Thursday, April 29, 2021

A visit to [plant-baked]

Text and photos by Stacie Joy

The display in the front window at [plant-baked], the newish bakery at 117 E. Seventh St. between Avenue A and First Avenue, was nearly empty by the time I arrive on an overcast Friday afternoon — a sign of a healthy day of business. 

I’m here to talk with the small shop’s owners: Parker — self-titled Head of Delivery and Dishwashing — and Yunsu (both prefer to go by first names only) — chef/owner and Head Dough Flinger. The two East Village residents are partners in both business and life.

Parker said that it’s sometimes difficult to gauge demand/supply. On the previous day, there were unsold pastries, which they delivered to the nearby East Village Community Fridge.

During our talk, we touched on the challenges of starting a small business during a pandemic and overcoming adversities as well as their plans for the future.
You mentioned you don’t use the word “vegan” anywhere in your marketing. But your products and both of you are vegan. What made you decide to go eschew the term?

Parker: In my mind, vegan is a term that functions as an identity for people, but food should be described by the ingredients that are in the dish, baked good, etc. It’s the main reason we decided on the name [plant-baked] in the first place, to make it as apparent as possible that our ingredients come from plants. We focus our energy on producing delicious food that happens to be vegan, and anyone who is curious enough to try it out is welcome to, whether they are vegan, vegetarian or omnivorous.

Your font and design choices are very specific. Why the decision to use brackets in your name and all lowercase lettering?

Parker: This choice grew rather naturally from some original packaging we were doing for a wholesale client. The packaging included the name of the item: The Classic Croissant, company name 3B Eats and the phrase plant-based, so our croissants would be easily distinguished from the animal-based options they also had available. 

We grew fond of the simplicity and subtle nature of the term. When we discussed names for our retail location, it came out as the winner (among many ideas that were tossed around) because of that simplicity. Making the name lowercase and bracketed denounces the proper noun format to instead help convey some basic information about what we offer.

Yunsu: Also, as a side-note, I’m personally a huge stickler for fonts, having dabbled in some journalism and growing up with a mother who used to be a professional journalist. Apparently, it’s something that stuck.

Is [plant-baked] under the umbrella of 3B Eats

Parker: 3B Eats is the company we formed originally to start our business. The 3B comes from the apartment where we first started this baking adventure. “Eats” seemed like the right kind of catchy food-oriented term. The bonus was that our business was indeed founded to help make sure the residents of apartment 3B could continue to eat. The downside is that the business name is difficult to convey when speaking, and often had people confused about our business name (3 Beets? 3Beats? Three Bee Eats?).
When launching into our retail location, it was a good chance to remedy that with a new DBA. We get far less confusion, but still end up with the occasional “planet-baked” and other slight mutations but overall a step in the right direction.
Yunsu: [plant-baked] just opened and it’s exciting to be able to be on this journey making delicious plant-based baked goods, but that’s not all we want to create. We have many different ideas where we want to explore sustainable, plant-based foods and figured creating an all-encompassing “3B Eats” company would be more suitable for such endeavors rather than limiting ourselves.
What prompted the decision to launch a business during some of the worst days of the pandemic?

Parker: It was a convergence of finding passion and running out of unemployment benefits. We found ourselves unemployed just before the pandemic reached the U.S. and sent us into lockdown. The job search was hard before the pandemic and only ended up significantly worse after the lockdown started. There were hundreds of applications between us both, but everything came up short. With benefits and opportunities running short, we had to fill our time with something productive to keep our spirits up. 

Yunsu had been craving a classic, buttery croissant. After searching for some that were made locally, we found there wasn’t a single bakery in the neighborhood that made them. With nowhere to turn, we embarked on making our own. A few iterations later, and we realized we were actually making some headway and feeling fantastic working on a project that was all our own. 

Before we knew it, we were filing our business name, then selling pastries wholesale to cafes in the city, and building our own kitchen to keep up with the demand. If asked a year ago, I would never have assumed this to be the path we were on. 
Yunsu: I remember the moment I turned to Parker and simply asked, “How do I become a baker?” I never thought this would be possible. From figuring out how to make our own (plant-based) butter to iterating recipe after recipe to hone the flavor profile of our dough, I feel like I’m still learning even in our kitchen today. Just this week I figured out another trick to better manage our baking schedule (it takes three days to make our croissants from starting the dough to pulling them out of the oven). And hopefully, this new lesson will lead to more time dedicated to doing more R&D projects (our true passion).
The flood resulting from the second broken water main on Seventh Street and First Avenue in late December damaged your new oven and delayed your grand opening in early January. How did you overcome this disappointing setback? 

Parker: I wish it had been the flood’s fault for the broken oven — at least it wouldn’t have felt like everything was working against us — but they were actually separate events. We were supposed to open our doors in mid-December (around the time of the first flood on Seventh Street) and found out our oven was damaged in transit, causing us to burn a whole day’s orders for our wholesale clients and effectively shutting our doors before they were even open to the public. 

Then came the challenge of getting repair services and parts ordered out to fix the damage during the holidays, which means it took an additional three weeks and two separate repair services. In the middle of trying to get it all repaired, the second flood came. This one was late at night, so we ended up coming out to the shop to mitigate any damages. We worked alongside some of our neighboring businesses to redirect the flooding off the sidewalk and back into the streets.
In a weird way, that flood actually helped the other setbacks feel smaller and reaffirmed our choice to open up on Seventh Street with some really wonderful neighbors. 
Yunsu: I remember that night vividly. After a full day of working on the shop, we finally got home. By the time we laid down in bed, I got the Citizen app notification on my phone. In the back of my mind, I knew we would have to go back, but I kept hoping it wouldn’t be as bad as last time, only I was wrong. Our super called us moments later, asking us to come back to the shop/building to check the basement for him. And lo and behold, it was actually worse than the first flood. 

