Baking for Social Justice with Arley Cakes

Baking for Social Justice with Arley Cakes

Baking can be about much more than creating beautiful and delicious confections. Today’s guest is Arley Arrington, and we talk about how she is using her homemade sweet treats to create a more equitable world–starting right here in Virginia. Arley’s business, Arley Cakes, is a cottage-style bakery in Richmond, Virginia with a focus on social justice.

In this episode, we talk to Arley about how she got into baking and how she transitioned from non-profit work to using her baking skills as a form of activism. We also get to hear the inside scoop about what goes into running her business. Arley gives us an insight into her previous careers both in non-profits and in the food industry before starting Arley Cakes. She frames her baking business as a way of using capitalism to support social issues she’s passionate about.

We get into her experiences of being a part of the Black Lives Matter movement in Richmond through her business and the different ways she supports local, state, and national causes using her baking. Our conversation also explores the inspiration behind Arley’s designs and flavors, before zooming in on her plans for growing her business and moving forward in 2021. For an inspiring conversation about activism delivered in swirls of buttercream, be sure to tune in.

Get to Know Arley:

Name: Arley Cakes (Arley Bell)

Location: Richmond, VA

Years in the food industry: 10!

Favorite Food: Pizza

Least Favorite Food: Peas

The last thing I ate and loved: with the snowstorm this week giving us a slow Sunday, I got to bust out my new pasta maker and made pasta from the flour + water cookbook, and Marcella Hazan's bolognese to go with it! Perfect comfort food.

Key Points Mentioned in this Episode:

  • An intro into Arley Cakes, a bakery with a focus on social justice.

  • The concept of social enterprises and how Arley got the idea to bake for a cause.

  • Arley’s journey in the baking and non-profit space leading to Arley Cakes.

  • How Arley Cakes connects to politics and the Black Lives Matter movement.

  • What it was like to be in Richmond in June 2020 amongst the protests.

  • How Arley is balancing Arley Cakes with other forms of employment.

  • Dealing with guilt at succeeding right now and being cautious with enjoying success.

  • Next steps for Arley Cakes; how Arley is planning to expand her business.

  • Arley’s experiences participating in the Bakers Against Racism movement.

  • The different ways that Arley aligns and plans to align her baking with social justice causes.

  • How Arley got into baking and where she gets the inspiration for flavors she uses.

  • Where to go to learn more about Arley Cakes and reach out to Arley online.

Links Mentioned in this Episode: 

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Click Here for Full Transcript:

Arley Arrington 0:00:
I thought maybe I can start a business that sort of uses capitalism to support these social issues I care a lot about.

Georgiana Dearing 00:15:
Welcome to The Virginia Foodie Podcast. Where we lift the lid on the craft food industry and tell the stories behind that good food, good people and good brands that you know and love. If you’ve ever come across a yummy food brand and wondered, “How do they do that? How did they turn that recipe into a successful business?” Then we’ve got some stories for you.

Georgiana Dearing 00:42:
Hi foodies, today I’m talking with Arley of Arley Cakes, a baker who creates sweet treats with a focus on social justice and a more equitable world. Known for her stylishly presented social justice cakes and for her fundraising campaigns, Arley calls attention to important issues and encourages her customers to donate with her to programs that will make a difference.å

Along with activism delivered in swirls of buttercream, Arley has a delightfully charming take on all of her pies, cakes, and cookies and has a loyal following of fans across Richmond and Charlottesville. We’ve written back and forth over the past five years so our conversation was especially dear to me.

It felt like chatting with an old friend. I think she’s the living embodiment of that phrase “Being the brand.” It was so good to talk to her about her mission, where she wants her business to go and what it was like to be in Richmond during that tumultuous summer in 2020.

I should note that we recorded this on January 5th, the day before the events at the US Capitol. That was not part of our discussion but in lighter news, her website just got an update that perfectly suits her sparkling personality. I’m so pleased to introduce you to Arley Cakes and I hope you enjoy getting to know more about her as much as I did.

Georgiana Dearing 02:10:
Well hello Arley, it’s so good to see you this time, we’ve talked a lot over the years and I’m so happy to see your face, even though our listeners can’t tell we’re doing this over Zoom. It just makes me really happy to see you here and I’m really excited to talk to you today. Welcome to the podcast.

Arley Arrington 02:29:
Thank you for having me, I’m excited too.

Georgiana Dearing 02:31:
Good. For the benefit of our listeners, could you tell everyone a little bit about yourself and Arley Cakes?

