We’re proud to collaborate with some of the best food people in our cities. We produce our line of dips + spreads in small batches each day and distribute them across our regions, so it’s only natural for us to support others who are creating some of the best stuff out there. Two of those makers: Erin Patinkin and Agatha Kulaga of Ovenly in Brooklyn, NY. We’ve partnered with Ovenly to bring our NYC customers a Salted Chocolate Chip Cookie that’s addictive yet wholesome, and that also just so happens to be vegan.
Since their launch in 2010 — and over the past five-plus years dotted with awards, accolades, and even a cookbook — Erin and Agatha have stood for much more than artful baked treats.
Recently, we sat down with the co-founders of this thriving women-owned enterprise at their cheery Greenpoint cafe. We learned how they went from careers in social justice and social work to running their own bakery; their craziest stories from over the years; and why a little everyday indulgence is so important to them.
So how did this all start?
We actually met in a food-focused book club in 2009. That very first time we ever met, we started talking about starting a business together. We came up with the name for the company first, but then we weren’t sure of the direction we wanted to go with it.
When we were still at our full-time jobs, we would spend a lot of time on Gchat sending recipes to each other for inspiration. We were pretty disciplined about experimenting and meeting every week to test recipes. Within a few months, we were making pastries every morning, and then a few months later, we were quitting our jobs. We were renting space from different people, and then we made the transition from small-batch production to larger-batch production. Word of mouth started to work for us at that point.What was the evolution of your business like?
It was really all about steps. We started in our homes; then we got a part-time kitchen on the weekends; then we installed an oven at a pizza shop and worked out of there from 4am-10am; then we got a full-time kitchen in Red Hook, but it wasn’t truly ours.
In those early years, we were alone. Honestly, it was hell sometimes. We had one car that we shared.
We would take turns getting up at 4am to get the deliveries and bake the scones, and then the other would come in at 6am. We would bake and produce and package until 6pm, and then go home and do the books, advertise for employees, handle insurance stuff, until probably 11 or 12 at night. We probably operated on three or four hours of sleep for two years.
You learn very quickly when you have this type of business. Every position in the company, we went through it. We washed the dishes. We were the porters. We were the delivery drivers. We learned everything. And then finally we got our own cafe location in 2012.What made you decide to open a public-facing space?
We had built up our wholesale business and we were ready to take the leap. We needed a face for the company. We were doing a lot of tastings at that point and having client meetings, but a big part of being able to market yourself and for people to really understand who you are is having a physical space to tell that story. We had no idea that the neighborhood would grow into what it is today. Greenpoint is an incredible community. It just keeps growing.Craziest stories from those early years?
Well, there are many, many crazy stories, but one of the best was in 2011. We were renting the kitchen space in Red Hook, and there was a heat wave — like 105 degrees. Our kitchen was in a former industrial freezer, with no ventilation, so it was hot. At this point, we were baking all day, and we had maybe two part-time employees and some friends who would help us scoop cookies.
There was this one huge cookie order — like bigger than we had ever had — but the cookie dough kept melting everywhere. They were supposed to be chocolate swirl cookies, but they pretty much turned into just chocolate fudge.
So then, the power went out and the walk-in freezer broke down. But funnily enough, the broken freezer was actually a great temperature for scooping cookie dough. We had this one amazing employee at the time and he knew we were struggling to get the order in so he came in overnight without telling us to help scoop the dough. We came in at probably 4am the next day and didn’t know anyone was in there. We went into the walk-in and screamed! Our employee and his wife had come in overnight to scoop cookies, all to help us make that order happen.Tell us about the Salted Chocolate Chip Cookie you’re making for Cava.
So, you know, there are lots of different types of chocolate chip cookies in New York, and we’ve probably tasted all of of them at this point. There are the super-decadent chocolate chip cookies, where you have a few bites and you want to go sleep until the next day and not have another cookie for the next year. But then, there’s our cookie, where it’s something that people can eat every day. [Agatha] has a Salted Chocolate Chip cookie every day at 4pm with a small coffee. It gets this caramelized texture on the outside, with crispy edges.
We call it a daily indulgence, because it really is something that’s satisfying, but it also doesn’t feel like it’s so bad for you. It uses 61% dark chocolate, has a little bit of sea salt (so it has that sweet and savory component that we love), and it also happens to be vegan.
We’ve always wanted everything to have a balance of sweet and savory with a touch of spice, no matter what. One time, Agatha saw this recipe for a grilled cheese sandwich with cherries and basil, and we said, ‘Why don’t we turn this into a scone.’ So we wound up making a cheddar, cherry, basil scone.
We also get a lot of inspiration from traveling. We’re both Eastern European, so there are some traditional fresh-ground nut flours and certain spices that we use that come from our backgrounds.
Actually, our first client couldn’t eat gluten, so we were testing all of these modified gluten-free flours and had so many fails. And then we realized that we grew up eating gluten-free stuff and we just need to embrace that more — finding naturally gluten-free ingredients. A great example is our peanut butter cookie. It’s naturally gluten-free because it’s peanut-butter-based — it only has four ingredients and it just doesn’t have flour in it. When it comes down to it, people aren’t eating it because it’s gluten-free; they’re eating it because it’s a great cookie.What’s your favorite part of running this business?
Probably one of our favorites is just the people — from our staff to our clients to investors. We’ve met so many people who are very inspiring and who have taught us so much. We were both really at a standstill place in our lives before we started this company. It’s been such a process learning new information and having new experiences every single day.
We also both came from social good backgrounds and we wanted to be able to impact communities and people in a positive way. Our mission is to provide economic opportunities for our employees. About 35% of our employees were referred to us from job training and placement programs.
We work with Getting Out and Staying Out, which is a job training and placement organization for young men who have been previously incarcerated. And we also work with the Ansob Center for Refugees, which is a referral program for political refugees.
Working with those organizations has allowed us to diversify our staff; but it has also given our employees opportunities that would otherwise have been denied to them. We have a really, really incredible team now. We have between 9 and 14 people in the back of house at a given time, and we employ upwards of 50 people overall. On a given day, we’re sending out upwards of 4,000 to 7,000 pieces to our wholesale clients.
Ultimately, our values as a company are to provide deliciousness every day, but also to create healthful communities. That goes beyond providing economic opportunities, too.
When we started, we didn’t really have a sustainable piece to our model. But we decided that if we were going to focus on healthful communities, then we needed to include sustainability in our planning. We’ve always used organic and local whenever possible, but we also just switched all of our energy to renewables. We’re hoping this fall and winter to institute some programs where we give our clientele the option to create a carbon-positive purchase, so they can offset their daily baked goods intake in that way.
So that’s something that we’re really working on in this kind of holistic view around what impact means as a company whose main focus is selling cookies. That’s definitely where we see ourselves aligning with [Cava] — we know you guys really focus on using quality ingredients, but also on the local and sustainable elements, too.
We both definitely lean toward whatever’s fresh and seasonal at the farmers’ market — so lots of fresh fruit and herbs. We’re also around sweets all day and are doing a lot of tasting for quality control. Tough job, right? [Laughs.] So by the time we get home or we get to the weekends, we’re often more into savory stuff.