Activist and business owner Erin Ireland shares her story of transitioning her professional business from bacon bread to vegan.
About five years ago, I began to feel extremely uncomfortable running my bakery business. At the time, I was a new-ish vegan, but my three year old bakery, launched out of my tiny 500 square foot apartment, was anything but. Like most bakers, I regularly used eggs, butter, milk and chocolate. At one point, I even sold a special edition ‘Bacon Banana Bread’.
The source of my discomfort? My ethics weren’t aligned with my actions, and I was uncomfortable to the point where I actually stopped promoting my products. The bakery was kind of running itself, thanks to a few reliable bakers and loyal clients. Some days, I didn’t even check in at the bakery. As someone who was learning more about the horrors of the animal agriculture industry, my passion for my business began to fade. I was stuck. I didn’t want to, in good conscience, support these industries by buying their ingredients, but I didn’t know how to transition my products and bakery to become 100% plant-based.
Back in 2015, my bakery operations were a one-woman show. I grew a new appreciation for food businesses that operated at a larger scale, and actually had a little compassion for the corporations that would commit to switching to higher-welfare animal products ‘in ten years’ time.’ Previously, I struggled to understand why it took so long to make a seemingly simple switch (eg. from battery cage eggs to cage-free eggs), but there truly are so many changes that need to be made at every point in the supply chain.
A Turning Point
At one point, when I still believed certain animal foods could be produced ‘humanely,’ I pictured having two lines of baked goods: the vegan options and the original versions, which contained organic, cage-free eggs that I often showcased on social media like a badge of honour. I was proud that we spent more on our eggs in the name of animal welfare and ‘health’. What I didn’t realise is that regardless of where eggs come from (unless they’re from rescued chickens at a sanctuary), the industry is cruel by nature and kills billions of day-old male chicks every year, since they don’t lay eggs, and are considered an industry waste product. Laying hens are also bred to have ‘desirable traits’ (lay an unnaturally high quantity of eggs) despite the negative effects this inbreeding can have on their health. It’s common practice for sick chickens to be tossed aside and left to die.
As my vegan journey continued, I finally realised that there was no way to continue my bakery operation ‘humanely’ while using animal products. Terms like free-range, humanely-slaughtered, grass-fed, organic and sustainable are merely marketing terms that have little meaning and whose primary purpose is to increase sales. So, I committed to transitioning my entire bakery to VEGAN!!
Find Your Feet
I needed to veganise a few ingredients in each recipe. This was easy to do with one loaf…I could just swap in flax egg, and it worked like a charm. But at the bakery, we make 35 loaves at a time, and goopy flax egg wasn’t going to work at this scale. I’m not an expert with larger batch baking, so I hired one of my favourite vegan chefs, Karen McAthy, to help with the recipe. After a few tests, she nailed it (mainly by replacing the eggs with agar agar and psyllium husk and the milk chocolate with dark chocolate), and not a single person reported that they could taste the difference. In fact, some told me it tasted even better!
For the lemon loaf, I teamed up with Fabrizio Busso (who later became our GM), and he nailed the vegan lemon loaf by replacing the butter with coconut oil. As for an egg replacement, the loaf didn’t even need it! I was surprised to learn that in many recipes (for example, fresh pasta, pancakes, some muffins) chicken eggs aren’t even crucial for binding.
Another task I’d been dreading was the sourcing of new pans for the vegan loaves. The ones we’d been using were huge at 40 centimetres long, and I felt shorter pans would create a more stable ‘middle’ for the new loaves. I wanted used pans, but finding them at one of the used equipment dealers was not going to be fun or easy!
Finally, I had to communicate the change to my vendors. The products were virtually identical to the originals. I didn’t think anyone would taste the difference, but of course, I had to let my customers know about the new ingredients. I feared that some customers, who perhaps held some negative misconceptions about vegan baking, would drop the products without even giving them a shot.
To avoid ‘sounding alarm bells,’ I sent out a mass email alerting vendors there had been some ingredient changes, and they could check them out via the attached document. My guess is that some didn’t even peek at the changes. Then when the new product arrived, they didn’t taste the difference. We lost a grand total of zero customers when we switched from non-vegan to vegan. I think this had everything to do with the product. I 100% would’ve shut the company down before launching with veganised loaves that weren’t as good as the originals. They had to be incomparable and just as delicious.
Take The Plunge and Never Look Back
Once we’d fully made the switch to vegan, I felt amazing. I was completely reinvigorated when it came to the business. I started posting updates to our social channels again, spending more time at the bakery, quality checking the product, following up with customers etc. The response was incredible. Since the switch, our customer list has nearly tripled. We are so grateful to have new customers reaching out to us every week inquiring about our baked goods. We’re focused on keeping up with demand (hiring, moving into a bigger kitchen space, launching more products).
Best of all, I can finally sleep well at night knowing we are not contributing to the suffering of animals. I always felt sick knowing I was literally profiting off of their losses. At the time, I didn’t know any better, and I don’t blame the vast majority of business owners who are in the same boat. Everyone is on their own ‘vegan’ journey, and some haven’t seen the horrors of the animal agriculture industry with their own eyes (something I think is vitally important as you make your transition).
It’s up to all of us to help plant ‘vegan’ seeds to inspire those around us to get curious. To dig deeper. To check out the standard practices of the industries they’re supporting. We are, by nature, compassionate, and aligning morals and values with actions will lead to a greater sense of purpose, greater drive and more success than you could imagine.
Try vegan today with our help! Take the pledge now and start your vegan journey with Veganuary.
For a case study in how switching to plant-based can help your business, read this case study from Tideford!