But overall, I definitely think it was a pretty memorable and good bonding experience for us and our neighbors. Would I want to do it again? Absolutely not.

Why did you decide on this space on Seventh Street? Did the proximity to several of Ravi DeRossi’s vegan restaurants play any part in this?

Parker: We looked at spaces everywhere from the Lower East Side to Union Square, but at the heart of it, we knew we wanted to be in the East Village. This is where we first lived when moving to the city, and the energy here is like none other. 
The East Village also is one of the most plant-based-friendly neighborhoods around, largely thanks to Overthrow Hospitality and Mathew Kenney Cuisine’s concepts. The weight of those two food groups, and others just starting to warm up to plant-based concepts, plus the independently owned restaurants, make the neighborhood a blooming oasis.
Yunsu: In terms of our requirements when searching for a location, indoor dining wasn’t an option or a desire by any means. Also, we were more focused on looking for a space that would foster our ability to grow and sustain our wholesale business, so we were looking for more of a kitchen than a retail location.
We had originally toured a space next door (that soon after became Los Tacos), but realized that the existing buildout wouldn’t have worked for us, and would have to be removed for us to build out the kitchen. Los Tacos did an excellent job with the existing space, in my opinion. 

Once our broker showed us the space we now reside in, we fell in love with it. It was simple, much larger than our previous space, and gave us the flexibility to design our kitchen from scratch. 

The windowed frontage was nowhere near the top of our list of desired traits, but it has become one of my favorite aspects of the shop. I actually was the one to propose that we utilize the window to showcase my dough-flinging.
The setup is very unique. Patrons at the window can see the full kitchen operation. Is this total transparency in the baking process important to you?

Parker: Absolutely — for multiple reasons. First, not only is our food plant-based, but also free from palm oil, soy, sesame, peanuts and tree nuts (except coconut, which is not a true tree nut, but is regulated as one by the FDA). 

When serving customers who may have severe allergic reactions to specific ingredients (there are 100-plus known food allergies, only 8 are regulated in the U.S.), transparency is the only way to ensure a safe and delicious experience. 
Second, the lockdown was an eye-opening experience to reexamine our societal practices. In most circumstances, the kitchen is relegated to a tiny back room so cramped that no one has room to walk in a straight line without bumping into equipment, people, etc. It always comes down to maximizing the production per square foot while also maximizing your sales capacity (seating) to increase your revenue. 

After seeing how some businesses reimagined their spaces to meet the new challenges — Superiority Burger on Ninth Street is a fantastic example — it became clear we didn’t need any service space for the foreseeable future. Serving right out the door is an approach that will be around for a while.
Third, the transparency of an open kitchen catches attention and focuses that attention on the food being made. Most of my prior kitchen experience had either full or partially open kitchen concepts so customers could see the action. Who doesn’t love seeing a bit of the fire and excitement that goes into making the food about to be served? 
Yunsu: We don’t have nearly as much fire in our bakery, but the meticulous assembly of laminated dough can be just as mesmerizing. 
Also, it affects our pricing model. The price you see in our window is the price you pay. No additional taxes, no tipping, and no pricing meant to leverage the brain’s tendency to round $4.99 down to $4 to increase revenue. We charge what we need to run our business and pay ourselves — and any future employees — enough to live in the neighborhood. We hope that model catches on.
What has the reception from residents and patrons been like to date? Do you have any expansion plans, and do you envision a day when you have a full cafe-style operation with seating, etc.?

Parker: The reception has been overwhelming at times. We have many local regulars who are fantastic and help spread the word about us. We have many non-local regulars who make decent treks from Brooklyn, Queens, and uptown just to get their favorites. 

We sometimes get overlooked due to our small size, simple design and unusual kitchen-only design. Still, we would rather win the recognition through word-of-mouth than worry too much about trying to draw people in with a bunch of fanfare. 
Yunsu: As for expansion, our plans currently only go so far as our existing lease in our current location. We’re a power-baking duo that may or may not opt to grow to have employees. We love being a Ma-and--Pa shop, which makes the idea of a full-service cafe concept pretty far out there, but I wouldn’t rule out anything. 

Our business has been successful due to our agility and adaptation. So, being flexible with our concept while adhering to our values will be the way we keep building our future. We have lots of ideas and goals we want to achieve, just not enough time.
You can keep up with the bakery here. Current hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.-ish!


bruce said...

Congratulations and best wishes for great success to to Parker and Yunsu. Thank you for this spotlight, Stacie!

Thurgood17 said...

FAVORITE bakery ever!! Love this place!!

anonymous said...

As a professional Chef and 35 year resident of Alphabet City, I’m kinda over the whole “plant based” thing. That said, I wish them good luck and good fortune in their business! I’m tired of seeing so many empty storefronts.

hilasy said...

What an ethical business, from the perspective of the planet’s health to that of the non-capitalist-we’re-all-equal-community health! Congrats! I’m popping by later today on the way to the flea and can’t wait to try your delicious looking food.

Scuba Diva said...

@anonymous 11:24 AM: I get that you like eggs and dairy—and maybe a little bacon once in a while. The whole point of being "plant-based," however, is to try and minimize the harm we're doing to the planet—that's all. It's not about you.

I've stopped in at @PlantMade a few times, and am blown away by how wonderful all the pastries are. And I feel lucky to have them so close by; my perennial favorite vegan bakery is in Bushwick, and while I still go there pretty often, I'm grateful to now have all this goodness a matter of blocks away.

I just realized I've already had croissants from @PlantMade, if they were operating under the name 3B Eats. Well done; I feel doubly fortunate to have you so close!