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Baking Your Experiences and Beliefs Into Your Business

Episode 77

072822 podcast skull and cakebones

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Owners Yauss and Sascha of Skull & Cakebones have made their bakery a haven for all kinds of people by paying attention to ingredients and being true to themselves. Their products are vegan and nut allergy friendly, and their staff is knowledgeable on ingredients to help guide customers toward safe-for-them foods. They’ve also baked their own personal experiences and beliefs into their small business, creating a safe space in their community.

On the Yelp Blog: Dive deeper into tips from the baking duo on blending your business and brand with your personal identity.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every episode I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind their interactions. 

Before we begin, a few notes about this episode. In addition to our usual small business story, our conversation went into the struggles that many people face around mental health issues. So if this is triggering for you, perhaps maybe consider skipping this episode. But I hope you don’t, because we learned a lot about how being your authentic self can really help your small business. 

Now, let’s see what’s behind this week’s review.

KATE: So I’m not really clear on how it happened. I really think I was first introduced to the owner’s Instagram through either a mental health page or some sort of local event or some sort of local activity guide because I’ve really been trying to find a way to find a tribe out here in the Dripping Springs area specifically.

And it’s been really challenging because I’m surrounded by really awful food options and it’s disheartening. And I usually avoid vegan places, honestly, just because the prices are through the roof and they contain nuts. I chose to be a vegetarian—no one in my family was, but I was a vegetarian turning vegan and developed a severe nut allergy. When I finally took the time to look at their website, I was first blown away at how reasonable their prices are.

And also I loved how they had the nut free on everything. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, they just made eating plant based easy.’

I was blown away by their cream cheese.  Literally I wanted to cry. It was that good. I also looked on their website and then followed them on Instagram, and everything was so focused on the mental health awareness. And that’s where I was like, ‘Okay, I can spend my money here.’ Because I try to be conscious of where I spend.

EMILY: As you heard, Yelp reviewer Kate S. has a lot stacked against her when it comes to finding food she can eat, as both a vegan and someone with a serious nut allergy—the kind that can send her to a hospital, or worse. When she found Skull and Cakebones bakery in Dripping Springs, just outside of Austin, she felt like she hit the jackpot.

Let’s listen to her review.

KATE: Vegan or not, go here. Finding good, nut-free cheese substitutes is close to impossible and I’d given up until now. The veggie Sammy was delicious and I don’t understand how it’s dairy free. Best tasting cheese substitute I’ve had in my life. The herbed cream cheese is my favorite. The staff was so friendly and patient in answering my allergy related questions. The gentleman at the front had a clear list of what contains certain allergens. And I felt 100% confident in ordering with him. I can’t wait to go back and try out the other menu items. Also the fact that the business supports local businesses, mental health awareness, and LGBTQ just adds to the awesomeness. New fan girl here. No picture. I was too excited to eat it.

EMILY: This is such a great review. It’s not overly long, but it packs enough detail for a reader to really get an idea of how good this bakery is and touches on just about everything from the quality of the food to the knowledge of the staff—which, for someone living with a severe allergy, can be a matter of life or death.

KATE: I was just so excited to first know that their employees were knowledgeable and given the tools that they needed to address nut allergies. And I’ve worked in the restaurant industry. I know how servers and even cooks or chefs will treat allergies, especially. I feel bad for the celiac community because my sister is, and when you tell some servers that you’re gluten-free, the cooks will get frustrated and just be like, yeah, yeah, whatever. And I’ve seen people not really take it seriously. And I am an anaphylactic.

I didn’t know how to eat a healthy vegan diet. So I developed this nut allergy and my doctor wrote up this whole report and essentially said I had to live like the bubble girl and was like, don’t leave the house during these hours. I have a slew of other allergies, but my food allergies, as someone who’s passionate about food, that was heartbreaking.

She said, you cannot go out to eat at restaurants anymore. And it was like, what? And I was obsessed with Indian and Thai food and Persian food and I loved flavor. And couldn’t do that anymore. It took me years to finally realize I wanted to have quality of life so I have to be careful where I dine. There are maybe two brands that I can find at a grocery store that are nut-free.

