptics. So we actually employ a team of test bakers throughout the country, who test our products to make sure that they “don’t taste vegan, don’t taste gluten free.” And we want it to taste as good if not better than your classic butter, sugar, flour, eggs, baked good.
NYLP: Well, I couldn’t believe that it would taste good. But I actually made one of your Cakes in a Crate, was able to bake it myself which I was very impressed that you are able to simplify it, that someone like me could even bake a cake. And it does taste amazing. How do you do it?
Asha: Well, first thank you. I’m so glad that you have the opportunity to give it a try…
NYLP: I feel like you should win a prize for engineering, if I’m able to do it.
Asha: Like I said, we take our recipe development very seriously. I’ll give you a tip which is that chocolate makes anything taste great in my opinion. If it has chocolate in it you’re getting my vote, but in all seriousness for us it’s all about ratio and conversion. So a lot of our recipes are developed from standard butter, sugar, flour, eggs recipes like I mentioned. And we convert recipes one ingredient at a time to make sure that they achieve that balance. That they do taste sweet enough that they do have the lift that eggs provide, that they do have the fattiness, the creaminess that you’ll got from rich butter cream for example. And quite honestly, we work with food bloggers and recipe developers who really know their stuff. So we’re entrusting our product into really good hands.
NYLP: How long does it take to develop a recipe? Because I’m thinking when you are dealing with your recipes you’re not dealing with someone’s great grandparents’ recipes that was gluten free, process sugar-free, Paleo back in the day. You’re coming up with new items.
Asha: Yes, it takes us about one month start to finish, from conception all the way through production for a recipe. And what that entails is like I said a whole lot of testing. We’re big fans of group feedback. So any single one of our testers is required to serve it to a group of people. Bonus points that it’s people who don’t eat vegan or gluten free. And anybody who says that it tastes healthy, we go back and we tweak. Again, all that said we’ve really got it streamlined and that’s just thanks to the way that we ran our communication for it, and again we take it very seriously. We like dessert and that’s number one. And number two is that we’re going to make it healthy. So it’s got a taste viable as a good dessert.
NYLP: Let’s go a little bit more behind the scenes in terms of the process.
Asha: Yeah, let’s do it.
NYLP: How many cakes are being baked before something comes to a final recipe? Because I’m always wondering all right, if you take a tablespoon out of here or less salt, how long does it actually take?
Asha: Sure. A recipe you will start with it’s usually an ingredient as an inspiration. And so the idea is how can we take this ingredient and show it off. How can we maybe show people something about this ingredient that they don’t know? Do most people know that tahini acts as a fabulous egg substitute? Probably not…
NYLP: When you had me making flax eggs, I could not…
Asha: [laughter] Yeah, flax seed is a good one. And it sounds so Grandma and Grandpa but yeah flax eggs are great. And a lot of these things have been around the vegan community for a long time, but they have not yet… or they are just hitting the mainstream. So again it’s about taking an ingredient that may sound a little out there and showing people that it’s really not so difficult. How hard was it to make your flax eggs?
NYLP: It was not difficult at all. It just required water and the flax that you had.
Asha: Stirred it up?
NYLP: Stirred it up.
Asha: So there you go. it’s just about opening your mind and think a little bit and using some things you may not have used before, but back to development. So we’ll start with an ingredient as an inspiration and then our recipe developers who are prominent food bloggers, who are working with they’ll pitch a recipe to us or they’ll actually pitch a few recipes to us. And then we number crunch and we work into what is the most viable to get into our product, and we also do polls through our testing network. Which is what do people actually want? Do people want carrot cake or do they want cinnamon rolls? This is a hard question…
NYLP: And what do the people want?
Asha: Like I said, people love chocolate, people love something that can be eaten for breakfast or any time. And people love… and we have found this more and more though our name is Cake in a Crate, people love cookies. People love bars, people love things that they can bring to any kind of event. So that’s what we’re finding more and more. You’ll always find a few celebration cakes on our site. But I think more and more we’re getting into that every day dessert. Which is what is a dessert that I can have on a Wednesday.
NYLP: And what is a dessert that you’re going to have on a Wednesday?
Asha: Let me tell you some of my favorites. So currently we have something called salty date caramel Scotcheroo available in a Cake in a Crate, and have you ever heard of a Scotcheroo?
NYLP: I have heard of a Scotcheroo but probably from your website.