Arley Arrington 02:39:
Yeah, my name is Arley. I am a baker and the owner of Arley Cakes, which is a cottage-style bakery in Richmond, Virginia with a focus on social justice.

Georgiana Dearing 02:55:
You're baking for a cause?

Arley Arrington 02:57:
Yeah, the journey there has been a lot of different directions of what that meant for me but yeah, overall, that’s been the ethos of my business, to be baking for a cause.

Georgiana Dearing 03:10:
Yeah, that’s kind of why I brought you here today, I wanted to talk to you about that a little bit. How long have you been doing your baking?

Arley Arrington 03:17:
I started in, should know this better off the top of my head but –

Georgiana Dearing 03:23:
That’s okay.

Arley Arrington 03:23:
No, there is so much meandering. I started actually in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2015, I think, 2014.

Georgiana Dearing 03:35:
Your first posts are in the spring of 2015, which is right about the time we were starting the VA Foodie stream so we’ve come up in this together.

Arley Arrington 03:44:
Yeah, that’s pretty fun, that’s cool.

Georgiana Dearing 03:47:

Arley Arrington 03:47:
Yeah, it was 2015, I was working at a non-profit doing like community development work in a neighborhood in Charlottesville and just through that work and through that network, I kind of started to think about social enterprises. Using businesses as a way to create the change that we want to see and I honestly, I got a little bit burnt out on non-profit work at that time. I mean, it’s just hard.

Not the work itself honestly, it was like always desperate need for money from a non-profit space that I was like, “I feel like there has to be a different way that’s at least better for me”, not knocking on other people who enjoy that work but yeah, I thought, well, maybe I can start a business that sort of uses capitalism to support these social issues I care a lot about.

My goal had been to sort of work towards opening a storefront to provide employment opportunities for people who wouldn’t usually have access to that. That’s still a goal of mine but yeah, well, in Charlottesville, I did like a lot of pop-ups and markets and special events, weddings, Charlottesville is like weddings for –

Yeah, the business is growing and it was exciting and then, I decided that personally, I wanted a change. I moved to Richmond in 2017 and kind of put that sort of on pause just establish myself there a little bit. I was working full-time at a bakery downtown.

Georgiana Dearing 05:31:
Was that bakery the non-profit that you worked for or just a bakery?

Arley Arrington 05:36:
Yeah, that was just a bakery.

Georgiana Dearing 05:37:
Okay, you’ve gotten in and out of non-profit and got your hands in the baking world too.

Arley Arrington 05:43:
Yeah. I left that job about two years ago. Yeah, just over two years ago and that’s where I started working at a non-profit. I was working for a non-profit but in a café that they were on, which the mission of the café is like really similar to my ultimate goal in Arley Cakes.

At the café, I started to do more like markets and selling things for holidays but I honestly wasn’t even that. I wasn’t pursuing business like that intensely. I wouldn’t say I was hustling, I was just like doing markets here and there.

Georgiana Dearing 06:22:

Arley Arrington 06:23:
I like Thanksgiving pies.

Georgiana Dearing 06:24:
Yeah, that’s not atypical for any kind of startup though is to do some and then, I mean, you got bills to pay.

Arley Arrington 06:31:

Georgiana Dearing 06:32:
It’s finding that balance.

Arley Arrington 06:35:
Yeah, but then, in June. You know, the whole country got turned upside down in June.

Georgiana Dearing 06:42:
Of this year, you’re talking about?

Arley Arrington 06:44:
2020. I was really just like laying low and then June of 2020 when the whole world got turned upside down and people started thinking more about how they would use dollars to support Black-owned businesses but also just the message of Black Lives Matter, which is I had been using my platform and my baking to support the message of Black Lives Matter.

Literally putting Black Lives Matter on cakes. I’ve been doing that for years. June, everything just changed and I just started getting like a bunch of business. I hadn’t been really looking for it but it was kind of the perfect time for me to do that. I had just moved into a house where I have a kitchen that I’m not sharing with anyone else.

My work schedule made sense so that I could have flexibility for me to focus on that. Things kind of started taking off so now I feel like Arley Cakes is getting back into the full swing of things.

Georgiana Dearing 07:46:

Arley Arrington 07:47:
It was not necessarily my decision, it just kind of like fell into my lap.

Georgiana Dearing 07:54:
There is so many things I want to pull out of that conversation and one of them I want to ask about is just your kitchen. You are a cottage industry, which is by definition kind of working out of your home and so you’ve always been using a home kitchen and now it’s kind of your home kitchen and that is a kind of a move that gives you a little more, I guess, expansion opportunity, that’s pretty cool for you.

