We’re lucky here in our humble city of Gainesville, Fla. to have our very own cupcakery, Sarkara Sweets Cafe, newly moved to a permanent central location downtown across from the Sun Center. We’re even luckier that the owners, 23-year-old twins Claire and Stephanie Browning, are familiar with various alternative diets, and offer raw (meaning not cooked above 104 F), gluten-free and vegan cupcakes on a daily basis.
I was lucky enough to go and visit the Brownings yesterday morning as they baked their daily selection. I got some insight into the inception of Sarkara Sweets, as well as some great tips to baking without wheat flour. One thing I learned off the bat? The girls are on a GF diet, so they’re super serious about the product.
I also got to taste the latest incarnation of their ever-changing chocolate cupcake. (So moist! So much like glutencake!) Read the first part of my chat with Claire below.
Me: So you said you guys are on a gluten-free diet now?
CB: We were raised in California and our mom is definitely what you would call “California lifestyle”, so we’ve been on all kinds of diets, mainly through her – macrobiotic, raw, paleo. Never for weight, she just figures it’s healthy. A lot of times she would be gluten-free anyway naturally. And my dad, who was the average American diet, was always ruining her plans so it was kind of wacky.
We’ve always had a lot of health problems and over the last year we were trying to remove wheat and sugar mostly just because we thought it would help with the more serious issues that have risen lately. But very very recently we’ve been talking to a lot of people who are either gluten sensitive or full-blown Celiac and some of the problems we’ve had since we were like 3 are some of the really uncommon symptoms of gluten allergies. So basically we don’t eat wheat anymore, which is kind of difficult because we have to taste the cake. But then again, technically it’s better. Most chefs say not to eat the things you’re making because if you’re not hungry your taste buds are sharper.
Me: Was it always your plan to open a bakery?
CB: No. My sister and I kind of suffer from having too many interests. When we were younger, instead of playing we would draw plans for a bookstore. And it’s not like we were super serious but we would take each experience for the week seriously. We wanted to go to pastry school, but we had bright futures so our parents said no. So we didn’t know we wanted to do a business for sure but it had always been floating around as a complete possibility.
Me: When did you guys first decide you wanted to open a cupcakery?
CB: My senior year of college, I could have graduated early but I decided to stay because I like school. In the middle I fractured my back and I had to withdraw, but I had enough credits so I was just kind of sitting there, doing grad school applications, and decided, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ I guess that was around January of ’09.
Claire realized starting the business would cost just as much as graduate school. Further inspired by her boyfriend’s own successful business in Gainesville, as well as their mother’s writing business, the twins decided to go for it. They opened Yum! Cupcakery in April 2010 in a small location near Archer Road. But when some customers offered them a rental opening in a building downtown, they jumped at the opportunity.
Me: Since you’ve had all those diets in the past, was gluten free always gong to be on the menu?
CB: Oh yeah. Gluten-free, vegan and raw. Our mom was like, “If you don’t have raw cupcakes I’m going to be so angry.” She lives in LA where you can go to any co-op grocery store and get raw Oreos even. They’re very good about offering that sort of stuff there, whereas here not so much, so she’s like, “You’ve got to start spreading it.”
Me: Did you see a good market for those alternative diets?
CB: Yes, especially in the old location. There we had to be hunted down so carefully because it was hard to find. Most people who came in were actually looking for some sort of allergy-free, whether it was dairy, eggs, gluten, soy, citrus, you’d be amazed. Our gluten free cupcakes are almost completely allergy-free.
When we first made them we had an acquaintance who had never had cake in his life because he was allergic to nuts, soy, coconut, wheat, eggs, milk, like everything. So we had to make the allergy free cupcake.
Me: I hope you wrote down that recipe!
CB: Yes, well, you’ll find that it’s very difficult with gluten free to reproduce the same thing repeatedly, and then you learn something new and you start working with it and of course it doesn’t start working the first time.
Me: I’m going through that right now...How popular are the GF cupcakes here by comparison to regular cake?
CB: Really, the only people who get the GF are the people who have the allergies, which is kind of silly because really you can’t tell the difference – because it doesn’t have rice flour. Rice flour is what makes gluten eaters not like it because they think everything tastes funny.
The gluten free customers come back a lot more often because they’re obsessed and excited, so you’ll see them usually 4 or 5 times a week. And they often come by after we’re closed and we’re not going to turn them away because they can’t go get something somewhere else.
Me. Aw. Special treatment. Is chocolate or vanilla more popular?
CB: Chocolate, and I’ll say that used to be because our vanilla recipe was not as good. We’ve tweaked it so now the vanilla’s better.
We were considering making everything gluten free, but the cost of sorghum flour is so expensive. We have a fabulous gluten free carrot cake recipe – no one would ever know the difference. It’s just too expensive to sell it in place of our regular cake, but if we can ever supply it cheaply we’re going to replace everything. It’s just a matter of time.
Me: So you have plans, then, for different flavors and maybe weekly specials?
CB: We’re gonna definitely have specials sometime soon. It’s taking a while to get the systems in place and running properly, but we’ll slowly be adding things. Gluten free cinnamon buns…
Me: Obviously you guys are really serious about your own diets, but I was going to ask about how safe you think the kitchen is. I’ve never gotten sick, and I know you always offer to switch gloves.
CB: Now that we don’t have gluten free on the custom bar, there’s less chance of contamination, which is why we stopped doing gluten free on the bar as much. One reason was because gluten free customers actually wanted straight chocolate or straight vanilla, oddly enough. But usually we have more in the back and if someone really wants it we’ll do it back there.
I’d say the kitchen itself is not a worry. We always try to gluten free first in the morning before anything else has been done. We clean, wash, sanitize between. I have as much fear as anybody!
Look for the other half of my chat, where Claire and I discuss baking secrets and the miracle of sorghum, in the next couple days.