Asha: So I’m from the Midwest, I’m from Minneapolis and they are the dessert bar king. That’s because you take a few ingredients, you mix them up in one bowl, fewer dishes to do. And you lay them into a pan. It’s completely no bake, you put either on your countertop or in your fridge. Wait a little while, it’s ready to serve for dinner or bring to a picnic or to bring to a birthday. So Scotcheroo are kind of a fun mix. Traditionally it’s rice krispies, carob syrup, butterscotch chips with a layer of chocolate on top. So we took it and we worked with one of our food bloggers. She’s named Heartbeat Kitchen and she’s also from the Midwest so she understood this dessert. And she incorporated dates into the recipe. Dates, another grandma and grandpa food, here we go. That you actually heat up the dates, you get a date caramel, you salt it. A little bit of cinnamon, you use maple syrup, brown rice syrup, to stick the brown rice krispies together. And you pour some really quality dark chocolate on top. A sprinkling of melted salt and there you go. So that’s just an example of how we took a really kind of questionable ingredient list and I made it something that’s a little bit healthier for our customers.
NYLP: How long does it take to make one of your recipes?
Asha: I would say most of our recipes can be completed in less than an hour. I would say about 30 minutes of active prep time, which is pretty standard. I would say even if you’re making a box mix, which we can talk about box mixes. But even if you’re making a box mix, that’s going to be between 15 to 30 minutes prep, and then about 30 minutes to bake. And then I would say another 30 minutes plus to bake. And then I would say another 30 minutes plus to cool. But for these no bakes, I’m telling you people are wanting no bakes more, more people want that instant gratification. If it’s summertime people don’t want to turn on their ovens. A no bake can be achieved in much less time. So we’re really interested in those.
NYLP: And it seems like you rotate some of your recipes.
Asha: We do, definitely we believe in seasonal desserts. So at this time of the year you’re going to see our caramel apple spice cake. We have a recipe called Pumpkin Pocket Pies which is our take on a classic pumpkin pie with a buttery crust. We’ve found ways to make all the happen. So we’ll do things like that during the colder months. And during the summer and you’re going to be seeing… in this next coming year you’re going to be seeing things that can be chilled. So modern takes on like an icebox cake, things that can be kept in your refrigerator or your freezer served that way. So we definitely rotate things out, if something is a crowd favorite we’ll bring it back. But at all times we kind of have a rotating roster of recipes. As well as those mainstays that are going to be there all the time. And we like to listen to our customers. If something is selling very well, it’s going to be in the shop for a long time.
NYLP: How did you come up with this idea?
Asha: So I was what you call a stress baker. So I was singing opera and I would have all this energy when I got home from rehearsal at night. We usually rehearse till 10:00 or 11:00 and…
NYLP: Singing opera in New York.
Asha: Singing opera yeah, in New York and I was traveling a lot as well, mostly through the US and a little bit in Europe. And I would get home and instead of wanting to go to bed, I would want bake something. And again maybe that’s the midwesterner in me, I’m not sure, but I have always had a major sweet tooth and I’ve always loved to bake. So I was a home baker for a number of years. My whole life actually, and I would come home and I would bake something up. So then the next day we would have it maybe I would serve it at rehearsal, maybe I would serve it at a dinner party, serve it to my friends and it was just kind of an ongoing cycle. Just to get a little bit personal, whether it was the stress of moving to New York City or it was all of my nightly baking efforts. I gained a lot of weight with my activity.
And so when I decided to lose it and I wanted to keep baking. I had to find some other ways. So I started to get into alternative diets. I had been a vegetarian on and off for about 10 years, and I was starting to dip into the dairy free and the gluten free. Finding that I was feeling better, finding that I was losing weight and still essentially getting to have my cake and eat it too. And so I’d start making these recipes and these are what replaced mainstays. These are what I was bringing to dinner parties, sharing with friends. And after a little while I found I was getting better feedback on that my gluten free and vegan desserts than I was on my old standbys. People would ask me for the recipe but when I told them the ingredients inside, they got a little bit overwhelmed. They’d say “Well, I’d never buy almond flour, I don’t bake very often. I know that’s expensive. I don’t keep dates on hand all I have is white sugar.”
But the people wanted the desserts and they wanted what they saw on Pinterest, and they wanted what they saw on Instagram or on food blogs. So at this time I kind of been working my mind around a couple of start-up ideas already, and we kind of had a convergence of meal kits rising to the front of the pack when it came to start-ups. We had subscription boxes and we had a plant based and vegan and gluten free foods just reaching the mainstream. So myself and my co-founder, we had this idea what if we made it accessible for people to bake using healthier methods, using healthier ingredients, to bake vegan, to bake gluten-free, bake refined sugar-free?
