Before the pandemic, Crust Vegan Bakery was largely a wholesale business. The bakery made its signature vegan Pop Tarts to deliver to cafes around the city, and vegan wedding cakes for individual customers’ celebrations. Then, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, “weddings went away immediately and all of our wholesale customers closed,” co-owner Shannon Roche recalls. “We had to figure out pretty quickly what we were going to do to keep our staff employed.”
Most businesses — cash-strapped and desperate — had to lay off employees and downsize significantly during the early fallout from the pandemic. Roche and co-owner Meagan Benz didn’t see that as a viable option, as they wanted to prioritize their employees’ wellbeing and keep pushing, despite the outsized pressure of working in the restaurant industry during a global catastrophe. When a storefront right on Main Street in Manayunk became available in the summer, Roche and Benz felt like the timing was right to expand, rather than downsize. The pandemic had just forced their hand.
“Opening a storefront during the pandemic was a lesson in letting go of perfectionism and things that maybe don’t actually matter,” Roche says. “We had the awning from the previous bakery for the first three months we were open because no awning company would come out to replace it.” The Crust brick-and-mortar opened during the last weekend in August of 2020 and has been a runaway success. Since opening the storefront, Roche and Benz have been able to hire even more employees and have a larger outreach with their business. But it has been anything but easy.
Roche and Benz both got into baking through social justice-motivated bake sales, so they knew when they started Crust in 2015, they wanted the business to reflect their politics by giving back to communities in need, educating customers on animal rights and human liberation, using fair trade ingredients, and providing their employees with fair wages and healthcare.
“To do the right thing costs a lot of money,” Roche says, which is why the pair have come up with a bit of a sad joke between them. “We’ve tried really hard to start a business that doesn’t exploit the earth or our workers. But we haven’t figured out how to run a business that doesn’t exploit the owners yet.”
As a result of wanting to pay their workers a fair wage, plus offer paid time-off and health insurance, Roche and Benz didn’t pay themselves for most of 2020. “We worked an obscene number of hours,” Roche says, “and it has taken a toll mentally and physically on our bodies in the past few years.”
Benz and Roche also feel they occasionally have to sacrifice their customers’ happiness in order to make the system work. That means charging more than average for their baked goods and sometimes having less to sell.
“We have one cake decorator on staff who does a lot of our specialty decorating work,” Benz says. “And oftentimes, people get disappointed when cake slots fill up and they can’t get an appointment.” People can be pretty rude about that fact, Benz says. “We always approach them with an apology and an explanation: We can’t ask our decorator to work more than the 40 hours she’s working.” It’s the same reason that Crust’s famous Pop Tarts weren’t always available for the first eight months that the storefront was open.
“We’re not going to ever ask our staff to do more than what they already do for us because they all work so hard,” Benz says. “And we’re not going to exploit our staff to make more money. We will always put people over profit.”
The issue of running a business that aims to be exploitation-free under the oppressive strictures of capitalism is a challenging one for owners like Benz and Roche, who try to interrogate their own practices in every area of the business. Five years ago, there was some backlash because Roche and Benz refused to make gender reveal cakes. “We’re happy to make you a beautiful cake to welcome a baby to your family,” Roche says, “but we’re not going to put pink goo inside it.” If that policy meant losing business, the pair decided it was a risk worth taking.
Crust’s team also knows that they’re not going to get everything right, and part of owning and running the business contributes to their ongoing education as activists, too. “When we started the business, I think I was so afraid of being wrong, of being called out for doing something incorrectly, even of getting a bad review online,” Benz remembers. “Right now, I’m just at a point where if someone finds a way in which I need to improve, I’m very ready to be a listener and not defend myself.” As two white women, Roche and Benz say they are aware that they will cause harm. “When we fuck up, we’re gonna apologize and do better,” Roche says.
“It’s a balancing act of being like: We can only do so much. We will never be perfect — it will never be perfect. We can’t fix capitalism,” Roche says. “But each year, we find some new, scrappy way to carve out a few more dollars” in order to offer their workers better benefits. Eventually they’d like to provide a 401k and pay a greater portion of their workers’ healthcare. “I think people are often surprised by like how long staff stay with us.”
On social media, and occasionally in person, Roche and Benz get pushback from people who see that in addition to selling vegan baked goods, they also talk about trans rights, affordable healthcare, and racial justice. “[People say], ‘Why can’t you just be a bakery? Why do you have to make everything so political?’” Roche says. “The thing is — every purchase you make is political. I’m being forthcoming and telling you that I’m donating your money to Planned Parenthood. We’re not really doing anything groundbreaking. We’re just honest about it.”