One Cupcake at a Time

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Photo by Juliana Tou


It might not have been the most obvious reaction to the news of the earthquake in Haiti, but the first idea to pop into my head was a bake sale.

I called my friend Charlie Hallowell, chef and owner of Pizzaiolo and Boot & Shoe Service, two popular pizzerias in Oakland, California, and asked him if I could hold a bake sale on the sidewalk in front of Pizzaiolo the Saturday after next. "Sure," Charlie said enthusiastically, "but why stay outside? Move it inside and take over the restaurant during our morning coffee service."

Throughout the sale, Charlie and I kept catching each other's eyes, amazed.

So I planned the event, invited 200 people on Facebook, and set a fundraising goal of $5,000, knowing that in times of disaster people just want an opportunity to lend a hand in some small way. I was familiar with the non-profit organization Partners in Health, since one of my good friends had worked for Dr. Paul Farmer in Haiti several years ago, so I decided we'd give them everything we raised.

A few hours later Will Gioia called and suggested setting up a second location in front of his busy Berkeley pizzeria, Gioia. That inspired me to ask Sam Mogannam, owner of Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco's Mission District, if we could have a third location there. He immediately jumped on board as well, offering sweets from Bi-Rite Creamery in addition to a prime sidewalk spot.

So it was settled—Bakesale for Haiti would have three locations simultaneously peddling baked goods to the community. One friend designed the logo, and another turned it into a flyer that we quickly distributed by email, asking people to print and post it around town. I began to think we might be able to raise $10,000.

I started by asking a few friends who run bakeries, restaurants, and sweet shops for donations. As word got out, dozens of emails poured in from friends and strangers, both professionals and eager home bakers, offering to bake, cook, pickle, preserve, and even knit, while others volunteered to staff the tables.

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Photo by Christina Marie Pack

A member of The Bakers Dozen, a group of professional bakers and pastry chefs, found out about the sale and spread the word to her colleagues. The women's JV soccer coach from Sacred Heart Prep School in San Francisco wrote to say that her girls wanted to lend a hand. Every time I needed something, like paper goods or for someone to print 1,000 logo stickers, I'd post it to my Twitter account and within minutes I'd have an offer from a handful of people to take care of it for me. The community's generosity was overwhelming.

Two days before the sale I tweeted John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga, which I practice, to ask him to retweet the bake sale details to help spread the word. Having never met him, I had no idea if he'd do it, but within 15 minutes he'd both retweeted my message and committed to matching the donations of people who came to the sale and mentioned his name or Anusara. I was floored.

By the morning of the bake sale, when I met a few of the volunteers at Pizzaiolo to accept and sort through all of the sweets, we'd received so much press I was actually worried we might run out of things to sell. But nothing could have prepared us for the onslaught of baked goods: Ici's chocolate chip meringues, Bi-Rite Creamery's cupcakes and cookies, exquisite saffron-cardamom truffles from Anand Confections, cookbook author Romney Steele's signature granola, Bakesale Betty's triple-ginger cookies, mountains of chocolate fleur de sel cookies, Tartine Bakery's pristine shortbread, handmade English muffins, maple-bacon lollipops, Meyer lemon bars, delicate fig and rosemary bars, French macarons, vegan brownies, and even three dozen crème brûlées.

Though the weather report had promised us a break from rain, some morning drizzle initially discouraged shoppers, but as the weather mellowed out, an incredible warmth of spirit could be felt at all three locations. People came out in force—we had over a thousand customers—some buying just a handful of cookies, others stockpiling cakes, tarts, and candies to give as gifts. Some even used the bake sale as an excuse to give the 50 or 100 dollars they'd been meaning to contribute anyway, taking nothing.

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Photo by Juliana Tou

Throughout the sale, Charlie and I kept catching each other's eyes, amazed. At one point, he approached me. "Hey, we're going to add all of this morning's coffee and pastry sales to your totals." He'd also had special dinners for Haiti at both restaurants two nights before, when all of the employees had donated their tips, and he'd be giving us that money as well. Charlie added nearly $5,000 to our fundraising total.

In all, over 100 bakers and volunteers came together to make the day a beautiful one. One of the best things about the sale for me was that it really was a completely inclusive event, open to everyone no matter how much money they were able to spend.

When all was said and done, we sent about $22,500 to Partners in Health, but for many of us, the experience was about so much more than the money. Bake sales might seem silly in times of great distress, but food is a natural community-builder. Time spent in the kitchen can be as cathartic as that at the table, where everyone comes together. It's where people share their joy and pain, their best moments and their worst.

Want to organize your own Bakesale for Haiti? Here are a few tips:

    • Find a spot on a street with lots of foot traffic. Ideally, team up with a friendly business owner to help you with logistics, promotion, and set-up.

    • Do a little research. Peruse charitynavigator.org if you don't already know whom you want to raise money for. Make sure to choose a group that people are already familiar with—you shouldn't have to convince people it's a worthy cause.

    • Sell "by donation." Since some or all of your baked goods won't be made in certified kitchens by bakers with business licenses, make sure to sell only donated products to prevent liability issues. Selling by donation also encourages people to be more generous.

    • Promote, promote, promote! Make a flyer and email it to everyone you know who works in a busy office, has a blog, or has the time to hang it up around town. Contact local newspapers and alt-weeklies to let them know about your event. Create a Facebook event page and invite everyone you know—then tell them to invite everyone they know!

    • Delegate. Encourage people to help you bake and sell the goods. Ask local bakeries if they'd be willing to donate. That friend who's always baking those special lemon shortbread cookies--ask her to make several dozen for the sale! Get creative!

    • Make it beautiful. When you're setting up the bake sale, make it gorgeous. Use glass cake stands, linen tablecloths, even a flower arrangement. Ask the people who've baked the goods to package them with care. When the goods look expensive, people will be likely to donate more.

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Samin Nosrat is a professional cook and freelance writer. She spent five years as the sous chef and "farmwife" at Eccolo, and her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Meatpaper, and Edible San Francisco. More

Samin Nosrat is a professional cook and freelance writer who looks to tradition, culture, and history for inspiration. Trained at Chez Panisse, she then moved to Italy, where she worked with butcher Dario Cecchini and chef Benedetta Vitali. She spent five years as the sous chef and "farmwife" at Eccolo, and her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Meatpaper, and Edible San Francisco, as well as on her blog, Ciao Samin.
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