And what if we use the concept from the meal kit which is to pre-measure everything? So that takes some of the biggest work out of baking the measuring. To pre-measure everything, individually package it so that people can have a relationship with that ingredient. They can get to know these ingredients one at a time, rather than having your run of the mill, powdered sugary box mix which we were starting to see. If you look at the numbers, box mix sales have been down, natural food sales have been up. And I just saw a window of opportunity and I said I’m going to test this out. I’m going to test it out on my friends. I’m going to see what they think. So that was step one.
NYLP: And then what was that moment when you said, “Actually, I’m going to quit singing and this is what I’m going to do?”
Asha: So I know a lot of singers who are entrepreneurs and of course a lot of singers who have day jobs, it happens I think in any creative category that you get people who are willing to think outside of the box. And who are looking for better ways to do everyday things. And I had this entrepreneurial urges and I had these things I was testing out, and I thought maybe that they could live in the same tank. That I could put them in the same tank and they could fight it out, and we can see which one I went over. And every day that I went on, I just realized that there was a need for this. I realized that the world might not be missing something if I wasn’t singing. But if I wasn’t putting full force into this idea that I had for Cake in a Crate, that it might not come to fruition.
I really had to make the hard choice. And I can still remember the day that I wrote to my voice teacher. I said, “I’m going to be taking an extended hiatus. I don’t know if I’ll be back.” and I didn’t go back. And the more and more that I began working with other food entrepreneurs, and I partnered up with food bloggers and ingredient brands, I started to really understand the need for what we were doing. It just became so clear, it became so clear and God I’m having a fun time, I’m having a great time. And it’s been about two years.
NYLP: So this world was totally new to me when I started exploring it. Do you have any competitors?
Asha: Cake in Crate has no immediate competitors, but there are a couple of products that are doing something similar. You may have heard of Foodstirs, which is Sarah Michelle Gellar’s baking product. Which is kind of an arts and crafts thing for kids. They operate on a subscription model. They don’t use artificial dyes, but you won’t find vegan with them. You rarely find gluten free, kind of fun thing for kids. We are friends with a New York baking start up called Red Velvet NYC, and they do what we do but for conventional cakes. So they’re cakes use eggs, and butter, and milk and they’ll actually ship to you those dairy ingredients. So I really respect what they do in terms of logistics. On the other side of things we have the meal kits. So we have products like Blue Apron, obviously which is sort of a parallel market, and we have Purple Carrot which is the vegan meal kit. And we have big respect for Purple Carrot and are happy to be friends of the folks over there.
But to be honest as of right now we’re the only people doing exactly this. We’ve started to see a couple of meal kits adding in some dessert options, but nobody’s entirely vegan and gluten free. And I feel confident in saying that nobody is highlighting food bloggers the way that we are. And we found a real home in promoting their creations, and their recipes and bringing them to new audiences.
NYLP: And so where do you fit on the… for the lack of a better word spectrum in terms of who your audience is? Someone who doesn’t want to go to a bakery to buy a cake or buy dessert, but also an enthusiast who probably already has the ingredient. Who is your customer and how are they getting to you?
Asha: Our customers are busy people. It’s a lot of New Yorkers, it’s a lot of Californians but it’s a lot of people all across the country. We have two types of people who use Cake in a Crate. It’s either people who are too busy to go out and get the ingredients and source the recipes themselves or it is people who do not have access where they are in the country, to buy that bag of almond flour or flax meal. So the former is what we’re getting in those major cities which is people who may be big followers of blogs, very active on Instagram or Pinterest, but they’re just not necessarily that all the time baker, but maybe they want to be, we make it possible. You can think of us as an in-between kind of place. You can think of Cake in a Crate as a helper tool, an introduction. But to be honest a lot of our customers are also experienced bakers who have not yet worked with these ingredients before. Maybe it’s somebody whose husband or wife has a recent celiac diagnosis. Maybe it’s somebody who has been suggested by their doctor to consume a little less animal fat. We hit pretty far across the board in all directions.
But I would say most of our customers are new to this lifestyle and are eager to learn more. So we really value our position as I would say honestly a baking education tool. Again it goes beyond what you would get from a box mix, it is interactive. And our hope is that when someone is done baking a Cake in a Crate they feel more accomplished as a baker. Or as a friend or as somebody who is hosting Thanksgiving for their relatives.
