Remember the early days of the pandemic when everyone was baking? There was the yeast and flour crisis as people stuck at home scrambled for ingredients to make cakes and bread. Our social media was flooded with photos of people sharing their cupcakes and baking escapades. If you didn’t try to make a sourdough, were you even there?
Jokes aside, baking was an escape from the stress of staying at home and the uncertainty of a lockdown. For some of us, it became a hobby, others a passion, and for even fewer a bakery. Meet Katherine Cruz of Baked With Kat.
Katherine, like so many, started baking during the pandemic. However, she turned her newfound passion into micro-bakery selling cookies, cheesecakes, banana pudding, and banana bread at Hot Box Burgers in South LA and through her Instagram @BakedWithKat. We talked with Katherine about how she turned something she hated into a dream business.
I love Baked With Kat! The colors and flavors, chef’s kiss! How did you start it?
Well, first of all, I hated baking. I hated baking! I couldn't make a cookie, I couldn't make a cake, even the box stuff! I loved cooking way more.
But, right before the pandemic started, I was going through a really hard time. I was in a headspace where I needed to focus on myself. I remember while we were in lockdown that I was scared to go out and was craving some cookies. At the time I was trying to be healthier and decided that with all the time we had inside, I was going to attempt to make vegan chocolate cookies. Totally out of my element, but I was surprisingly up for the challenge. It was my first time alone baking cookies from scratch, and I was like, “Oh my god, it's so f*cking good!”
Later on, I went on to bake banana bread because my little sister wanted to bake one with me, and it was amazing. I’ve made it before with some friends but never was hands-on with it. I just assisted, like measuring stuff. And then I don't know. I started working out and focusing on myself, baking more delicious treats. It began around April of the pandemic and continued into summer.
Meanwhile, my family had started Hotbox Burger trailer in December of 2019. Later in the summer, after baking and feeding all my family and friends baked goods, I had a conversation with my mom about selling some of the sweets at Hotbox. Everyone around me was basically sick of my sweets since I had made so many. That’s how I started selling.
I ended up loving baking. It's something I really dived into because I was good at it. I was patient, and I found it super therapeutic and enjoyable. Pre pandemic I wanted nothing to do with sugar, flour, and eggs, absolutely nothing. So yeah, that's how it started.
What's your inspiration for your sweets at Baked with Kat?
My fat ass! I'm a big girl! I love food, and I love testing out different flavors.
My signature desserts are banana pudding and banana bread. Hotbox always sells out. So, I’m constantly making new ones every other day. But, I won't restock more than twice, so you gotta be there early.
The other star items are my Destiny Cheesecake and One of Kat’s Cookies. I have 10 to 20 different cookies with different flavors and textures. Still, my staple cookie is my brown buttered cookie with chocolate chips. It could be stuffed with Nutella, Reese's, or the like.
Then, there's Zack's chocolate chip cookie, which is like the Levain bakery-style cookies. All of my desserts are named after people that I love and are super close to me.
And what's your favorite?
Right now, it's the Leslie, which is a Chocolate Chess Pie with a graham cracker crust. I top it with either powdered sugar or sea salt flakes. I prefer sea salt. It’s delicious!
There’s also the Churro or Ube Tres Leches and Zach's chocolate chip cookie. I love the Destiny cheesecake too, but I make it every week.
Honestly, I don't eat my sweets anymore. I give it out so people can tell me what they like about the new stuff. I don't try my experiments because I don't want to eat sugary things anymore! *laughs*
How was it starting your micro-bakery?
It was honestly unreal. I saw my family starting Hotbox, and I wanted to contribute. I can't eat all these sweets by myself! I'll be diabetic!
It was honestly not easy, but everything just fell into place. I feel like once you find something that you love, everything will work out. Even in situations where it wasn't in my favor, it ended up working out anyway. There are always opportunities beyond what we can see and gravitate towards.
It was a little nerve-wracking because I started a business on something that I hated doing my entire life. I ended up loving it after building myself and really throwing myself into it. I learned to love myself and to have patience in getting through the baking process. The time you put into baking and then the results after, it's f*cking worth it! So worth it.
