Shae Seward didn't intend to make the best vegan cobblers in Los Angeles, although that's the way it turned out.
The 54-year-old began Cobblermania, an all-vegan cobbler business with 44 flavors, in 2004. Seward learned how to bake the fruit-based desserts from her Auntie Roi, who brought homemade peach cobblers to family gatherings. When Auntie Roi stopped making cobblers because of her age - she was then in her 90s - Seward asked her aunt to teach her the recipe. Today the business has a devoted following Seward calls "Cobblermaniacs," but Cobblermania's owner-baker says her family hasn't forgotten her initial attempt at duplicating Auntie Roi's creation.
"The first one I made, I forgot the sugar," Seward says. "From then on, my family called it 'the sour pie.' They never called it Cobblermania. Nobody told me until a month later when my sister said my grandfather said, 'I can't believe Shae brought that sour pie.' Until he passed at 98, he used to say, 'You really making a living making them sour pies?'"
Auntie Roi's recipe wasn't vegan, but Seward altered ingredients because she's allergic to eggs and "never liked milk." Once she remembered to add the sugar, Seward realized that it made her sleepy, so when a vegan neighbor suggested agave as a replacement, the native Angeleno switched and "loved it."
Squid Ink: How did you transition from the sour pie into Cobblermania?
Shae Seward: You know how you have those family dinners and friends come over? They started saying, "Your sister made that cobbler. I'm having a party. Can she make it for me?" It grew out of that. Every weekend I was busy. Then every holiday; I was inundated. At first, people didn't believe I made them. Eventually, they believed me - and said I should turn this into a business. It evolved like that. 2005, I took a business class with PACE and got an award of excellence. The next day, I quit my job.
SI: Why just cobblers? Why not vegan turnovers and bundt cakes?
SS: I'm not really a dessert person - that (cobblers), pecan pie and carrot cake. That's it. But Auntie Roi's peach cobbler, I'd sit down and get drunk off of it. She's make them at dinner and I'd eat, pass out, eat, pass out. I didn't know it was because of the sugar.
SI: What's the hardest part about making cobblers every day?
SS: The cobblers themselves have never been the problem. It's staffing, usually. It's always something else - the cobblers are always ready. Sometimes it's ill intentions. The food business has a lot of turnover.
SI: It's just after 10 a.m. and you've been working since nearly midnight. Do you ever sleep?
SS: I work seven days a week. If I'm not selling or baking, I'm shopping or on the Internet. When I'm sleeping, I think about it. Today, I slept from 9:30 to 11 p.m. I do the yams. I cook, peel, chop, prep and I bake until I pack them. People are shocked at the quantity because I do batches.
SI: Does your workload ever decrease?
SS: After New Year's, it's not busy until after the Super Bowl - because of resolutions. But Super Bowl Sunday kind of washes all that out. Today I have 60. If I didn't have another event, it would be 70 or 80.
SI: So you're the only person making 75 cobblers a day and you still peel and slice fresh fruit instead of using canned ingredients?
SS: Only peaches are canned when they are out of season. And we tell people that. Initially, I did not make peach cobblers when they were out of season, but there are a lot of people who will only eat peach cobblers because that's the benchmark. They say they don't care. I grew up eating canned peach cobblers. It wasn't until I got into the markets that I started buying fresh fruit. I like so many fruits, so I thought, "Why just peach? Why one fruit? Why not start mixing two fruits?"
SI: When many people think of cobblers, they immediately think of peach, but every week you seem to have more flavors than the average person could eat in a week. Do you have a running amount of how many different cobblers you can make?
SS: I've added pineapple-coconut, persimmon-cranberry and apple-pear-raisin-walnut, so that's 44. I bring about nine [to markets]. Some flavors I won't bring that many, because certain fruits break down and I know they'll sell.
SI: You don't necessarily advertise your cobblers as vegan, do you?
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SS: I used to, but I have so many customers that aren't vegan, so I just said "dairy free." Instead of talking about what's not in it, I tell people to focus on the pluses because if people ask questions, you have the answers. Don't say "no sugar" because people will think it isn't sweet. And when you say "vegan," they think cardboard.
Cobblermania can be found at farmers markets every Saturday in Torrance, every Sunday in Hollywood, every Wednesday in Compton and every Tuesday in Culver City; at two Golden Bird spots, including the 8300 S. Western Ave. location and every first weekend of the month at the 2847 Crenshaw Blvd. location; the L.A. County Fair; and the first Sunday of the month at the California African American Museum.