NYLP: How fat will I get by eating your dessert?
Asha: Well, okay, so we use coconut oil, we use coconut butter, we use coconut sugar, we use maple syrup, dates, brown rice syrup, as I mentioned. It’s still sugar and it still fats but in terms of your health, I think you’re going to be a lot happier. And I don’t think you’re going to get that sinking feeling in your stomach after you eat a Cake in a Crate that you may be used to experiencing after Thanksgiving dinner, or after a slice of chocolate cake. It’s going to be different. I think you’re going to notice that you feel better. Can you get fat? Oh, sure. But I lost 40 pounds eating Cake in a Crate. So that’s just me.
NYLP: That’s incredible.
Asha: While eating dessert. That’s my way. I didn’t want to stop so I had to find a way.
NYLP: It still blows me away that it is delicious. How much does this cost?
Asha: So Cake in a Crates currently run between $25 to $35, but we’re continually diversifying our line to add lower cost options, and again there’s every day desserts that I mentioned. So next time you head your website, you may see some lower cost options on there as well. To us it’s important to make Cake in a Crate accessible to a wide variety of people, while still providing a really luxurious decadent experience.
NYLP: And I love that all the ingredients were pre-packaged for me. How is that sorting it out on your end? What is that like?
Asha: Sure. We are very detail oriented when it comes to our production. So for us that means portioning everything individually. And it means having a stock of let’s call them sku’s. So we use the measurement one cup chocolate in a number of our desserts. We use the measurement one third cup coconut oil in a number of our desserts. So you can’t think of it as a mix and match of ingredients. So on a logistics standpoint we keep a large catalog of ingredients and that’s what our recipe developers have to work with. And they take what we have and they run with it. And I would say really the sky’s the limit when it comes to combinations. You can think of it as baking Lego’s. You can kind of make anything.
NYLP: And what’s the backend like? The actual logistics do you have just a big warehouse of all these gluten-free fun recipes?
Asha: Yes. So it is a gluten-free zone that’s absolutely certain. Again, we have a lot of customers with dietary or allergy restrictions so we are very serious about all of our certifications. But in terms of how it works, we receive raw ingredients, be it flowers, or be it nut butters, or chocolate or anything in between. We receive the raw ingredients, then we portion those by weight into all of our different containers. Which are also eco friendly. That’s also really important to us and to our customers. And those are what we keep on our shelves. And those are what we fill into our Cake in a Crate. As you know, Cake in a Crate don’t require refrigeration. So that’s really great I think for both our customers and for us in terms of what we do at our warehouse. To us it really helps us with distributions so that we’re able to get to customers, and currently the 48 continental states. And hopefully soon Alaska and Hawaii.
NYLP: That was one of the things I was fascinated by because I had this actual box which looked beautiful, and the ingredients didn’t expire for a long time. And you can just store it for how long?
Asha: That’s right. Well, it really depends based on the ingredients. But I would say it three to six months for every Cake in a Crate. There are a couple of ingredients that if you refrigerate them they’ll keep even longer, like say almond flour or maple syrup. But we’re really proud of our shelf life, between you and me I don’t think it will last on your shelf too long at home, but it is highly giftable because of that. And right now are heading into our busiest season of course with the holidays, and I think a lot of people like that about Cake in a Crate. It is something that you can wrap it up in and give us and not worry about sticking into a refrigerator.
NYLP: One of your biggest challenges I imagine must be overcoming the obstacle of someone thinking it is all of these things, gluten free, process sugar free. It’s going to taste awful. How do you overcome that particularly on the web and everything else that you’re doing?
Asha: Our joke is that our cakes are actually just made of air, that’s all they are. But no in all seriousness we find that number one it has to taste good. And number two to it has to look good. But in terms of our customers we’ve had great success presenting our product in a visual way. And we’ve developed quite the following and customer engagement via Instagram and Pinterest for that matter. If a dessert looks good, people are going to be a lot more trusting of it. You’ll see on a lot of websites, you might see some vegan things or gluten free things that look a little bit questionable in their photos. So that’s number one is we really want to show off how beautiful they are. And number two, we believe that once our customers or their friends and family taste it they won’t know the difference.
