Eighties rock music blares on the video as blonde bombshell Erin McKenna, 34, strolls into her small New York City bakery, BabyCakes, in black knee-high boots, a short, pinstriped dress and an apron. Tucked under her arm is a newly released cookbook slathered with images of gooey chocolate cupcakes. (Preparing for her second cookbook, to be published in April 2011, McKenna emphasizes that she will deploy the full range of her limited pantry to concoct a batch of new recipes.)
Around her, sexy, hipster BabyCakes staffers dance, throwing their arms in the air and laughing wildly. McKenna's dance-party videos, posted on Vimeo -- a video-sharing Web site -- are hot, something vegan and gluten-free desserts typically are not.
If the now-brunette San Diego native had listened to the advice she'd been given, discouraging her from opening a gluten-, soy-, wheat-, dairy-, casein- and egg-free bakery, BabyCakes NYC would not be the success it is today -- and neither would McKenna, who has appeared on popular TV programs such as The Martha Stewart Show, and whose baked (not fried) doughnuts were recently dubbed Best Vegan Treat in New York by New York Magazine.
Mothers of allergy-plagued children still come into the shop crying and thanking McKenna for opening her bakery.
McKenna, who now lives in Los Angeles, where she opened a downtown BabyCakes earlier this year, began baking after being disappointed by the typical market goods available. "A lot of the stuff I found in health-food stores was packaged and dry, and really a letdown," she says.
So, without any formal training in cooking, McKenna spent countless nights in the kitchen, reading Julia Child recipes and replacing the original ingredients with her own. Once her concoctions began to taste good, she decided the next step would be to open her own bakery. There was only one hitch: McKenna hadn't put her recipes on paper. But with help from an organized friend and the support of 11 siblings, she opened BabyCakes NYC in 2005. Since then, the bakery, located on the Lower East Side, has become a sensation.
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McKenna was also determined to spread her word -- and fare. But another, small hitch ensued: In January, after three years of planning, as BabyCakes NYC's L.A. opening neared, McKenna had a 100-degree fever. "It was like being in labor for three days," she says of the opening. But she'd given birth to her second bakery. "I learned not to be afraid of money and taking risks," she says. "I knew in my heart I had to stand up for what I believed in."
The road to sharing her beliefs via a business has been difficult: McKenna had no credit or money, and was working three waitressing jobs to support her expensive baking habit, using ingredients that didn't send her immune system into overdrive. Though the ingredients are costly now, McKenna hopes that wholesale prices will drop once gluten-free and healthy products are more commonly used. "People get upset because they think it's really expensive," she says.
McKenna isn't finished expanding her business. "After opening in downtown L.A., I thought, we have to open in Santa Monica, West Hollywood, San Francisco, and, oh, we have to have one in Chicago. Is Paris up next? Maybe."
This story is from the current People Issue. To read more, see our cover story.