January is National Baking Month, and the 13th is Gluten-Free Day. Paige Welch’s creations tick both of those boxes. Her business, Empowered Plant Cakes, produces eye-catching, nutrient-dense cakes made from nuts, seeds, and coconut and using only natural colorants. In this episode, we hear more about these no-bake vegan desserts, what business has been like during the pandemic, and how she has managed to stay afloat. Paige gives us some insight on her business journey, sharing how she grew Empowered Plant Cakes and struck out on her own after years of working in her mom's restaurant, The Green Cat. We also discuss Paige’s hopes for her business going forward and her gentle approach to sharing a vegan alternative to traditional desserts. The conversation wraps up with hearing about what inspires her and details on how you can get your hands on one of these delightful desserts.
Get to Know Paige:
Name: Paige Welch
Location: Virginia Beach, VA
Years in the food industry: 8
Favorite food: fresh figs
Least favorite food: licorice
Last thing I ate and loved: Rose jelly from a new vegetarian wine bar in Norfolk called Grandi Flora Wine Bar. They also carry our Raspberry Lemon Fig Cake!
Key Points from this Episode
Get to know Paige and hear more about her business, Empowered Plant Cakes.
Empowered Plant Cake’s ingredients and how they manage to do only no-bake cakes.
What business has been like for Paige during the pandemic and how she pivoted.
The support Paige received from the local community and the increase in order quantity.
Why Paige chose to leave Green Cat to start Empowered Plant Cakes.
Paige’s collaborative and community mindset, as opposed to a competitive one.
Benefits of renting space from Leaping Lizard, an established restaurant in Virginia Beach.
The story of Paige’s first hire, who started in April, during the pandemic!
Balancing growth and capacity: hear how Paige makes these decisions.
Where Paige hopes Empowered Plant Cakes will go in the future.
Some of the challenges that come with shipping a frozen cake.
Supply chain disruptions at the start of the pandemic and how Paige worked around them.
Veganism in Paige’s family and the story of how her son chose to be vegan.
Where Paige draws inspiration from when creating her cakes.
Links Mentioned in this Episode:
Click Here for Full Transcript:
Paige Welch 00:00:
I eat plant-based myself but I’m not a big fan of pushing anything on anybody. So, the goal with the cakes is just to show people like, “Hey, there is a better way to eat desserts,” and just putting healthier ingredients in the cakes and getting them out to more people.
Georgiana Dearing 00:20:
Welcome to The Virginia Foodie Podcast where we lift the lid on the craft food industry and tell the stories behind the 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 did they do that? How did they turn that recipe into a successful business,” then we’ve got some stories for you.
Georgiana Dearing 00:46:
Hello foodies. Welcome back. We took a bit of a break over the holiday season, and I’ve got to tell you that I’m very glad I extended myself a little grace when I planned to have this episode number 11 drop late in January. Those first few weeks of 2021 were a bit crazy. Whether you were personally impacted by the events of January 6 or not, the energy at least in my sphere has been pretty frantic. So, I hope the New Year has treated you and yours well, and thank you for being here listening to the show. There are other places you can spend your energy, so thanks for showing up.
Here’s some good news about January though. It’s National Baking Month. Among other foodie holidays, January 13 is Gluten-Free Day, and my guest today ticks both of those boxes. I first found Empowered Plant Cakes through Instagram. If you follow VA Foodie, you've probably seen us share their rainbow-striped desserts. Owner Paige Welch has been making nutrient-dense cakes from nuts, seeds, and coconut for about two years. In our conversation today, Paige shares where she started, how she's been growing, and where she wants to take these not-just-for-vegans desserts.
Georgiana Dearing 02:11:
Paige, thank you so much for joining me today. I’ve seen you on Instagram for a while. I think your food is beautiful, and I’m so excited to talk to you and learn some more about your business. But before we get started, can you tell everyone a little bit about you and your business?
Paige Welch 02:29:
Yeah. My name is Paige Welch. I was born and raised in Virginia Beach. I still live here now down at the ocean front. I am 28 years old, and then Empowered Plant Cakes has been in business for around two years now. Definitely feel I’m a creative person, and I really enjoy working for myself and just the flexibility that comes along with it and how you can work for yourself and kind of get what you want when you put stuff into it. I enjoy that part of it.
Georgiana Dearing 02:57:
Say a little bit about your Empowered Plant Cakes. That's the thing I find so fascinating. Can you talk about the ingredients you use?