There are a ton of them online. It’s not affordable though. So I was excited to find a place where I could get a dairy-free option that wouldn’t kill me. I also have a list of things I wanna try on their menu that I wouldn’t normally eat. I’m not excited about like meat alternatives, and I don’t get excited about meat either.

I kind of am in the middle there, but I am willing to try things because they make it look so palatable and it gives me something to look forward to. It’s right across the street for me. I’m happy now that I have more than one or two options in my neighborhood.

EMILY: Owners Yauss and Sascha have a lot of experience with allergies—their now 20-year-old daughter suffers from food allergies and was the impetus for Sascha creating allergen-friendly recipes that taste good. In her opinion, no one who suffers from allergies should also suffer from food that is too expensive or just doesn’t taste good.

Educating their staff on allergens is just as important as creating the recipes, and something that Kate noticed on her first visit to Skull and Cakebones.

YAUSS: We’re a very, very small team. And because of that, when we bring anyone on, the two things that we emphasize are like customer service is the number one thing, right? As a business owner, we’re gonna make mistakes. That’s just the bottom line. Neither one of us really comes from a hospitality environment where, you know. I mean, I bartended and waited tables through high school and college, but outside of that, it wasn’t like we took any management roles.

So if we share with our staff that like, ‘Oh, I don’t know the answer to that. Let me go ask somebody or treat them with kindness,’ because that’s really the definition of veganism. Then we can all grow and be mindful of things that we need to know moving forward as we keep incorporating our business.

SASCHA: At Skull & Cakebones, we see a lot of people who have different allergies. So it’s really, really important that whoever they’re talking to, which is that front-counter person—it happened to be Matt on that day. It is very important that that front-facing person knows what they are selling because they can’t come running to the back every time somebody asks about an allergy. So we keep a list up at the front and only occasionally do they run into some allergy that they’ve never heard of before they have to come back and ask me.

But typically, it’s really important for that front-facing person to know, because the customer expects that. They expect us to know what we are feeding you, because if our mission is that we won’t feed it to our kids, we won’t feed it to you. We have to really know what it is that we’re feeding you. Yeah. And that goes for our staff as well.

YAUSS: And also we ain’t got anaphylactic, go to the hospital money. It is a huge fear of mine to make somebody sick in our establishment. That’s the thing that will send me into a tailspin. I can handle pressure. I can handle oopsy moments, but like that for me is like, no, no, no, let me make sure.

SASCHA: So we take allergies really seriously.

EMILY: Yauss and Sascha launched their business with a purpose behind it: to provide allergen-safe and great-tasting vegan food. But with a completely new experience like business ownership comes learning the ropes. Sometimes small challenges, however silly they might seem in retrospect, are important in uncovering lessons about owning a business.

YAUSS: When we opened our doors. I didn’t even think about napkins, cups for coffee, like lid for the coffee cups. I was just like, ‘Oh shit, we done opened this. And, well, I don’t even have a napkin to give anybody.’ Yeah. yeah.

My mom was here for our grand opening and we had coffee and no milk. And so I made her go to HEB, which is our local grocery store. And I was like, just buy all the soy milk. I don’t know what to do. And so, and if you knew my mom, you would know how funny this is because she is she’s way bougier than me.

And she came back and they had just changed the milk to those caps where you open it automatically opens the little foil thing. And I had no idea. And so I would open it and I was like, this one’s broken and I would like throw it away. And then I would open another one. I was like, ‘Mom, this one’s open too.’ And I would throw it away. And then I was like, ‘Maybe it’s me. You know?’ Then I realized that it was me and not the milk.

EMILY: That story makes me smile every time. And it’s pretty clear that Yauss learned a serious lesson about inventory management—and possibly a lesson about herself—in those early days of business ownership. Yauss and Sascha also learned that they should be serious about their reviews, to a point of course. While they know the sting of a negative review, they also understand that what looks like a negative review might actually be good for your business in an unexpected way.