Arley Arrington 08:20:

Georgiana Dearing 08:22:
The other thing is, when did you move to Richmond like 2018 or something like that?

Arley Arrington 08:26:

Georgiana Dearing 08:27:
2017. Tell me, just briefly, what was it like to be in Richmond in June of 2020 for you?

Arley Arrington 08:37:
Yeah, I mean, at times, it was a little bit scary, just like the tension that was happening and you know, like you hear stories about – I mean, a MAGA people driving a car into protestors. That happened in Charlottesville the summer that I moved.

There was a little bit of that tension but also, it was just really cool to be able to witness what I think is history in the making, the confederate monuments, most of them have been – almost all of them but one had been taken down and the Robert E. Lee statue is the only one that is –

Georgiana Dearing 09:22:

Arley Arrington 09:24:
I love that space now. I will like for the Lee statue to leave but the pedestal that it’s on is like this beautiful work of art, it reminds me of the Berlin Wall honestly. Going down there during the summer, I haven’t been down there in like, a couple of months but in the summer going down there, there were like cook-outs and people are registering people to vote. It was just like this great community space, like a public art.

Georgiana Dearing 09:52:
Some hope came out of this like uplifting things for you. We went to Richmond for actually we were there for this Saturday of Fire, Flour and Fork, which time means nothing to me now, I can’t remember what day that was.

I had a client meeting on that Friday and we did travel for one overnight and went down and so we saw it but it was so late in the year, it’s like a wind just swept through, you know?

Arley Arrington 10:22:
I mean, I’m sure that warm weather is nice. I mean, I hope that the activity kicks up the end because it was just such a cool space to be in.

Georgiana Dearing 10:29:

Arley Arrington 10:30:
Well, thank you for sharing that part of it. What’s the other thing I was going to unpick? The changes, I want to switch gears and talk about your change in your employment and what’s your next steps you're taking for Arley Cakes?

Georgiana Dearing 10:45:
Yeah, I have always worked at least one job other than Arley Cakes, the entire time that I’ve been doing it. Sometimes it’s been a full-time job, sometimes it’s been one or more part time job but in September, I left my full-time job at the café to take on like a part time cleaning job, just to be able to focus more on Arley Cakes which is an exciting change for me.

I know sometimes I’m like, “I wish I could say I left my full-time job completely and I’m working for myself full-time” That’s a really exciting moment for people but I’m also just trying to take things as slowly as I can.

Georgiana Dearing 11:35:
It’s a strange time, honestly. Because, you’ve got this momentum that’s kind of come out of sort of – I want to say politics but just cultural thing that’s happened, which is kind of an anomaly a little bit, you know?

Arley Arrington 11:53:
Yeah and I mean, it’s really weird for me, I’ve had a really good year for my business in the year that has been really hard on the food industry. I think of that as also like a little bit grounding for me too. Okay, let’s be realistic, we are in a recession, things are really hard right now, a lot of people aren’t able to make ends meet but we not put too much on it at one moment.

Georgiana Dearing 12:23:

Arley Arrington 12:25:
Just figure out how to smartly enjoy the success that I’m experiencing right now.

Georgiana Dearing 12:31:
Yeah, you’ve built this success, you had a thing going and then people came and found you, don’t knock that part of it. Realism is pretty good too, I think. I think a lot of the food brands that I’ve talked to this year and even ones I work with, there’s a little bit of – I don’t know, a survivor syndrome. I’m successful but I know that my community is not.

Arley Arrington 12:58:
Honestly, there’s like a little bit of guilt feeling down here. Obviously, I’m excited and grateful for it but I don’t know, it feels weird to celebrate those sorts of things right now.

Georgiana Dearing 13:12:
Yeah, that’s part of the human condition.

Arley Arrington 13:16:

Georgiana Dearing 13:18:
Embrace it, recognize you're having it and then what is the next thing you need to do, put another foot in front of the other.

Arley Arrington 13:25:
Yeah, I guess I didn’t totally answer it. You did ask what’s some next steps are for me.

Georgiana Dearing 13:30:

Arley Arrington 13:32:
For me, I want to start doing wholesale to coffee shops, maybe some like small markets, which, you know, again, being in the food industry, there’s like so much that’s up in the air, trying to partner with people who are also having to deal with so much to keep their business, I think.

Yeah, definitely like looking at doing wholesale and diversifying like streams of income. Thinking about more ways than just individual people placing orders with me for a birthday cake.