Paige Welch 03:05:
Yeah. We make cakes out of nuts seeds and coconut, and then we sweeten the cakes with ingredients like dates, maple syrup, agave, monk fruit. There's no cane sugar used in any of the cakes, artificial colors. We like to do colorful cakes. But instead of using like red food dye, blue food dye, we'll use ingredients like beets, spinach, blue green spirulina, dragon fruit, turmeric. It’s pretty amazing all the colors you can get with nature
Another cool thing about the cakes is that none of them are baked. They are frozen to set. We don't have any ovens, any heating mechanisms. We have blenders and then freezers. What we do is we blend all the cakes in a blender, they are frozen to set overnight, and then we pull them out frozen and slice them that way.
Georgiana Dearing 03:52:
Is the texture kind of like a more traditional cheesecake? It's solid and smooth.
Paige Welch 03:59:
Yeah. They are all similar to cheesecake consistencies or mousse like almost. None of them have the baked feel. Yeah. Then some of them are more dense, just depending on the flavors. If we use a higher amount of oats in the cakes, they'll be more dense. Where if we use less oats, they're more mousse-like.
Georgiana Dearing 04:16:
They're really beautiful and they look fascinating. Before we get super deep into this though, I’ve been asking everyone how's it going? I mean, you're in Virginia Beach and you're a food business, so tourism has been down, and food has just had a crazy, crazy year. How has it gone for you?
Paige Welch 04:36:
The beginning of COVID, well, I didn't know what to expect. A good portion of our business is we sell wholesale to restaurants, and then the other portion is we do custom cake orders in farmers’ markets, etc. When COVID first hit, most restaurants were shutting down or kind of going down to their skeleton menus, and that was when here we had to go down to 10 people in the restaurant at a time. We rent space from Leaping Lizard on Shore Drive. Then we sell there and to other restaurants, and we didn't get any restaurant orders all of COVID. They just immediately stopped. I was kind of planning like, “Oh, I’ll just take a week off and enjoy this and then it'll pass by in two weeks or something.” Once I realized like, “Wow, this isn't going away,” I was like, “Oh, my God. I need to figure out what I’m going to do because I don't want to lose my business because of COVID.”
Luckily, at the time, one of the farmers’ markets we were doing was starting like a drive-through farmers' market. From there, we started coming up with the pre-order menu for each week. What I would do is I’d post a menu of what we're going to have and then we'd take pre-orders to pick up at Leaping Lizard. They weren't open, but I was still able to rent the space, and so I’d have people come there and I’d walk their orders outside. Then we'd do drive-through orders through the farmers’ market, and that got us by for a long time. We were able to pretty much maintain sales. It was just a lot more work for me.
Georgiana Dearing 06:14:
That's good news. That's really good news for you. What farmers’ market was it that you've been at?
Paige Welch 06:20:
It was Old Beach Farmers Market.
Georgiana Dearing 06:22:
Which is probably closed now for –
Paige Welch 06:24:
That is a year-round market. Lori, the market manager, she's pretty amazing. She was able to get that going. Then the market runs every Saturday, May through October and then the rest of the season, it runs every third Saturday. She was able to get the market going early. In April, we started going every week. The market is still up and going. They're actually starting another one and get – That'll be going starting this April or May, I think.
Georgiana Dearing 06:54:
Yeah. We've seen a lot of activity in the farmers’ market. People did step up with alternate plans, and I’m so happy to hear you kind of kept it going.
Paige Welch 07:06:
A lot of locals really came through, and they want to support you and help you to do well. I feel like the order quantity went up, where sometimes people would only come and buy one or two slices. They'd buy 10 slices and then stock them in their freezer, so that was really nice. It was nice to get the support like people wanting you to do well, and they're like, “I want to support you. What can I do?” Blah, blah, blah.
Georgiana Dearing 07:27:
That's good. I love to hear that. I love to hear that. You mentioned that you rent space in Leaping Lizard, which kind of surprised me because I know that your family has a business at Green Cat. Do I have that right or am I remembering wrong? I for some reason just assumed that you were an offshoot of that, but you're separate.
Paige Welch 07:49:
Yeah. Empowered Plant Cakes is a completely separate business. I think it is confusing for some people because I worked at The Green Cat for three years and I came up with the original menu when Green Cat was opening. That's where I started making the raw vegan cakes. From there, I worked at Green Cat for several years, three years, and I loved every bit of it. I love working in the food industry and the hustle and bustle of that.
