Ms Cupcake, UK’s first entirely vegan bakery, has been supporting B£ from the very start, often by providing amazing vegan cupcakes for our events – and tomorrow’s B£ Conference 2015 is no exception! Admission is free and will include some delicious Ms Cupcake treats – so come along to talk about money, society, and Brixton, and to munch on some vegan goodness.
Meanwhile, April is a big month for Ms Cupcake – their vegan cupcakes will be on offer in Whole Foods Market stores right across the UK! So you will now be able to get your hands on the decadent treats in more locations stretching as far as Richmond, Stoke Newington and Glasgow – but as Mellissa (Ms Cupcake herself) assures us, they will still all be hand made in Brixton!
“The Whole Foods collaboration is exciting for us, but really, every month is busy. In March we made a whole lot of cakes and drove them down to Vegfest in Brighton, and there was Mother’s Day, St Patrick’s, Easter… We try to keep things always changing and exciting, offer new flavours and new ideas. It’s not just all cupcakes: we’ve got ice-cream, sandwiches, squares, pastry, and have been diversifying despite the limited space. We also offer classes, and published a recipe book – which was a huge worldwide success (translated into French and German and popping up in vegan locations all over the world), a follow up to which is in preparation… My husband calls it the difficult second album. Mainly it’s hard to be working on it while doing all this other stuff at the same time!”
The Brixton bakery has become a destination point in itself, with vegans and gluten-free folks from all over London, the UK, and even the world seeking it out and coming in to try the famous cupcakes and other products.
“We’re always happy to take our customers on a vegan tour of Brixton: they can get vegan crepes from Senzala, pizza number 1 at Franco Manca (entirely vegan as it’s got no cheese), fresh juice from Oracle’s Organic Juice Bar… Being vegan isn’t a requirement for our staff, but as we get inundated with applications from vegans, they do end up being our own little vegan army. Our staff is very important for us, and they stay because we invest in them. If you pay minimum wage, you get minimum commitment. We give them 3 months training and support them lots – we appreciate it’s sometimes hard to stay positive when you’re working in a busy environment where everything has to be handmade with great care. Also there aren’t many vegan employers, and that’s often so important, particularly for people with allergies. We’ve got very strict rules to avoid cross-contamination: no animal products in the shop. It’s part of our responsibility to the community we serve. And we also do fun stuff! Every second Saturday of the month there’s a walk by Meet Up group London Vegans, The Brixton Vegan Walkabout (next one: 9th May) – there’s always new faces and we’re happy to show them around Brixton, promote the local area. We’re not getting anything extra for it – it’s simply our dedication for both Brixton and the vegan community. And we also organise events, book signings, act as a vegan hub.”
“We’ve always been huge supporters of B£ because it keeps money local. It’s the very first thing we train our staff to do – how to use B£s, take payments by cash, pay-by-text, and app. We don’t want to discourage people by making it difficult. And what we definitely get in return is continued custom – we get to know our customers, they are more inclined to come back, and we can also track what they like and offer them more personalised stuff.”
The bakery has just celebrated its fourth birthday on 1st April, and Mellissa has been a Brixton resident since 2002. “I’ve seen lots of changes as a resident – change is inevitable. We have to move forward, but the important thing is not losing the past. What I love about Brixton is its vibrancy, electricness, diversity. My father lived in Jamaica for 20 years, so the culture, music, and food have a personal dimension for me. It’s scary that we might be losing a lot of that. As a business owner I see it as positive that money is being poured into the area, but it’s crucial to find a sensible way to carry on. Whenever I can I try to get involved and influence the change – I’m part of the BID committee for instance. You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.”
“The truth is you’re never going to get rich selling a handcrafted short-life product for £2.50, so this is not just a business for me – it’s my whole life, and we have a mission. Our customers can’t just go into Greggs or Patisserie Valerie – we cater for alcohol free, religious, allergic people – in that sense it’s a duty. And still, 5 years ago, before we even opened, we got a huge backlash – many people thought cupcakes were not compatible with Brixton.”
Why did a bake-at-home mum open a cupcake shop on Coldharbour Lane then? “This is my community, and if you want it to grow and develop better, you do it yourself and hope for ripple effect, rather than complain to council or politicians. Rosie’s, Franco Manca, Cornercopia – people who were here even longer than us started something, they set out to grow the food scene and not to get rich. Now lots of people are looking at Brixton thinking, oh, I can make some money there! It’s hard to see hotels being built, it’s hard to see the arrival of big names, of big money.”
