“I rarely drive. Like, when I drive with my mom, she’s always stressed out.” Clara Polito is clutching the steering wheel of her white Toyota Scion. It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Friday morning and while many teens her age are studying for college exams, the 19-year-old brunette is swerving through traffic on the 110 south through downtown with aluminum containers of vegan cupcakes in tow. She is en route to Mercado La Paloma to make her first delivery of the day, to the vegan Ethiopian restaurant Azla.
Despite being relatively new to driving a vehicle, Polito is not new to the business of selling baked goods. The teen baker, who goes by the name Clara Cakes, began selling her goods at downtown L.A. music venue the Smell at age 12. Though the famous punk venue seems an unlikely locale for a tween’s bake sale, Polito was no stranger to the music scene.
“I had always grown up with punk around me because my mom always played different punk music. She grew up in L.A. during the ’80s. So she was a New Waver and punker at the same time. My dad was in a band before he had us, too. Also, my two brothers had a huge influence on the music that I liked. I started selling at the Smell basically because my brother introduced me to No Age and this whole L.A. downtown scene.” She points out that the Smell's all-ages policy made it easy for a youngster to do business there.
When asked if her love of baking ever got in the way of schoolwork, Polito says that it helped her academically. “My parents always just let me and my brothers kind of do what we wanted to do. I was able to balance both because I think they were so different that it almost worked to my advantage, where school was an escape from baking and baking was an escape from school.”
Ultimately, baking seemed to be the better escape. After moving from middle school in Moorpark to high school in Los Angeles, she opted to graduate early. “I couldn’t fathom being stuck in that place for four years like that. So I did independent study and got out in three years instead.”
Polito bakes out of her home kitchen in Atwater Village, where she lives with her mom. But seven years after setting up shop at the Smell, she is selling wholesale cupcakes to various restaurants, and custom cakes, cookies and pies to clients all over L.A. What’s more, her first cookbook, Clara Cakes: Delicious and Simple Vegan Desserts for Everyone is due out in March from Powerhouse Books.
“Powerhouse emailed me about a year ago. I think someone had told them about me and my baking. From there they researched me and asked if I’d ever thought about doing a cookbook. I thought about it for a month or two. In the end, it felt like the best decision,” she says of her book deal. Clara Cakes’ reputation for delicious vegan cookies seems to precede her, swinging open door after door of opportunity.
At Azla, Clara Cakes' cupcakes dominate the sweets menu. “They wanted to start carrying vegan desserts and they approached me about it.”
Pizzanista, in the downtown Arts District, is the next stop on her morning delivery route. "I got Pizzanista because I took a picture (on Instagram) of my pizza from Pizzanista. I don’t even remember what I said, but Salman, the co-owner, wanted to talk to me about selling my desserts there. So Instagram has definitely been a huge platform."
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Despite all of this smooth sailing, there are challenges to being such a young entrepreneur. Until recently, Polito relied on her mom to drive her everywhere. And being taken seriously isn't a given.
“I’m still consistently described as 'cute.' And I understand that adjective a lot. But there’s a lot of hard work that goes behind it. And I think most people that aren’t in the food industry don’t realize how much hard work goes into just making the food. I have my hands in everything, both the business and the book, stuff way beyond being in my kitchen now."
Polito's s'mores bars, soft Oreo cookie–stuffed chocolate chip cookies and fluffy cupcakes speak for themselves. Anyone who describes Clara Cakes as "cute" is not wrong. But anyone who has eaten her sweets knows that is definitely not the point.