At Skull and Cakebones, one rule holds above all others: do not turn down the Snoop Dogg. The bakers could lose their concentration and ruin their cupcakes. The next rule, equally important, is no animal products.
Skull and Cakebones is a cupcakery owned by Austin couple Yauss Berenji and Sascha Biesi. They work alongside their staff of two in a South Austin kitchen to produce the finest vegan treats—nay, the finest treats, with our without the ‘vegan’ disclaimer—in all of Austin.
“We don’t want ‘em to taste vegan,” says Berenji. “I hate dry baking.”
There’s soy milk on the table in front of us, which is better for baking than almond milk or rice milk because of its density. There’s also organic, unbleached sugar and flour, plus some apple cider vinegar and squeeze-tubes of nondairy icing.
The recipes are Biesi’s—recipes from her Nana that were retooled to accommodate inventive new ingredients like beer, coffee, whiskey and—with a little bit of magic and a lot of taste testing—kombucha (a fermented tea drink that’s all the rage). Biesi learned to bake with her Nana, but vegan-ized the old recipes because her daughter with Berenji has food allergies.
The two began baking cupcakes as a hobby and bringing them to events at their daughter’s school, yoga classes, plays and the like. Their cakes impressed the pants off of everyone who tried them. Soon enough, they found themselves selling their treats at markets and festivals.
“Yauss’ mom loves our cupcakes,” says Biesi. “She really pushed us and pushed us to start getting our stuff out there.”
During an event at the Jester King brewery, Skull and Cakebones networked with two other Austin vendors, Cuvee Coffee and Buddha’s Brew Kombucha and began talks to integrate their ingredients. According to Biesi, the beginning of their partnership with Cuvee went something like this: “Yauss went over there, got some coffee and was chatting with Lorenzo and he was like ‘what are you guys doin’?’ And he gave her a bag of coffee, he was like ‘Put these in your cakes!’”
After a period of experimenting with a Mokapot to perfect the Cuvee flavor, the team added the Cafe Cuvee cake to their lineup. Soon to follow were the Ginger Brew cake and the Black Metal cake (both made with Jester King beers), and the Pineapple Supergreens kombucha cake. Kombucha and pineapple was tough to nail, but it got done. Their Fall lineup also features infused whiskey cupcakes from Buzz Mill, recipes which came on the heels of several “investigational meetings” at the Austin bar.
Their big break came during a meeting with Whole Foods’ regional bakery buyer—he loved the vegan cakes; his son came to the meeting and “snarfed” them. Skull and Cakebones products premiered at the Whole Foods flagship store on April 20th, 2013.
The two claim to know nothing about business. Berenji has an MA in Graphic Design (you can tell by the website and product labels) and Biesi’s background is in theatre, though she instructed yoga and wrote freelance before baking full-time.
Despite their inclinations, things are blowing up. “I’ve been approached by people from New York and it’s like…someday, yes. I don’t want to overpromise and under-deliver,” says Berenji. She is simultaneously working to build a zero-waste upcycling business called HearthHaus, whose aim is to transform discarded or recycled goods into useful, attractive treasures.
“That’s my biggest fear. We’ll need much more than the four of us and some cups and bowls. At that point, it becomes a factory. We’re working our way there, but we’re doing this all on our own,” Berenji said.
Biesi is equally anxious. “Someone at Whole Foods used the word ‘national’ not too long ago. I was like, ‘la la la I can’t hear you!’”