But at the time, Wesley, my son, was two when The Green Cat opened. His dad isn't really in the picture, so the hours I was working, it was a lot of hours. I didn't really have like a good work-life balance. I got really lucky. My dad retired right before The Green Cat opened, and so he would help me pick up Wesley from school.
But Empowered Plant Cakes is a separate business, and that's something I went out and started on my own just because I wanted to find a career that could align more with what I want in life and give me more of the balance.
Georgiana Dearing 08:53:
Yeah. I was thinking you're right. You started out inside a restaurant, but you moved on quickly to be your own entity. Then you kept providing cakes to The Green Cat as you grew?
Paige Welch 09:09:
Yes. Basically, what happened is I think it goes back to I’ve always been a big believer. There’s this girl, Megan. She now owns Crunchy Hydration, but she owned Crunchy Carrot at the time, which was another juice company. That was somebody I had met through networking while I was at The Green Cat. My dad grew up having a business, and then my mom has always kind of said the same thing. They taught me to not really look at things like competition and just it's more like community and trying to help one another.
When I met Megan, I was like, “Hey, we should have coffee sometime or try and get to know each other. Just try and get to know other people doing similar things.” Megan at the time had owned Crunchy Carrot, and she found out I was starting a cake business. She reached out to me and she was like, “Hey. Actually, Bill who owns Leaping Lizard, there's extra space in the bakery. You should come talk to him and see if you can get into there.” It wasn't planned. It just kind of worked out that way.
Then I followed through and I went and I talked to Bill. Then I was just like, “I don't think I’m ready for this. I’m going to start the business like a home-based business. Just I wanted to keep my costs really low because the goal was to start a business with not a lot of money. What can I do to get that going?” I ended up starting Empowered Plant Cakes and going through the bit, like through all the steps to start a home-based bakery. Within a few months of doing that, I was just like, “This is terrible. I hate working at my house. I can't remember whether I called Megan or Bill but I was just like, “Is that still an option?” Luckily, it was. That's been great to have them.
Leaping Lizard has been around for I think 14 years now. It's a cute farm-to-table restaurant and it's really nice because doing what I do, everything being vegan and gluten-free, like a lot of people who hear that are going to be turned off by those two types of subjects. Leaping Lizard was a great intro because they have just that regular food menu with meat, eggs, dairy. There I was able to go and like sample to all of their customers and kind of talk to a lot of people who wouldn't even typically try the cakes. So, I’m definitely grateful for that.
Georgiana Dearing 11:24:
That's like a great little built-in marketing strategy in there.
Paige Welch 11:28:
Yeah. Bill, his main thing when I was talking about coming in there and starting Empowered Plant Cakes there, he was like, "I want somebody who's going to be very involved in their business and I want you to go out and talk to the customers about your products.” That little push was definitely good.
Georgiana Dearing 11:45:
Well, now today you've been saying the word we a lot. So is it you and or is it –
Paige Welch 11:50:
It's just my business. I was able to – Right before COVID, I was kind of thinking about hiring my first – I had had girls help me here and there with farmers’ market but somebody to help me start making cakes and producing them. Right around that time, the universe just works in funny ways. I had this girl, Katie, reach out to me. She's not from the area but she had came and visited, and she had tried Empowered Plant Cakes, and she was like, “I’m moving to the area and I’m looking for a job.” I was like, “Maybe this is a sign.” So, I interviewed her and I was like, “Do you mind me asking? Are you applying for other jobs? What other places are you applying to?” She was like, “Well, actually I have an interview at The Green Cat right after this.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” I was like, “That's actually my mom.”
She interviewed with both me and then The Green Cat, and she was just able to pick which one worked better for her. I’m super grateful she chose Empowered Plant Cakes. She's been with me since April and she helps me make cakes four days a week, so yeah.
Georgiana Dearing 12:59:
Wow. That's cake, hiring a person in a pandemic. You go. That's a good one.
Paige Welch 13:04:
She was supposed to start March 17th, which was right when COVID kind of hit this area, so I did hold her offer a little bit just because I didn't know what was going to happen or I was like, “I don't even know if I can hire her at this point.” After a month of just kind of figuring out what we're doing, I was like, “All right, let's get this going.”