YAUSS:  We 100% read reviews. We 100% care about reviews. Do they sting sometimes? Uh huh, they do. Sometimes are they like a virtual high five? For sure. There was one review, one Yelp review when we first opened our business that I will never forget. And it was like probably a week after we opened our doors, honestly. But we had a review from this lady who got a chicken pot pie and the review because she took it down—and I’m so sad she took it down because it’s the best 1-star review ever. She said the food was amazing, but be wary of the type of meat that they use and the quality of meat that they use because although the chicken pot pie was delicious, the meat was a little gray. And I was like, damn we made it. Because it’s not chicken, but she thought it was like grade D or however you grade meat, chicken. But we had totally fooled her.

Oh my gosh. Respond back. And I’m like, ‘Dear lady, first of all, thank you so much. I’m so glad you love this, but you’re right. The quality of the meat is different. We’re an all-vegan establishment. So actually what you ate is Seitan, which is a meat alternative.’ And she was like, ‘I’m so sorry. I had no idea,’ and then deleted it. And I was like, ‘Oh, I wish there was an undo button from my end, because that’s the best review anyone could leave a plant-based establishment.’

EMILY: Sometimes a critical review can be appealing or affirming for other consumers, like in this case when they were proud to be mistaken for a meat product. And in their marketing, Skull & Cakebones doesn’t go out of their way to promote that they serve a vegan menu, because they want all diners to try and enjoy their dishes and bakery items, not just those eating a vegan diet. And while getting critical reviews can be tough, Yauss and Sascha have found a way to use those reviews to improve their business and at the same time improve the morale of their team.

SASCHA: We had one recently that was so mean. They obviously hated our guts. It was like the opposite of a love letter. What did they say? They basically just hated everything about it. They just kinda went through, hated everything. And we told every member of our staff and because the literal, only thing that we could do about it was laugh.

Because otherwise you just cry because you think, why would somebody do that to a small business? Why would you hate on us so bad during a pandemic? Like let it go or call us or email us personally, but don’t leave such a mean review. But oh my God, yes, we laughed and laughed and laughed because it was just like zinger after zinger after zinger about how much they hated us.

YAUSS: I know. I wish I could read it in the voice. And I did it to our staff—I read it in the voice that I imagined that she felt while she wrote it, because it was like she was saying things: Tasteless for our lemon pound cake.

SASCHA: Oh, tasteless!

YAUSS: Which is like the zestiest the most lemon lemon pound cake you’ve ever had in your life. I mean, it’s like, so lemon it’s like those Gushers commercials, and she was like, ‘This flavorless lemon pound cake, this tasteless bloody blah.’ And then it went into talking about our chocolate croissant. She called them inedible bricks of dough.

SASCHA: Inedible bricks of dough!

YAUSS: At the end of the day, they have a right to their feelings. Yeah. We’re not for everybody, and they might not know that we’re plant based, so it’s gonna be different.

SASCHA: And also we’re like, we go out and there have been times when I’m like, ‘Oh man, I would definitely leave this place a bad review if that was that kind of person, but I’m not that kind of person.’

YAUSS: It takes a lot of emotion to put a review on Yelp. You feel this need to be heard to say whatever it is that you wanna say. And we try to focus on the positive reviews and learn from the negative reviews. Yeah. So if there’s things about the negative reviews that we can change or implement or work on, we definitely, definitely do. But the ones that really have the most impact on us are the positive ones, obviously just because they’re the ones that make us confident in what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. And it makes all those hours of work worth it.

Yeah. And also it’s nice to give our staff like, read those positive reviews and let them know that they’re, you know, like we do our best to praise them and to treat them like family, because we understand that we are a team and it’s not just ours, it’s everyone’s. The success is everyone’s, and so we make it a point to read them out loud and say, ‘Hey look, it went noticed. And way to go, like you crushed it.’

And then sometimes you read the bad ones too, but like she said, you have to take the emotion out of it and just look at it as, could we have done better? Yeah, probably actually. She might not be wrong about that. But that lemon pound cake is full of flavor. I’ll tell you that much.

EMILY: You may have noticed the rapport between Yauss and Sascha. In addition to being partners in their business, they’re also partners in life. It can be tricky to mix the personal and professional, because you can’t really leave work at work and home at home in this situation. I asked the co-owners of Skull and Cakebones if they have any advice for other partners in life and business.

