Thursday, July 1, 2010

Cake & Shake makes indulgence go green

Opening only one month ago, Cake & Shake is already a WSP staple, bringing to the community what co-owner Gina Ojile calls a "happy, light concept in dark economic times."

Owners Gina Ojile and Derek Hunt worked for 10 years in food consultation and product development, often focusing on frozen desserts, before starting their own concept 2 years ago.

Gina says their business design is "a bit whimsical and within our sphere of influence and experience."

They chose a mobile cart as their medium, noting the costs of storefronts, their preference for Parks Department permits, and their history of transporting food for clients.

The food concept began with their disappointment in the milk and milkshakes around NYC. Hailing from the dairy heartland of Minnesota, Gina and Derek combined their experience with frozen desserts and their love of quality milkshakes, deciding to bring "an old fashioned milk-based shake to NYC."

But they wanted something more than the standard NYC ice cream cart. "We don't even like ice cream!" Gina exclaims. They needed something different. And that something different came in the form of another NYC dessert staple: the cupcake.

But these cupcakes are unique, with organic, made from scratch ingredients and 20 exclusive flavors. "We don't have red velvet" Gina says. Rather than competing with Magnolia's, Cake & Shake "just gives a whole different experience."

And each detail of that experience is meticulously designed. Gina and Derek thought of everything – the environment, the ingredients, the future, and the WSP community.

Cake & Shake's Mission Statement:

"Cake & Shake is an innovative mobile food cart that combines the current interest in well-crafted, organic cupcakes and shakes with a strong commitment to green-friendly cooking practices. Serving 20 flavors of cupcakes and eight flavors of shakes, Cake & Shake uses only certified organic milk, butter, eggs, sugar and flour in all cupcakes, and real fruit in all shakes and fillings. Our green philosophy touches every aspect of our business, from biodegradable cleaning and paper products to the carts themselves, which run on bio-diesel fuel and are equipped with six solar panels for electrical power. Ultimately, we hope to bring the Cake & Shake experience to neighborhoods across New York and in the surrounding area."

Cake & Shake commits to quality ingredients with the Big Five Organic (milk, eggs, butter, sugar, and flour) and with real fruits. They believe the more that's made from scratch, the better the food. So rather than use a milkshake mix, they make their own mix. Rather than finding fruit flavoring or cupcake fillings, they make their own shake flavors and their own nougat. Derek even dry roasts his own salted caramel for grating onto cupcakes and mixing into shakes.

Although they use organic and natural ingredients, Cake & Shake won't find promotion from diet or health food sites. "There won't be an all bran cupcake" Gina laughs. They decided against gluten free and vegetarian options: "We can't make a good cake with those restrictions. That's just not our market."

"We are pure indulgence," she explains, adding that "you may want to work out afterward."

But any workout is worth these indulgences. The incredible flavors rotate daily, with 5 cupcakes and 3 shakes offered at a time from an extensive menu. And Gina admits that though their milkshake machine is calibrated the same everyday, she and Derek can't resist their own product, justifying frequent indulgences by saying, "we still gotta test it, right?"

In fact, Gina loves the foods so much that she can hardly name a favorite. She calls the Haitian Mango shake "mind blowing" but quickly applauds Arabic Espresso, a milkshake that rivals any Starbucks Frappacino. Although Whatchamacallit was her standard cupcake choice, she's found a new favorite in Heaven Split after revisiting the flavor when a customer took seconds.

As for me, the Whatchamacallit stole my cupcake loyalty from Crumbs and the Arabic Espresso is well on its way to keeping me out of the Starbucks line (once Cake & Shake's promised espresso shot is added). I found that Gina was right that Cake & Shake cupcakes are consistently moist. And the Valhrona Chocolate beats any shake I had growing up near a dairy department in Virginia.

As meticulous as they are with food, Gina and Derek are just as intentional about their production methods. The commitment to environmentally conscious choices "is not a trend for us," Gina asserts.