Georgiana Dearing 13:22:
Good for you though. That takes faith and courage. That's great. Good for you. One of my questions was going to be about growth versus your capacity. I mean, you said that the pandemic had kind of kept your income pretty steady from what was before, but how do you make these choices? How do you add on a restaurant or how are you going to expand? How do you make those choices about expanding your business?
Paige Welch 13:51:
Right now, I’ve been letting everything happen pretty organically. I’m a big believer in the universe and I was like, “Oh, I could need an employee,” and somebody reached out to me. Now that I have Katie and things are getting a lot more, year two of being in business things got a lot more stable. I had a schedule where year one I felt like I was running around with my head cut off. This year, I’ve been able to be like, “Hey, Monday I do this. Then Tuesday through Friday, we make cakes. Then Saturday, we had this market.” In between that and Katie, I’ve been able to free up my time a lot.
Now, going forward, we're actually working on a rebrand right now. My sister recently just started her own graphic design business. She just redid our logo. We are coming out with new labels for our flavors. We're going to narrow don the flavors that we do. Right now, I would take orders for custom flavors. We're going to narrow down those flavors to around six flavors and make those full time and keep them in stock. We're in the process of redoing our website. The goal of kind of narrowing down our flavors is that we want to be able to expand into different more restaurants and stores.
In January, I am planning on – Thanksgiving and Christmas are very crazy holidays. Now that I have a little bit of downtime in January, I’m going to be dropping off samples at restaurants and trying to really expand what we're doing with Empowered Plant Cakes, so yeah.
Georgiana Dearing 15:25:
That's great. Those are all really solid business decisions. Narrow your line, go for the high hitters, watch how they do, rotate in seasonal flavors. Those are all like great things to do and doing the other thing where getting to the point where you can work on the business instead of in the business. That's another great first step on growth, so how exciting. That's all exciting. I’ve got my nerd hat on right now and I apologize for that.
You said your sister's a graphic designer. Did she help at all with your social media, photography, or things like that? Who's doing all of that for you?
Paige Welch 16:03:
I take all of the photos but I have had – Last year, I hired Emily Benson, and she came in, and we did one photo shoot, and I was able to use those photos over and over again. Then my sister always came in and helped me do random photos this year. We set up a little Christmas type theme and did my holiday flavors. Otherwise, for the most part it was just me sitting there with my iPhone.
Georgiana Dearing 16:28:
Wow. You do all your posting yourself too. Wow. That's a lot of hats to wear actually but good for you and knowing that you need help and getting help. You think about what you're doing. What's the end game for Empowered Plant Cakes?
Paige Welch 16:46:
My end goal for Empowered Plant Cakes is to make it a much larger company. I think there's a real need for these type of desserts where being gluten free or having a vegan option is such a big thing now, and it's hard for some restaurants to take on. So I really would love to just expand the line and get into more restaurants and then basically pre-packaged cake slices into places like Whole Foods or grocery stores.
Georgiana Dearing 17:17:
So, retail too. That was going to be my next question is institutional, which is restaurants. Then retail is being on the shelf for consumers. Just curious, your product is frozen. Have you tested shipping and how that goes yet or?
Paige Welch 17:36:
We have shipped out cakes in the past. The thing that I’ve had issues with is that the cakes weigh a lot and then they need to be shipped on dry ice. It’s just really expensive right now. I have a way to ship the cakes. I just don't have a cheap way to ship the cakes yet.
Georgiana Dearing 17:55:
Yeah. You'll need things like distribution partners who can keep a refrigerated cold chain to get from you to wherever they're being delivered. Then having a refrigerated distribution system is something that you'll need as you expand to retail. As far as like expensive shipping, direct to consumer is probably going to work best on a smaller scale I bet, things like Goldbelly or just directly from your website. For sure, dry ice is going to be super expensive because of f shipping the vaccinations around this year, so that's going to have that weird side impact on the food industry.
That was another thing when coronavirus first hit. We get stuff delivered in, but a lot of stuff we actually buy from Costco. They have really good bulk organic coconut oil, peanut butter, and things like that. During the pandemic, a lot of places kind of restricted how much you could buy at one time. I was like, “Oh, my God. We're going to have to get this delivered in, and it's going to be three times the price.” We did see a little bit of that in the beginning, but luckily that's all kind of evened out now. I ordered a few cakes off Goldbelly to kind of see how they're shipping and packaging and stuff like that.
Georgiana Dearing 19:15:
Paige Welch 19:17:
Yeah. My son and my boyfriend were definitely very happy at home to just have cake shipped in, so yeah.
