ELYSIAN VALLEY -- The baker who brought flaky spinach rolls and blood orange and rose donuts to places like Little Ripper in Glassell Park and Kindness and Mischief Coffee in Highland Park is putting the finishing touches on her own vegan bakery and cafe.
Co-owner and Echo Park native, Justine Hernandez, tells us about her journey from her first failed attempt at filling a pastry order to her successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $30,000 for her bakery, Just What I Kneaded, set to open in Frogtown this summer.
Tell us a little about yourself
My name is Justine Teresa Hernandez. I grew up in a mixed family of Polish, Mexican, and Native American descent. My mom always says we are a bit “Heinz 57”, a bunch of ingredients from all over. I just turned 29 and I am an LA native! I grew up in Echo Park with my mom and currently live just a few blocks from my grandparents in Highland Park.
You went from completing orders using a rented kitchen to opening a full fledged vegan bakery within 3 years. How did that happen?
Lots of luck and all nighters. My first baking job was a disaster and on my second graveyard shift, I failed. Hard. I ran back and forth across the dance studio which separated the pantry and the kitchen. I was supposed to bake an entire spread for a busy Sunday morning. By 6 a.m. I had barely finished two loaves and a whole bunch of half-baked nonsense. The dish washer walked in and asked if I was “okay” and I just burst into tears. I was so full of confidence for some reason and to fail on my second day should have shaken my baking career right off of the baking rack. But I quit that job, dusted off my apron, and tried again - this time at a seafood restaurant in Silver Lake called Sawyer.
During my time at Sawyer in 2016, we got a new US president. Devastated by the outcome, I turned the anger and sadness into inspiration and purpose. I was itching to make a difference and do something to combat the destruction of the EPA. I went vegan and started an Instagram of vegan things (mostly bread) that I was experimenting with at home. A friend of mine told me about a coffee shop opening up close to me and said they were looking for pastries. I thought “I’m not ready,” but she pushed me to take a meeting. I met with Rex & Lorena at Little Ripper weeks before their opening day. I brought homemade lavender almond milk and gluten free chocolate chunk sea salt cookies. We hit it off. I worked with them for the next year, baking every night 1am-7am, delivering fresh pastries every morning, napping, cleaning, shopping, and then doing it all over again, night after night. Eventually I hit a wall and was only getting about 4 hours of sleep a day via sporadic naps. I quit Little Ripper and went to bed.
I spent the next year experimenting, baking small amounts for a few local clients, and asking myself how I could grow. During this entire time, I had kept in contact with my soon to be future partner, Ermanno Nevelier. He is the owner and operator of Il Capriccio, an Italian restaurant in Los Feliz. He was sort of a mentor during this time, as he was the only one in my world that understood the difficulties of the baking biz. We never talked about opening a business together, but when the space in Frogtown presented itself, we saw an opportunity that could support both of our ideas. Pizza and pastries! Alone I couldn’t have afforded the rent, or the risk, but together his experience gave me confidence and a space to get started.
What’s behind your choice to use only vegan ingredients?
I love animals, I love our planet, and I wanted to put a purpose into my food. I wanted to make an impact and knew as a baker I would be using a ton of animal resources like eggs, milk, and butter if I went the traditional route. I love “regular” pastries and would never argue that butter isn't delicious, but I felt there was room for something different, something that made me feel good about taking our environment into consideration.
What drew you to Frogtown for the location of the bakery?
Well it’s beautiful and our landlords are angels. It’s difficult to find commercial spaces in Los Angeles, period. When my partner Ermanno and I met with the landlords (who are also architects and have their office “FSY” on the property) we found that we were in good company. They loved our vision and wanted to make sure that we were going to give back to the community and that we were serious about creating a space not just for newcomers, but for the people that actually live in Frogtown. I was shocked (in a good way) to find landlords who had similar views on community and who required this sort of conversation between tenants. Not to mention, Wax Paper, who are our neighbors, are also angels and have fabulous food. Frogtown just felt like the right fit.
Congrats on reaching your fundraising goal! $30,000 in 60 days is a lot to achieve. How’d you do it?
I have a lot of people who believe in me, who push me and support me. My friend Mo, the owner of Kindness & Mischief coffee, reminded me to post every day. Lorena, the owner of Little Ripper and Callie, the owner of No Tox Life, challenged me to raise my bar from $10,000 to $30,000, promising me that they believed in me and that I could do it. I’ve also got to give a shout out to Instagram and the platform it gave me to tell my story and to literally post stories of my progress. Sprinkle a little bit of love on top of all of that and I reached my goal.
What vision do you have for the bakery?
I’m in the process of picking out my “finishings” for the cafe right now. That’s construction lingo for the “style” of the shop. I’m no designer, but I am a Pinterest wizard. I’ve had the challenge of editing all of my ideas into one functional cafe. I’m thinking things will be relaxed, rustic, inviting, and overall happy. Not sure if that’s a style, but I know I want people to feel good when they walk in and happy when they leave. Style, colors, aesthetic will have to be a surprise.
Favorite thing to bake?
Can you share with us a few items we can expect to see on the menu?
There will definitely be breakfast pastries like tomato galettes, spinach scrolls with almond ricotta, and of course - cinnamon rolls. I’m working on a breakfast menu now. I love breakfast burritos and English muffin sandwiches - oh and of course a fluffy PB& J sandwich! The menu will have its staples, but I hope to experiment and play with new ideas.