"I've always been extremely concerned about garbage, even from a small age," Gina states. But the expenses and availability of products make the green commitment difficult. In order to get biodiesel for the cart, they travel to the Bronx. Most of the products such as their untreated paper cupcake liners are more expensive. So this commitment "had to be really integral to the business plan from the beginning," Gina explains, "we made it part of what Cake & Shake is about."

NYU student, Jess Pfeffer,
overjoyed with her choice of
the "Salted Caramel" shake
Cake & Shake incorporates five compostable items that completely break down, in addition to two products which need to go to a commercial compost facility. With these two products – the shake cups and lids – Gina proves her dedication as she continues her year-long research, searching for a way to avoid waste management corruption and get these products into a commercial compost facility.

They consider their environmental commitment as simply "the right thing to do."

"We're asking people to know when they buy from us that everything has been thought out, even the plastic fork," Gina says.

Gina and Derek remain integral aspects of their operation. They have two bakers who bake from 2:00 AM to 8:00 AM every morning; but Derek, the conceiver of each recipe, arrives to run quality control by 4:00 AM. Derek then moves the cart from their storage facility in Long Island City to WSP by 9:00 AM each morning. Along with numerous tasks of her own, Gina runs their impressive social networking, stating that she wants the networking to be intentional and informed, created by someone who really knows the product.

Cake & Shake is also committed to the WSP community. With a five year permit, Gina and Derek chose WSP carefully. They wanted to launch their brand somewhere with a flexible, "try anything" vibe, a fun energy, and a supportive and flexible community. WSP fit the bill.

Gina wants to bring happiness to New Yorkers during hard economic times and to invite hardworking NYU students to "come take a break a at Cake & Shake." Although most NYU students are gone for the summer, business is already flourishing.

Gina and Derek are pleasantly surprised by the WSP community, noting that it is closer knit than they imagined. "These people are in that park everyday. They know each plant," Gina explains, noting that she while expects such attention from her fellow coop members who own a green space in Queens, she is surprised to find it in a publicly owned park. Gina feels welcomed by WSP regulars, who often approach the cart to meet the Cake & Shake employees and find out how they intend to contribute to WSP.

In turn, Gina says, "they can depend on us, that we're gonna be here."

Gina and Derek don't intend to compete with the long time resident hot dog stands. Cake & Shake is a part of WSP's initiative to attract speciality food vendors who offer more variety and choice for this global city.

The park strategically plans vendor permits and locations in order give vendors a fair chance and provide a setting conducive to the community. Cake & Shake's permit specifies a location on the Northeastern corner of WSP, a spot now impeded by construction. Within a week of opening there, they were temporarily repermitted for the South Central entrance.

Cupcakes and shakes are made fresh each day and replenished halfway through the day. The WSP cart is in place and serving their delicacies from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM. Come on out to try these scrumptious desserts & meet the friendly masterminds behind it. Derek works the cart each morning from 9:00 to 11:00 AM and Gina works Saturdays.

When the cold weather of December hits, Cake & Shake will remain open. Gina expects that their clientele will then favor the cupcakes and coffees, although I wouldn't put it past this creative pair to invent a steaming hot milkshake – Gina already admits to mixing vanilla shake into hot coffee per a customer's request.

Although happy in WSP, Gina and Derek plan to take the business much further. In July, a second cart opens in front of the MET. This cart will feature the same menu as WSP except for an addition of "Savory Cakes," five meal replacement cakes baked in cupcake liners with filling ingredients (such as the "Sunrise Cake" which features grilled chicken, cheese, and cornmeal). At least for now, the Savory Cake is not available in WSP – a larger cart with oven and a different permit are required.

Plans include wholesale and online orders in the near future but Gina and Derek have an even larger vision of opening Cake & Shake locations nationwide. So keep on the lookout America and when you see a whimsical cart come to your town, remember it all started in my favorite little park – a park with the right kind of energy for launching such a happy indulgence.

Been to Cake & Shake? What's your favorite cake or shake?

Haven't been? Head over there and report back!

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