How One Independent Bakery Is Holding it Together — And Giving Back

How One Independent Bakery Is Holding it Together — And Giving Back

While some restaurants and cafes have pivoted to a takeout-only model to stay afloat since the governor mandated the closure of non-essential businesses, countless others have closed down indefinitely due to a lack of sales cutting into their already razor-thin margins. Dank, a small wholesale banana bread company, is surviving by shifting, in just a few short weeks, to retail delivery.

The company, launched in Bushwick in 2016 by former Bed-Stuy resident and Pilotworks incubator tenant Caitlin Makary, sells three variations on Makary’s wildly popular vegan banana bread, all baked at a co-manufacturing facility in New Jersey and sold to cafes and stores around Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. While Dank has no retail space to pay for, and its staff consists of an operations manager and a husband-and-wife delivery team, keeping her fixed costs low, the business has operated at a loss for the last few weeks.

Caitlin Makary delivering Dank banana breads in 2019. Courtesy of Dank.

Dank lost tens of thousands of dollars in sales last month when the vast majority of their clients, mainly coffee shops, were forced to close down, Makary said.

“We went from working with about 60 places in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, to — I think there might be five open now?” Makary said. “And those five are doing like 20% of their normal business.” Sales for March were 55% less than originally projected, Makary said, and April is looking much worse.

With the food landscape changing rapidly in front of her, Makary’s first priority was letting her staff know that their jobs were safe. If they felt healthy, she told them, and they still wanted to work, they could expect to keep their job at Dank — even as Makary herself turned down a paycheck.

Things are, understandably, much different now than before the pandemic hit, and Makary doesn’t see things leveling out any time soon. They have, however, managed to stop the bleed — and that’s due in large part to the outpouring of support Makary has received from her friends and community in the form of online orders. Some customers have even purchased boxes to give directly to families in need: in Dank’s Instagram stories, Makary wrote about a customer who purchased banana bread for a Brooklyn family currently fostering five kids. Dank followed up the order with two more boxes two weeks later.

Makary said she’s also gotten some random donations from friends who are still receiving a paycheck. “Under no other circumstances would I ever consider accepting something like that, but it means that I can keep paying my people,” she said.

In addition, Makary created a Venmo account where anyone who wants to support healthcare workers can donate the equivalent of a box of banana breads, which has also helped keep her staff busy. For every amount equal to four boxes, Dank donates an additional box to healthcare workers. Thus far, Makary said, they’ve delivered almost 60 boxes to 24 different hospitals around the city, including Maimonides Medical Center and Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn.

Hospital workers receiving boxes of Dank banana breads. Courtesy of Dank.

Adjusting to such a jarringly different business model has been a challenge: Dank, which previously operated almost entirely on a wholesale basis, has fielded an unprecedented number of online orders in the last few weeks. The new circumstances will require some adjustment, but for Makary, uncertainty is nothing new: when Dank first launched back in 2016, Makary would do overnight production shifts three nights a week, and would often go straight to her other job as a freelance fashion designer. Exhausted and financially unstable, she’d question if the constant hustle would even amount to anything. Then, soon after she’d achieved some success, Pilotworks shut down, and Makary had to immediately find a new production space.

Still, she’s managed to keep things in perspective.

“I really just, every day, think about my friends and colleagues who have no money coming in right now, and no certainty of what’s going to happen or how long this is going to last,” Makary said. “And they’re just relying on the fact that perhaps you have a little money in the bank and not too much on your credit card. That’s crazy — but that’s not the situation that we’re in right now, fortunately. I feel super lucky for that.”

Makary won’t pretend that things are going to return to the way they were. “My business has changed forever probably,” she said. “But we’re healthy, and I have a roof over my head and food and a little money in the bank, and that’s all I could ever need, you know?

The article previously stated, incorrectly, that donations to the Venmo account Makary started would go to Dank’s staff.