It’s a cold and stormy morning in Berkeley and I had just finished a hot matcha latte from a local shop (shout out to Victory Point Café). Per usual, after a fulfilling cup, I got the sudden urge for something sweet and satiating before I started my day. My colleague was raving about these Taiwanese pineapple cakes coming from Oakland and to my delight, there was a neatly packaged treat in front of me with a logo consisting of a large pineapple. Upon further inspection, the text read: Annie’s T Cakes. I took a bite and sat upwards as the delectable plant-based treat teased my taste buds. It was sweet, soft, and fruity… I was blown away with each bite. I knew that I wanted to know the story behind what I was eating, and with the help of my colleague, I met with Annie Wang, the Founder of Annie’s T Cakes. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length.
RB: Has cooking always been a part of your life? What inspired you to get into the food industry?
To make a long story short, I burned my first eggs when I was in 5th grade and I've been burning things ever since...Just kidding. Early on I just experimented and mostly cooked to eat my normal meals. My business, Annie’s T Cakes, is my first time cooking professionally.
I grew up moving every few years before I was in college. Every time we moved the cities were more rural and homogenous. In Illinois, our house was surrounded by cornfields and there was a pig farm nearby. In Arkansas, there were soybean and rice fields. The different communities I was in grew a lot of our food, but didn’t have access to healthy food themselves, most of what they ate was processed. During my time in high school I became a vegetarian for environmental reasons, and then later for animal agricultural reasons. In college I became a part of our fossil fuel divestment movement and learned more about the environmental impact of all our daily choices. It all kind of seemed like it was funneling me to the food space.
I then went to Beijing for a year to work for NRDC [National Resource Defense Council] as a Law and Policy Fellow. I learned more about food tech and the potential for changing food systems to help transform our environmental landscape. Once I moved out here to the Bay Area, I was really focused on breaking into the food tech space and learning more there. With all this going on, I was always really interested in starting a business like mine now, making culturally relevant plant-based foods and being able to provide that option for people. Once the pandemic hit, me and half of my marketing team were laid off. I wanted to take this time to take a bet on myself and try this out since I've been wanting to do this for a long time.
RB: Tell me more about Annie’s T Cakes and the purpose behind your business.
When I first started this business, I wanted to focus on Chinese vegan snacks but as I started making products, I realized a lot of things I grew up eating were pretty pan-Asian. For instance, I made dipped cookie sticks inspired by Pocky. Pocky is from Japan. Taiwanese pineapple cakes are from Taiwan. A lot of the things I grew up eating aren't all from China. So one thing I am thinking through is, mission wise and branding wise, how can I put that message across of wanting to pay homage to the things that a lot of people grew up and experienced eating. I grew up eating Taiwanese pineapple cakes and as a kid, I didn’t even know that they were from Taiwan. It wasn’t until I started making and selling them , when I realized what kind of history this specific food has.
RB: You specialize in making Taiwanese pineapple cakes, would a recipe for these traditionally use animal-based products? I also read that you use upcycled products, could you explain?
Traditional pineapple cakes use dairy and egg products – normally in the short bread. For my product, I use a plant-based dairy replacement and I cobbled together some ingredients as a replacement for eggs. There was a lot of tinkering. There are a lot of different ways to replace eggs depending on what you want to do.
My cakes are also gluten free because I use Renewal Mills gluten free flour. They upcycle tofu fiber into flour. Usually pineapple cakes have traditional flour but mine use soybean flour. I worked with the Upcycled Food Association as a volunteer and in the role that I had, I found a couple companies that were using nonedible plant and fruit skins and making them into different things. There is one out there that uses pineapple skin. For my product, I use pineapple and I never know what to do with the skins. If I were able to scale up to a point where it would be worth it for a company like them to take my pineapple skin away and do something good with it, I would love to do that. I also drain the pineapples, and a lot of the juice comes out of it. I would love to be able to turn that pineapple juice into a syrup once I have enough time and storage to do so.
RB: As a new small business on the rise in Oakland, what's that like?
I applied for a cottage food license that allows me to sell to businesses. In general, I can be pretty shy, but when it comes to selling things like these cakes, it is a lot easier. I know everything there is to know about this product because I made it and I eat it. So doing outreach has been a lot of fun for me. All the vendors I work with are local and very supportive. Building relationships with them has been one of the most rewarding parts.
Oakland is one of the hotspots in the Bay Area when it comes to food. What are your go-to plant-based restaurants in Oakland? What is the food community like?
Even if I wasn’t working with them, I would say Lion Dance Café is one of the top hot spots. Belly has a good vegan taco using fried tofu. So does Xolo Taqueria. There is also Gay4You Vegan Eats. Their stuff is really good. Last time I was there I had a really savory “chicken” dish.
People have been super supportive. The vegan community out here has been really willing to help. I’ve connected digitally and in-person with people that have run their businesses for a really long time. I was getting baking tips from people and we’re always wanting to buy each other's food.
Do you have any tips for business owners that would like to make their operations more sustainable or environmentally friendly?
This is something I struggle with. My packaging is compostable. The difficulty with packaging that is compostable is that it doesn’t have as long of a shelf life, and it affects the shelf life of your product. Plastic is not good, but if you don’t use plastic, there can be a food waste issue. So I'd [recommend business owners to] start experimenting with compostable packaging. I’m also working on increasing the shelf life of my food by using natural products.
Out of all your products, which one is your favorite?
Oh man, there are currently three pineapple cake flavors: Matcha, chocolate, and original. I’ve also made mooncakes in the past: black sesame, green tea, and jasmine tea. I also had three flavors for the dipped cookie sticks: Passion fruit, strawberry, and chocolate. My favorite thing that I have made is probably the black sesame mooncake. It is really rich and creamy. For the pineapple cakes, it would be the original flavor.
RB: What is the best way to support you and follow your work?
You can order my products on my website or any of my various vendors that are listed on the website. I am hoping to eventually move into a commercial space and plan to raise some funding in the new year which I’ll be announcing on socials, my website, and email. You can find any announcements on my Instagram or Facebook and sign up for my email listserv to stay up to date!
Robbie Brown is Acterra’s Healthy Plate, Healthy Planet Program Manager responsible for programming on food sustainability and ensuring access to healthy food. When he isn’t working on sustainable food-related initiatives, or playing in his band, he is often busy in the kitchen, developing and trying new recipes.
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