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The smell of baked goods fills the corner of East 1st and Saint Louis streets as people wander by the St. Louis Pharmacy, wondering where it’s coming from.
Although there’s no signage out front, owners Amy Tam and Andy Fuentes have been operating Cake Girl, a vegan bakery, since June inside the still active 99-year-old drugstore.
Twenty-eight-year-old Fuentes, who was raised in Boyle Heights and graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School, says he stumbled across the space. Inside the drugstore, where a soda fountain once operated, Fuentes and Tam now serve their baked goods from the original counter. A case is filled with brightly colored baked goods including donuts, cupcakes, cookie, and brownies, not the pan dulce or other Mexican desserts typically found in the neighborhood.
The two, who are boyfriend and girlfriend, met while working at a bookstore. Tam was studying education at Pasadena City College, while Fuentes was studying at ArtCenter College of Design. They worked in restaurants and saved for three years so they could set up shop.
“I think the biggest obstacle was finances,” Tam said. “We both worked our day jobs, and every paycheck went to construction and city permits.” They are currently saving up for a sign.
While there are many bakeries in Boyle Heights, Cake Girl is unique in that it provides only vegan and allergy-friendly treats, including egg-free, dairy-free, casein-free and gluten-free.
Customers come from all over the area, the owners said, with some regulars coming from as far away as El Segundo or Colton. “We have a few people who live all over the place,” says Fuentes. “They love that they don’t have to go to the Westside to get their vegan treats anymore. Before us, it was an underserved group of people,” says Fuentes.
But residents of nearby communities also appreciate what the bakery has to offer. “It’s convenient to me,” says Rafael Ríos, 23, who lives in Bell. “I can’t have anything that has dairy. It’s probably the closest thing to a regular dessert place.” Ríos, who found the bakery on Yelp, says he used to have to travel further to find dairy-free desserts.
The treats are so popular that they’re usually sold out by mid-day, though Tam continues baking through the day to try to keep the cases full. The cupcakes sell for $3.75, and the donuts for $3. Custom cakes cost up to $45. At the end of each day, the owners give away leftover baked goods, sometimes at the Hollenbeck Police Station across the street or down the street at College Track, where students from underserved communities get help preparing for college.
Before setting up shop, Cake Girl sold baked goods at pop-up sites. But now the couple spends most of their time at the bakery. Fuentes works on weekends at a health food market and also freelances in information technology (IT), besides handling the bakery’s website and inventory. Tam, 30, works full-time baking and serving customers.
Tam shares photos of her baked goods regularly with her 2,500 followers on Instagram (she’s @hellocake girl). Some of her most popular desserts include her hibiscus lemon glaze donut and strawberry churro donut cupcake, topped with cinnamon vanilla frosting.
“I would have to say the chocolate cream is the best one,” says Jaime Robles, 32, also from Bell. Robles comes a few times a month and bought a cake there for his father’s birthday. “Vegans deserve desserts, too,” he says.
Tam will make custom cakes with a few weeks notice. For holidays and special events, she also makes special treats. On Valentine’s Day, she made heart-shaped chocolate donuts and broken heart-shaped vanilla cookies.
Tam says she and Andy didn’t really start out with the idea of starting a vegan bakery, but fell into it because of her own food allergies. “I have always been a home baker, like self-taught, and I taught myself how to make gluten-free, nut-free, dairy-free baking,” she says.
Tam says the hardest part about baking vegan goods is finding ingredients that bind the flour and other dry ingredients, as eggs would. “There is a lot of experimenting and trial and error that happens,” she says. “I think I wasted a lot of money just trying things out.” Tam says she created her own gluten-free flour blend.
“[Customers] love that they don’t have to go to the Westside to get their vegan treats anymore. Before us, it was an underserved group of people.”Andy Fuentes
Though the shop is closed on Sundays, some other Eastside bakeries sell Cake Girl baked goods.
Tam says she hopes to expand the menu in the future. While she wasn’t planning on opening a bakery, she’s glad they did.
“At the time, I was barely finishing up college,” says Tam, a graduate of Cal State L.A. “I was just graduating, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I should do this.’ But it turned out to be a very good and positive thing.”
2100 East First Street
located inside St. Louis Drug Co.
Hours: Mon-Sat 10:30 a.m.-6 :00 p.m.