SASCHA: Number one, don’t do it. And I’ll explain that. Just don’t do it. I’ll explain that part of that is because it is really hard to separate business from personal when you’re at home.

YAUSS: Yeah. Like she’s the food person, right? I’m a great taste tester, but her brain thinks in recipes. So when we go out to eat. She’s sticking her finger in. I’m Debbie Downer. I’m like, ‘You get the way it is. I could do this better.’ And I’m like, ‘I just wanna enjoy someone serving me. Can we just not talk about how we can Skull & Cakebones this?’

SASCHA: But she’s the brains of the operations. So there are nights where she’s up till 11 o’clock tickety ticking away on her computer, working on whatever it is. That’s true. And Yauss handles all of our social media. So she’s one that’s behind all of that. So she works a lot on all of that stuff all of the time, just like I’m constantly in recipe mode all of the time. And I think early on, we tried to make separation if we could and it didn’t work. So now we’re just—we’re just a mess.

EMILY: We’re going to take a quick break.

EMILY: Kate found Skull & Cakebones by following their Instagram page, proving once again that your social media presence is crucial to building both a brand reputation and a customer base. Keeping up with current social media trends and algorithms is difficult, but it shouldn’t stop a small business owner from trying. Yauss makes it work by tapping into the things she loves about social media and making up the rest as she goes.

YAUSS: I mean, it’s really, really hard. Social media. There are so many things about it. And this whole TikTok thing, don’t even get me started. God, I felt so old doing that TikTok Yelp thing that we did for pride. I was like, you can’t even see our faces. I couldn’t figure out how to make it turn on. I’m forcing our employees to follow us on TikTok, just so that it doesn’t say zero followers.

But my background actually is in advertising and design. So for me, that part of it is very fun. The branding element of it is really fun. And I have a general idea of what I want visually for people to perceive us as. But outside of that, I’ve learned about social media. Yes, it is advertising. But it is the behind the scenes aspect of advertising, I think.

And the more honest and the more real I’ve been with it in sharing my voice through social media, the better the response has been. It’s been awesome to watch Sascha through the mental health stuff, allowing me to use her voice because that for her was a big, big issue and being able to tell her story because of the stigma and fear attached to it. So now I’m just like balls to the wall. Go for it. Could I be better at it? Sure.

EMILY: That authenticity is exactly what attracted Kate to Skull and Cakebones, and it’s something other small businesses can implement in their social media plans too.

KATE: Authenticity is number one for me. That’s the foundation of my existence and that’s where all of my mental health issues stem from too. Seeing them take pride, being loud, and advocating for—I don’t even know that everything they support is something that the owners are struggling with. That seems irrelevant. I don’t see it being a lot about the personalities behind the business, which also, I think is huge.

It’s more about the mission and the statement and the advocacy to support others. So it’s not about them, which I think is huge. So it’s just cool and heartwarming to see them be able to cover all the facets, whether it’s a team-built thing or just the two owners, they’re doing it well.

EMILY: Everything at Skull and Cakebones is done with one thought—that veganism is built on kindness—and to that end, Yauss and Sascha have created what they hope is a safe space for everyone.

SASCHA: Our brick and mortar is a little gem hidden in the hill country. I think when you come upon it, it’s this huge white building. But as you pull into the parking lot, there’s this beautiful mural painted on the side of the building with fruits and veggies. And there’s a chocolate bar and our little lightning bolt is hidden in there. It was done by one of Yauss’s former students.

And when you walk inside, it’s filled with all of these recipes that we have. Yauss always says, we started out with wholesale, which is true, but the retail sort of reflects everything else that we were capable of doing. So right away you walk in, and there’s our pastry case. And our market is open to the right and the big window that you can see through so you can see the kitchen where everything happens. We really want it to be an inviting space so it feels like a home away from home to everyone besides just us.

KATE: When you walk in, you aren’t hit in the face with like mental health advocacy or gay rights or any of these other things that they support. And for me as a Californian, living in Texas, although I’ve been here for six years and I was raised by a Texan, I’m not in Austin proper. I don’t live downtown. I’m not in the weirdness, I’m out here. So it feels like going to a friend’s house. When you walk in, you have that sense of relief of there being a safe space, even just online, like even just over the internet.