Georgiana Dearing 19:25:
Well, here's a question that I didn't ask you at the beginning, and I don't want to make an assumption. But are you vegan and is your whole family vegan?
Paige Welch 19:32:
Yeah. I have been vegan now for seven years. My son, Wesley, is also vegan. The rest of my family is not. My sister is vegetarian. A lot of people would assume my mom is, but she's actually not. The Green Cat being vegan was a really big deal to me, and then her whole thing was it being gluten-free, and so that's kind of where the combination of the two came in. With Wesley, my son, I didn't want to push being vegan on him, only because I was like a total rebel. When you told me not to do something, I really wanted to do it. With him, what I did is I had to talk with him when he was old enough to kind of figure out what was going on when he was around two, two and a half. I was just like, “Hey, buddy. At home, mom cooks vegan, and I eat vegan, and this is how we're going to eat when we're at home. But if you go over Lala and Papap’s house or you go out to eat and you want to try something, you can do that.”
For a year, he tried cheese and chicken nuggets and random stuff like that. Actually, by the time he was three and a half, he chose to go vegan and he's pretty hardcore about it. It was funny him going to birthday parties in kindergarten and stuff like that. He'd be like, “Mom, is the cake vegan?” I was like, “No, bud. But if you want to eat it, you're welcome to.” He’s like, “No, I’m good.” I think him making the choice about it and kind of knowing what he's doing makes a big difference for him because it gets him excited about food. He loves to eat vegetables and salad. My dad is always into gardening, so he gardens a lot with Wesley. They'll grow kale in the backyards or sweet potatoes, so he's always had kind of a love for food. He's a total foodie himself.
Georgiana Dearing 21:20:
Well, I do I have to say that you're pretty smart about your cakes being sort of I want to say like a crossover food because there is a much bigger consciousness in like the source of our food and what we're eating and getting balance and things like that. Your cakes are beautiful and they are so interesting looking that you like, “Oh, maybe I do want to taste that.” I think that you're going to have a much broader appeal than just strictly vegan diets.
Paige Welch 21:52:
I eat plant-based myself but I’m not a big fan of pushing anything on anybody. The goal with the cakes is just to show people like, “Hey, there is like a better way to eat desserts and just putting healthier ingredients in the cakes and getting them out to our people.”
Georgiana Dearing 22:08:
I always ask this question and sometimes I start with was there something in your childhood that led you to being in the food industry. But what I really want to know is where do you find your inspiration just in general? I mean, if there is something in childhood that like inspired you to work with food, I would love to hear that. I just want to know what inspires you to create these cakes.
Paige Welch 22:34:
I actually didn't know how to cook anything up until I was like 18 or maybe even a little bit after that. I never experimented around with food. Actually, I used to sell art. In high school, I would just draw and paint all the time. I started a t-shirt company when I was 16 and I just always kind of like to be creative. When my mom had kind of been wanting to open The Green Cat or some type of store up for a long time, and she had recently gotten into juicing, and me being pregnant at the time kind of unexpectedly, it became like a big deal what I was putting into my body because I have another human inside of me now. I don't want to just be eating like straight crap.
Kind of combining the two of those, I really like to be creative and then just learning how to – What you put in your body makes a big difference. When I eat things, I like to pay attention to how I feel afterwards, and I think that's a big inspiration for the cakes. I'd say it's a little bit of like my art background and then just wanting to make things that the intention you put into your food makes a big difference, I think.
Georgiana Dearing 23:49:
Well, it certainly has turned out to be something wonderful to watch happen actually, so I think you're onto something there truthfully. Before we close, can you share how listeners can find you and see these beautiful cakes and maybe go to your website and order something? Wink, wink.
Paige Welch 24:08:
Yeah. We are on Facebook and Instagram, and both of the handles are @empoweredplantcakes. Then our website is www.empoweredplantcakes.com. You can reach out to us via there or we have our phone number as well, so yeah.
Georgiana Dearing 24:25:
We'll have those links in our show notes too, so people can find them easily. But, Paige, thank you so much for sharing your story. I really enjoyed it.
Paige Welch 24:34:
Yeah. Thanks for having me.
Georgiana Dearing 24:36:
Thanks for listening. If you want to learn more about how to grow your own food brand, then click on Grow My Brand at vafoodie.com. If you're a lover of local food, then be sure to follow us. We’re @vafoodie on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Join the conversation and tell us about your adventures with good food, good people, and good brands.