Sweet treats and social justice at Crust Vegan Bakery
“A party without cake is just a meeting.” – Julia Child
We can’t have parties right now, or meetings, but who cares? As long as we get cake. Or cookies. Or in the case of Crust Vegan Bakery – BROOKIES! If you get nothing else out of this article, remember that word and get to Thunder Mug or Vault and Vine or Uncle Bobbies and check out this hybrid brownie/cookie whipped up by a couple of bakers who bring southern style to their sweets. Plenty more magic on their menu (and we’ll get to their other specialties in a minute) but we’ve been partial to the brookie ever since we first encountered it at Thunder Mug in East Falls.
Shannon Roche and Meagan Benz, both southerners by birth, opened Crust Vegan Bakery in 2015 in a small kitchen in Manayunk where they mixed, scooped, baked and frosted every item by hand. They’ve grown quickly since, expanding their wholesale business to more than 50 local businesses and a partnership in West Philly with vegan coffee shop Grindcore House, called “Grindcore X Crust.” They also opened a storefront on Main Street in Manayunk this September, offering walkup service (not indoors of course) and bay windows with pastry cases showing the day’s specials.
Although they offer chilled coffee in cans (La Colombe and Mila) and roasted coffee beans (from local roasters like Caphe and Maquina) they intentionally don’t offer hot coffee. “There are about five great coffee shops in our immediate vicinity and we didn’t want our model, particularly during a pandemic, to adversely effect them,” said Roche. It’s a community spirit that runs through their business model from purchasing local ingredients from small businesses to the way they treat their workers.
Which brings us to a question: Why risk opening a storefront when local food businesses are getting crushed by COVID?
The idea, says Roche, was so they could keep their staff employed (and provide enough workspace so employees could maintain a safe distance from each other). As veterans of the food industry, Benz and Roche have seen how badly workers can be treated. “I hate that at the first sign of distress, the reaction is we’re letting everyone go. That’s not why we started this business. We’ve tried to create a very empathetic, compassionate work environment. So instead of letting your staff go, we wanted to do everything we could to keep them.”
By opening up a storefront, they were betting the new revenue stream would offset the expense. It’s early going yet, but the hiring of two employees since their opening is a pretty good sign. As is their commitment to provide healthcare insurance to their workers. “Which is hard to do as a small food business” said Roche. “Our margins are really slim, but those are the battles we love.”
Their concern for workers extends to the ingredients they buy. “We make sure all of our sourcing is very sustainable and responsible, like fair trade chocolate and cocoa, because that’s something we care about. We’re vegan for animal rights issues and also environmental rights issues. So, to us, it’s really important to look at the whole picture — if we’re going to pay our workers a living wage and give them time off, we want to make sure that the vanilla and the chocolate providers we’re using are also doing the same things for their workers.”
The challenges of COVID have also offered some opportunities for creativity. “We’ve had some ingredient sourcing problems, so we improvise with what we get. Last week we got a shipment of bananas and applesauce so I decided to make Hummingbird cake, which is a southern staple I grew up with, but not a lot of people in Philadelphia know about. I had a lot of fun with that.”
She’s constantly coming up with new variations on southern recipes, often adapted to ingredients she finds in and around Philly, which “has a great food scene.” During our interview, Roche had quite a selection at hand, giving us a quick tour around a dessert tray which included.
- Harvest cookie (like an oatmeal cranberry cookie)
- Pumpkin seed snickerdoodle
- Pumpkin pecan coffee cake (which has been a huge fall seller).
- The Brookie (a Crust classic). Brownie on the bottom and chocolate chip cookie on top.
- Cookie sandwiches – an oatmeal and a chocolate chip version. Both are filled with a vegan butter cream, which is made with vegan sugar and vegan butter vanilla extract.
- Gluten-free cherry cheesecake including graham crackers made from scratch. (They make a handful of gluten free items for the storefront.)
- A cinnamon bun with vegan cream cheese glaze. “This one has been hard to keep in stock,” she said. It comes in a few different flavor variations.
- Classic muffins, an apple spice and a lemon poppy.
Find Your Favorite
Selections change regularly, depending on what the delivery truck brings ‘em.
To catch the latest, check out their website or swing by their storefront in Manayunk. For now, all orders are taken at the door during the hours they are open, on a first-come first-served basis. (You can also check out the list of places that carry their goods on the website.)
Pro tip: Don’t bother calling. With all of the mixers and timers going off in the kitchen, it’d be a waste of breath. Do however, use email (firstname.lastname@example.org). “We’re super responsive with email.”
Crust Vegan Bakery
4409 Main Street
Holidays Almost Here
Wouldn’t be right if we didn’t give you some details about Crust’s holiday menu. Thanksgiving is their busiest time of the year, which means lots of pies. There’ll be apple, pumpkin, sweet potato and pecan pies. They’ll also have lots of varieties of bread and rolls and maybe, if they can find some time, “something fun like apple cranberry gallettes.”
With a Crust specialty or two in hand, you could be a holiday hero!