“We are preparing to open another site just for manufacturing, because we’re running out of space in our little shop, and we’d like to make some extra bits: a menu for special orders, breads, wedding cakes… We’ll have a wider range of products already in the summer, though we’re still looking for the place where we could move some of the manufacturing. It’s a tricky time for a small business to expand in Brixton… The uncertainty, short term licenses and rolling contracts – so we have to look further afield, but we’re definitely hoping to stay in Lambeth.”
What Ms Cupcake is well know for is the sheer decadence of her cupcakes – they are famously 50:50 cake to icing ratio. “We were aiming for the opposite of what you might think when you think “vegan”… decadent, overflowing, sweet. Though that’s not to say we don’t do wholesome products – we cater to different audiences.” Some new items on the spring menu include a new salted caramel cupcake with sea salt and a liquid centre, an oreo red velvet brownie mashup (!!!), but also some less indulgent and non-chocolatey stuff: an oatmeal date square (known as “Matrimonial Cake” in Mellissa’s native Canada: “It’s called that because you’re supposed to have lots of dates before getting married!”, she laughs), a bakewell tart slice, and a blondie, which is the opposite of a brownie. And all the ingredients are as seasonal and local as possible!
Apart from some renovations done in the shop for the 4th birthday, a new arrival is the second fridge, soon to be home to the summer fridge menu, which will include a variety of cold beverages such as cold pressed juices and smoothies, more ice-cream, Ms Cupcake’s own cheesecake, vegan cheese, and breadless sandwiches. “The sky is the limit! We’ve got ideas as long as our arm… I’d love to have hot dogs and burgers and vegan mac and cheese – watch this space! For now we could now afford a second fridge and will work to fill it with all sorts of cold delights. Getting the first one wasn’t so easy – we were in lots of debt and had no cashflow, so £600-700 for a fridge was unthinkable. And then Fat Gay Vegan asked me – why not crowdfund it? This was a good few years ago, and I thought – nobody crowdfunds in the UK, it’ll never work! But I took the risk and though there was some outrage, we managed to get it!”
Mellissa is from Toronto and moved to the UK in late 90s. She was working in the theatre industry and the move was intended as short-term, but she ended up staying, and going into teaching: “I wanted to be a mum and spend more time at home. I do curriculum consulting so I’m travelling loads, but it’s great: I advise on how to get more creativity into school curriculums. I’m also a governor at a local school. But my passion is baking – I do it all the time. It’s a great stress remedy. I never went to culinary school, so all I learned is from trial and error. And veganism? I was a vegetarian before, but especially when you live in a big city like London where vegan food is available, and you know what’s going on in the food industry, about the environmental impact and the cruelty, there’s really no excuse.”
“Cake is my main food group,” laughs Mellissa, “so when I found out there was no vegan bakery in London or the UK, I was gobsmacked. In Canada and the US it’s a lot more popular! And I just didn’t see stuff I wanted to eat – there would maybe be vegan and gluten free flapjacks, but not decadent, indulgent cakes. So I started a market stall, I would set up in Greenwich or on Brick Lane, and I was getting an overwhelming response. The queue was already there when I was starting to set up, and everything would sell out within an hour. So my trajectory from home to small business was very quick – and cost me many sleepless nights. One year to the day, and I opened the shop. I didn’t even have any industry experience, I’d never even done waitressing! So I swore to myself – if this works, I’ll teach people how to do it, because I wish someone had shown me the ropes when I was starting. So now we run classes on setting up your own food business. Our approach has always been very DIY – we’ve never used PR agencies or taken out ads, but with the passion and dedication it’s all seems to have worked out well. I make a fraction of the money I used to make, but I’ve never been happier in my life. At the end of the day I have so much personal satisfaction that I’ve actively contributed to the economy, created jobs, spread veganism… That far outweighs high income or holidays. And I still bake at home! The kitchen is my comfort zone, I create all the recipes there. My son and husband are always the first to test them. Being a parent and business owner can be difficult to juggle – but it’s my husband who takes a lot time off.”