Georgiana Dearing 14:06:

Arley Arrington 14:07:
To keep income coming.

Georgiana Dearing 14:10:
Yes, so those are decent goals and actually a natural progression for a bakery and definitely trying to secure wholesale contracts with some restaurants is a good way to do that just to get some steady income streams. It’s not like I mean it would be lovely if I could have a cupcake subscription or something like that but you know, you just don’t get direct to consumer over and over again. It is very specific and sometimes of the moment when you’re at the farmer’s markets and things like that. Trying to anticipate what you’re doing is a little hard.

Arley Arrington 14:45:

Georgiana Dearing 14:46:
Yeah, but that’s exciting, so next steps for you are just to get some increased order volume basically. I wanted to ask you one more question and then maybe come back to some business-y type things but – so the other part of this story for me being down in Richmond for Fire, Flour, & Fork was I also ordered the Bakers against Racism box. Can you tell a little bit about your involvement with that group and how is that working for you in Richmond?

Arley Arrington 15:18:
Yeah, so Paola Velez, who started it, she is a pastry chef based in DC and I have been following her on Instagram for a while and she just posted something very vague about Bakers against Racism that was literally all it was. It was Bakers against Racism, stay tuned and I was like, “Great, I’m in. I’m tuned in. Let’s do it.” Yeah, she started, that was in June again, she started this worldwide fundraiser to raise money for organizations fighting issues that are mostly African-American.

Yeah, I was completely onboard from the beginning and then our Richmond chapter was started and I think off the top of my head, I want to say there had been like four bake sales at Richmond, which I’ve participated in some capacity in two of them but yeah, I mean it has really fun and just as somebody is participating to see different bakers around town sort of come together you know, for these causes and also learning about some new organizations that I didn’t know about before so that’s been really cool.

Georgiana Dearing 16:37:
Who are you – I was looking on your site. You have social justice cakes. So I know that you put the words on the cakes and things like that but how does your business structured to support these causes? Is there a portion of sales? Tell me a little bit about that.

Arley Arrington 16:54:
Yeah, so over the past few years, I’ve actually done several cakes that are just auction, donation-based cakes so like when Erica Garner passed away, I think that was the first in memorial cake that I did. I made this cake with these beautiful buttercream flowers on them and I like put her name on it and I auctioned it off for a donation to her family’s Go Fund Me. I think that was in 2017 when she passed away. Somewhere around 2017 I started doing some cakes like that.

Whether it was in memorial or on Cinco de Mayo, one year I think I made a cake that said, “Sí, se puede” and sold it – not sold it, for donation too like United We Dream, which does immigration work. Yeah, I have been doing that for a few years and then I think after the Bakers against Racism, I think it was after the first bake sale. I did a bake sale where I made like American flag cakes and I did a bake sale again for immigration work happening in Virginia.

Where I gave a portion of the sales and then people could donate however much they wanted on top of that to an organization called Santos en Virginia and I’ve been kind of doing that like monthly since then. I didn’t do one in November because of Thanksgiving but yeah, so I’ve done some fundraisers like that and sometimes I do just post cakes with a message on them just to send out a message.

Georgiana Dearing 18:34:

Arley Arrington 18:35:
Not necessarily to raise money but just more on to raise awareness. You know, it’s been definitely an evolving thing. I think that the rhythm that I have right now has been really neat and I had a whole rebranding summer too that was like really helpful in really capturing my message and understanding how to communicate that to people but yeah, I think this iteration of using social justice in baking is like a very sustainable one or you know, even if I like scale up like, “Oh, I can still have, you know account of where people can order whatever desserts throughout the week.

Any day of the week but then also have these monthly bake sales where I partner with a local organization. That’s been really neat to land here.

Georgiana Dearing 19:26:
On your site and you mentioned earlier about wanting to have a business one day where you employ other people who are maybe getting retrained, is that still a long-term goal for you?

Arley Arrington 19:39:
Yeah, definitely and you know I’m still not really sure what that would look like.

Georgiana Dearing 19:44:
This is going to scratch my not deep knowledge of the non-profit industry but isn’t there a model on the West Coast of a bakery where they just train people who are coming maybe out of recovery or out of the prison system?

Arley Arrington 19:57:
Yeah. I don’t know if you’re thinking of The Pastry Project. That just opened up pretty recently like in the last recently in time it is nothing right now. I want to say it was in last three months honestly, it could have been like six months ago but yeah, they have a really cool model where they basically – it is sort of like a Patreon.