Actually one of my favorite stories, one of our testers fed her neighbor Cake in a Crate. And this neighbor was gluten free and vegan. So our tester thought it would be a perfect match and she should try it. And the neighbor came back to her and she said “I can’t believe you. You told me this is gluten free and vegan and there’s no way it is. I know what that tastes like and I don’t believe it. Why would you give this to me?” And obviously it was gluten free and vegan. So you really just have to taste it to taste the difference. Again we believe in our ingredients and we work with some really top notch purveyors, and we believe in our bloggers and our recipe developers. And it’s got to taste good. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe in it tasting good that’s number one.
NYLP: Well, it does so when do people make it and how often do they come back?
Asha: We are very fortunate when it comes to our return customers, so we get a lot of referrals. We have families cross country who’ve baked their Cake in a Crate together. So they’ll order for the whole family to bake, and then they’ll kind of do sharing across social media. We love how engaged our customers are on social media to, if they make something beautiful, they want to share it. So that’s been really rewarding for me personally to see what everybody’s been creating. People put their own little spins on it and regardless of what pan they’re baking it or how they’re doing the decorations on top, that’s really fun to see.
NYLP: So you mentioned that you’re sold throughout the country. What are your biggest markets?
Asha: So I would say at this point we still definitely get our most sales from the coasts. So say New York, California, D.C but more and more as our company grows, we are getting customers in the middle of the country. Ohio, Indiana, Chicago is big for us. My hometown Minneapolis and actually we used Minneapolis as a bit of a testing market when we first started out because I wanted to see if it could catch on as well there as it did for us in New York and California. And results have been really good. We see people… again I would say some of these ingredients aren’t as readily available, and especially if people don’t have a Whole Foods for example in their backyard, or maybe they’re a little overwhelmed by ordering on Amazon, or on Thrive Market which is a company that we love. We can be that introduction.
So to answer your question, we’re really seeing a widespread at this point in time, and for us every time we see a new spot on the map light up we’re really excited. Because maybe we’re bringing gluten free to an area that has really limited choices and we’re making it available.
NYLP: How many Cakes in a Crate do you ship out per week, per month?
Asha: Sure, no problem. So right now we are shipping about 100 Cake in a Crates every week, but with right now being holiday season. I don’t want to answer that because it’s a little frightening. Holiday season last year really took us… last year was our first holiday season in business and it really took us by surprise in a good way. But we receive about half of our yearly sales during holiday time. So I say everyone go out and go get it because people want it for their Christmas, for their Hanukkah, for their solstice, for their New Years. People want it for their holiday celebrations. People eat a lot of sweets during the holidays. And if they can make it a little bit healthier, if they can cater to their cousin who’s gluten free, or to their friend who’s vegan they’re going to want to have the Cake in a Crate. So it’s exciting for us, the holiday season is definitely exciting for us. But as it is all over retail, it’s a very hectic and exciting time.
NYLP: I think Cake in a Crate makes a great holiday gift, and even if you’re going to a pot luck or something like that, it’s a wonderful thing to bring where you know that the recipe is going to be awesome.
Asha: Sure. Yeah, I think, especially if you’re not a regular baker, it can be a little overwhelming at the holidays. Because everybody’s making their grandma’s pumpkin pie, or they’re making like a cookie that everybody raves about. I think it can be a little daunting for some people. So we like to think of Cake in a Crate as a recipe that comes with a little bit of an insurance policy so to speak. We pride ourselves being a great holiday gift. And today I’d like to… you know everybody would like to give Cake in a Crate a try, please use the code in New York Launch, that’s NYLaunch, one word, and you’ll get 20% off of your very first Cake in a Crate order, if you haven’t ordered already.
NYLP: That’s a wonderful gift to our New York Launch Pod listeners, and it’s so wonderful to have you on a special holiday edition of the New York Launch Pod. Asha, how do people find more about Cake in a Crate?
Asha: Well, you can find us on www.cakeinacrate.com, or you can find us on social media on Instagram, Cake in a Crate, or on Facebook, Cake in a Crate.
NYLP: Well, Asha, thank you for stepping onto New York Launch Pod, and sharing your time with us.
Asha: Thank you so much, Hal. It’s a pleasure to be here.
NYLP: Again thank you to Asha Carroll for stepping on to the New York Launch Pod. If you want to learn more about the New York Launch Pod you can visit nylaunchpod.com for transcripts of every single episode. You can follow us on social media @NYLaunchPod. And if you have any feedback please reach out to me, I look forward to hearing from you.SHARE THIS: