A Pop-Up Bakery With a Social Mission

Using a pop-up business model, the Depressed Cake Shop works to spread awareness of mental illnesses worldwide. Local bakers from London to Kuala Lumpur donate cookies and cakes — often frosted in somber tones — that sell for $3 to $5 each. The temporary shops operate out of art galleries or empty storefronts, preferably in areas with heavy foot traffic. Since its launch in August, the volunteer group has appeared in 30 places worldwide and raised $25,000 for mental-health organizations.

Rebecca Swanner (pictured), a baker and entrepreneur, organized two Depressed Cake Shop events in Los Angeles. “There were cupcakes with gray frosting and fortune cookies with sad sayings,” she says. “It didn’t look anything like what you would see if you walked into a cupcake shop.”

Swanner’s goal — beyond raising money for a great cause — was to test the market for a new event-production company, Cloak and Dagger. She plans to host a third charity event in August and will use the pop-up model to put on for-profit themed and immersive events that “unite bakers, set designers, and other creatives.”

The Intuit Small Business Blog recently chatted with Swanner about the concept’s sweet beginnings.

ISBB: What inspired you to get involved with the Depressed Cake Shop?

Swanner: I emailed [founder Emma Thomas] and asked if there was a plan for L.A. She said, “If you want to do one, go for it.” I figured out what charity I wanted to work with and went through [their] IRS forms to see how they use their funds. (You want to see that the charity is using the funds in the right way. There’s a great site called Charity Navigator for that.)

I was deciding between Bring Change 2 Mind, a campaign Glenn Close founded, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I decided on NAMI because they have more of a national presence and are also in L.A.

What do you look for in a pop-up location?

I found an amazing skateboard shop and graffiti-art gallery on Venice Boulevard near Venice Beach. They had a little marquee out front reading “Cakes, cakes, cakes,” and it was all lit up. It was Friday night and a crazy party.

I found bakers through Facebook and through the main Depressed Cake Shop page. I had a small baking community already: All 25 of them were gracious and [donated] their products. Every net dollar went to NAMI; we raised $7,500 within 24 hours.

At our most recent one, we raised $5,000 for St. Joseph Center in Venice. They were kind enough to give us a space for free. They do work with low-income families and the homeless. We split the proceeds between St. Joseph Center and NAMI.

How do you recruit volunteers?

There’s a lot to do on the day [of the event]… My boyfriend and my roommate acted as bartenders for the first and second ones. The bakers like to volunteer. We also got eight high-school students who wanted to help out with the second one. Even if they don’t know anyone going through depression right now, they will soon. It allows them to recognize the signs in someone else and be more empathetic.

At the second event, you raised $7,500 in 24 hours. What contributed to your success?

It was the novelty of the concept. In America, we love our sweets, but there isn’t as much of a culture for it as there is in England. ‘There’s going to be a pop-up shop that only sells gray cakes: That’s fascinating!’ That sort of played with people’s perception of things. Just the idea of going to see ‘What is this?’ played a part.

One of my favorite [treats] were cake pops that had little googly eyes and were supposed to represent monsters. They were gone within an hour and made by a woman who runs a cake-pop bakery in Temecula.

How will Cloak and Dagger profit with a pop-up business model?

When [you run] a bricks-and-mortar [business], there’s a lot of overhead: You’re paying for rent, equipment, lighting, and utilities — and all the necessary tools you need for that space. When you work with vendors who bring in product, you really reduce your cost. You’re not paying for your space when you’re not using it. You can spend your budget on what you really want to spend it on: press and decor.

The experience of putting on the first Depressed Cake Shop inspired me to launch this business. Future Los Angeles Depressed Cake Shops will be put on by Cloak and Dagger as a way to give back.

About Kristine Hansen

A Wisconsin-based freelance writer, Kristine Hansen contributes business stories to many food and drink trade journals, as well as CNN.com, and blogs about mindful travel at Psychology Today. She also dishes out advice for writers at The Writer Magazine about running a successful writing business.
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