Not only that, the validation from people that I love, and even random people trying my stuff! That's my biggest accomplishment and something I really pride myself in - making other people happy, and hearing that they love something I made! It's fulfilling and rewarding to hear. I don't do it for the money at all. It's something I really love, and the money will come when it comes.
Any misconceptions that people have of running a bakery?
I'm super busy running two businesses. I work with children for my full-time job. It is not a walk in the park.
People undermining your time and your worth. My pricing is fair considering that I don't have a lot of time and I'm one person. I do everything by myself - I bake the sweets, I package them, I buy the labels, ingredients, kitchen supplies, gloves, and hairnets. I do it all.
There are other downsides. There will be people who don't like my stuff. It does hurt my feelings. But at the end of the day, I love what I do and not everyone’s gonna love you. I see it that way. Anytime I get a complaint, which is not often, I take it with a grain of salt. You're not going to please everybody.
What have been some of the highs a running Baked with Kat?
Getting random messages from people saying that they bought my sweets or seeing that they posted it on their stories. I love it when someone says, “Oh yeah, my friend told me about you, so I went and like all that sweets.” I love connecting with people over the sweets I make. And they like it enough to go out of their way and tell me about it. It means a lot to me.
And then obviously working with my family and people I trust is really nice. Others have offered to buy my sweets wholesale, but I always say no because I like to keep it in the family. I'm not closed off to other opportunities, but I do what just feels right to me.
What's your favorite part of the baking process?
When it's done baking! It's a sigh of relief. It's such a process to get there, especially when you're making mass quantities. Making 100 cookies in two days is time-consuming! But, it’s still fun.
You also bake for the homeless. Tells us about that.
I started feeding the homeless with my family years ago. Once a month in Skid Row, we would make sandwiches and have chips and water for them. My mom really inspired me to give back.
This year I started donating in April with Beauty 2 The Streetz. Ms. Shirley really inspired me as well. I think what she does for the homeless community is amazing, especially for the people of Skid Row every week. She feeds them every Tuesday and Thursday, and then on Saturday, she does a big feed and gives them essentials for them to survive or live more comfortably on the streets. This is every week, and she gets a lot of donations. She organizes the whole thing, and it's been six years.
Also, Hotbox Burgers feeds the homeless every day after work. They make burgers for the homeless and pass them out to them out of pocket.
Even though I'm a small business and I'm barely starting out, I like to give and donate. I don't have time to help Ms. Shirley and volunteer with them every week. The least I can do is bake some cookies and sweets for the homeless and her team to enjoy and to let them know that I'm thinking of them, I support them, and I'm sending them love. It's not easy working with all the energies of people who are hurting, who are scared, and who are always on guard. It's not easy being around them all the time, helping them, and accepting that some people are so hurt that they don't want to show that they're grateful for what you're doing for them. It's sad to see, but it's like the reality we live in.
I want them to know that I love them, and I really appreciate all that they do. I know what it's like to have nothing and to lose everything, so I can't imagine a lifetime of feeling that way. It's just a cookie, but I want them to know that I'm thinking of you, I'm praying for you, I really just want more love and light in your life. Plus, I hope it adds a little sweetness to their day.
At the end of September, it’s been a year of Baked With Kat. What are your thoughts for this past year starting your own mini bakery?
I’m excited to see how far this will go. I have big plans that I’m working on and can’t share at the moment, but I'm excited to see how they play out.
Besides that, I would love to go into cooking with CBD and THC-infused foods. I want to create CBD edibles to help people with chronic illnesses and relieve their pain. I would love to do that for clinics. And then, I'd love to get into more fun things like a dinner party experience with THC-infused meals. I would like to start a dinner company, but that's in the long run.
Every time someone orders a Baked With Kat sweet, what's the story you want to tell through each bake?
I want them to know that I'm thinking of them, and I'm sending them love. Even when I donate to the homeless, like everything I do, I put my entire heart into it. When I'm baking, I'm always in a good mood. I hope they taste that.
You can also pick up her bakes at Hot Box Burgers in South LA. Not in the mood for the drive, you can order her baked goods for delivery from DoorDash, UberEats, Postmates, and GrubHub.