So I think that their use of Instagram is really powerful because they’re able to send a message on their platform, which they have full control over or at least enough control to spread that word. So it really made me feel firstly, like I wanted to support them and also like I had a safe space.

EMILY: Incorporating your personal experiences and beliefs into your small business can be risky. It’s important to be true to who you are and what your business stands for, but that can sometimes be detrimental to your bottom line if the community doesn’t share those same beliefs.

Sascha has personally struggled with depression and mental health issues. That seems like an incredibly personal thing to share with anyone outside your inner circle of friends and family, much less to make it a part of your business. But Yauss and Sascha have found that rather than alienating them from their community, it helped integrate them.

SASCHA: For me, It’s really important to raise awareness for mental health concerns as someone who has suffered lifelong with mental health concerns myself. I believe that in telling my story, it’s paving the way for other people to tell their stories.

So we connected with National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI Central Texas, and Val in California. And we decided to do a depressed cake shop pop up in 2018. And that was our first real experience with really opening up ourselves to letting people know a little bit of more behind the scenes and what was going on. So we are selling baked goods that are themed to the depressed cake shop. So they’re gray on the outside and they have colors in the middle. And at the same time, I’m starting to tell my story of mental health and how I’ve suffered and how I’ve overcome the suffering.

Or just how you continue, you know? Yeah. I mean, the struggle is real and the stigma is real and I wanna be a part of the change in the stigma of mental health. I want Skull and Cakebones to be a platform where people are surprised by the fact that they can walk into a bakery and talk about how they’re feeling.

That’s become something that’s really important to us as people who are both—I live with it in my own diagnosis. Yauss lives with it as a partner of someone with a diagnosis. So it affects both of us. And we’re aware of how much of our community is also affected.

YAUSS: And also as a result of the pandemic, a lot of people who maybe didn’t think that they had any mental health struggles or had ever—the word isn’t vocalized, but you know, had to deal with it, head on, realized that as a result of a circumstance really triggered that for them. I mean, myself included. I was like, oh God, I have anxiety.  And it’s important for people to know because there is so much shame attached to mental health issues.

Or there’s so many generations above us that don’t really understand it. That it’s important to let people know, A, you’re not alone, B, it’s okay to not be okay. And you don’t always have to put that smile on your face. That’s not gonna make it always better, but if you need a safe space, we are here for you. And that right there. Like we’re a safe space. We’re there for you is the reason why we do use our business as a platform for all the things. I mean, the LGBTQ is because it’s relevant to us, you know? It’s something that I personally have struggled with.

Not struggled with, that’s not the right word, but like it’s always been whether I came out, or before I came out, I always knew that that existed. Maybe I didn’t have a name for it. There is always that fear when you’re LGBTQ+ that you are less than, or you’re different, or you’re not normal or whatever the circumstances, or maybe you can’t be your true self.

And part of why that activism component is so important where we are—not that it wouldn’t exist if we were in any other city. But part of why is because when we first moved into where we are now, which is just west of Austin, I was scared to put anything rainbow on the door because I didn’t know who our community was.

And from the outside, looking in, it’s a little scary as LGBTQ+ person, but as we’ve been more open about it, we’ve learned that actually everyone is really loving. And there are many more people that are a part of our community than we thought. And so why not be proud and open and out about it?

As far as I know, we are the only openly LGBTQ+ food establishment in the whole city. I don’t know if others exist, but if they do, they’re not as open and loud about it as we are. To go back to the whole vegan thing, it’s like the definition of veganism is kindness, right? It’s mindfulness and kindness. So to me, logically, it doesn’t make sense to be a vegan establishment and put the emotional attachment that we have to sentient beings in general and not put that on humans as well.

SASCHA: Our community is really strong out here. I mean, it really community is at the heart of what we do and it always has been.

And I think that through doing the depressed cake shop and raising awareness for mental health really did create that safe space where people, they just kind of show up to have lunch. And before you know it, you’ve had a 30 minute conversation with them and everybody feels better. It’s just, we want to be that space.

And I think by just being honestly who we are, we’ve created that space. Yeah. And the community has kind of rallied behind us. It feels really good where we are.

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