They are providing pastry training to people; I think it’s like need-base but they provide training to people and it’s supported through sort of monthly subscribers or donors where every month they get a box of treats that are made by the students in the pastry school and they also partner with local bakeries. I think local bakers help teach and maybe like also donate pastries sometimes for the boxes. That is a really cool model that I haven’t thought of before.

There are different types of food industry businesses even in Virginia but have more of a socially minded practice with their employment. I think for me, there are lots of different avenues it could take. I really would like to provide people with a living wage, with benefits, with so many things that people don’t get in the food industry like health insurance and paid time-off and family leave.

Georgiana Dearing 21:31:

Arley Arrington 21:31:
There are also businesses that do that like food businesses. A lot of times they are on the West Coast but you know, the West Coast is also really expensive. The living wage on the West Coast is really different from living wage, energy reaching that. I feel like if these bakeries and cafes can do that in California and Oregon and Washington then we should be able to do it in Virginia.

Georgiana Dearing 22:02:
Yeah, so as you think about your products and your expansion and things like that, where do you personally get your baking inspiration from? I’m just curious, like other than the messaging that you put on the cakes, flavors and types and I’ll tell you what I’m thinking of specifically is your champagne cakes, which seem to be, I don’t know, we’ve posted about them a few times on VA Foodie and I know that they get a lot of attention just for how cute and attractive they are but tell me, flavor inspirations, where are you getting them from?

Arley Arrington 22:39:
Yeah, well you know, sometimes I’ll try and be like a little fancy with things but generally, I like to do sort of homey, comforting, familiar things with a little bit of a twist. So like, champagne cake I always tell people it’s like vanilla but more fun. If you want to be a little adventurous, let’s say for weddings too. You want to be a little adventurous but also have people, the general public will be like, “Oh yeah, I’ll eat this, it’s not something hurting me,” but I don’t want like a billion different ingredients that just like normal people or my family who haven’t heard of and be like, “how many different things are in this cake right now?” Yeah, just sort of like down to earth, playful, vintage type of desserts.

Georgiana Dearing 23:41:
Growing up, is there something in your childhood that kind of drew you to baking? Is there someone in your family that inspired you or –

Arley Arrington 23:49:
I did have some aunts that lived in Ohio that would bake like a ton of cookies and mail them out every Christmas but I never grew up around baking. I actually grew up doing a lot of art in art classes and in college, I was in the studio and I honestly, I feel like baking sort of became this creative outlet for me after school.

Georgiana Dearing 24:13
That’s really interesting, I just did an interview with another – actually, I’m doing two bakers back-to-back but art was her inspiration too. That’s kind of cool that I think, that creating food is creative so that’s kind of neat to hear that from you.

Arley Arrington 24:29:

Georgiana Dearing 24:29:
Well, I don’t want to let you go without having you tell people how to find you and how to see your creations and possibly place orders in advance, where can people find you?

Arley Arrington 24:44:
Yeah, I have a brand new website, it’s now like six months old but it still feels very brand new to me. and I’m also on Instagram, I’m somewhat active, pretty active on Instagram, it’s @arley.cakes. To place an order, you can do that on my website, I just pickup in Richmond for now.

A lot of people ask me if I ship and I do not ship but maybe in 2021 I’ll go get it together and be able to mail cookies, yeah.

Georgiana Dearing 25:22:
Yeah, ask your aunts, how did they ship?

Arley Arrington 25:25:
Yeah, well, I can ship cookies and I do that for friends but from the business standpoint, there’s a lot more certification that I need to have for this instance to be able to ship out.

Everyone’s always like, “Do you ship? When will you ship?” I’m like, “You have no idea how much paperwork that involves me doing outside of my first job and then my baking job and-“

Georgiana Dearing 25:52:
Yeah, I don’t think people realize that, you know? That it’s not like what you do at home.

Arley Arrington 25:57:
Yeah. I can’t just say like yeah, I’m going to do this and then gets to do it.

Georgiana Dearing 26:03:
Yeah. Arley, thank you for sharing your story with me, I really enjoy talking to you today.

Arley Arrington 26:08:
Yeah, thank you, this was really nice.

Georgiana Dearing 26:10:
All right.

Arley Arrington 26:11:
All right, bye.

Georgiana Dearing 26:12:

Georgiana Dearing 26:14:
Thanks for listening and if you want to learn more about how to grow your own food brand, then click on “grow my brand” at If you’re a lover of local food, then be sure to follow us. We are @vafoodie on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Join the conversation and tell us about your adventures with good food, good people and good brands.