How Does a Cake Queen Navigate the Mainstreaming of Veganism?
In a changing climate for small vegan businesses, delicious cakes aren’t enough. But Ms. Cupcake has plenty of other ideas.
Through her famous Ms. Cupcake bakery based south of the river Thames, her bestselling recipe book, and a retail line of decadent baked treats, Mellissa Morgan has positioned herself as one of the most influential vegans in the UK, and now she’s working hard to keep her self-started and self-owned vegan enterprise ahead of the pack.
As one of the true pioneers of the plant-based boom that has enveloped London, Mellissa has turned a love of cake into an internationally recognized brand capable of fending off even the toughest obstacles. She’s been celebrated over the past decade as the colorful personality responsible for bringing decadent plant-based cakes to a burgeoning London vegan scene, but it is her business savvy keeping her Ms. Cupcake brand above the tide as mainstream forces push many independent vegan businesses past breaking point. Morgan’s steely determination, technical expertise, and strong work ethic have seen her steer her vegan business through multiple twists, turns, hardships, and triumphs.
Morgan grew up in suburban Toronto, and as she made the leap from tween to teen, she took a burgeoning love and care for animals and foisted it upon the world. Well, downtown Toronto. “I became veggie around 12 or 13 when I became aware of animal exploitation and environmental problems. It was around this time I would sneak downtown to go to rallies. My family thought it would all blow over!”
Morgan also developed a love of cake around this time, but she doesn’t share the usual tales of secret family recipes or being inspired in her childhood kitchen. Mellissa’s story was a bit different.“My mother is the best defroster in the universe! She never cooks, and as I was a child of the ’70s and ’80s, we got used to a lot of TV meals in our house.”
Morgan saw learning how to bake vegan cakes as a necessity not only due to her mother’s lack of interest in baking, but also her own dairy intolerance. Their Toronto kitchen became her laboratory. In those dark days before plant-based milks dominated grocery aisles, powdered soy milk was part of the learning curve. “Dairy intolerance pushed me to learn how to be inventive before dairy alternatives were common, and my mom’s lack of baking prowess gave me that extra incentive.”
It was a move to the UK in her 20s led to the creation of Ms. Cupcake. Morgan likes to describe the move as “Typical and boring. I wanted to explore the world and accidentally fell in love. Started a family.”
But it was also during this “accidental” start to a new life that Morgan began seriously exploring veganism. “If my body is so intolerant to dairy, is it something humans should be consuming at all? Isn’t my body telling me something? If there are products being developed to remove lactose, maybe it is a sign we shouldn’t be consuming it. I also started learning about the cruelty of the egg industry. By the time I hit my 30s I had run out of excuses to not be vegan.”
The seed for Ms. Cupcake was first planted while Morgan was working as a school teacher. “The school staffroom was the best place to trial products, as I always had hungry colleagues who all happened to love cake!” Over the next couple of years, Morgan says, “I was swamped with amazing feedback including requests for wedding cakes. It really lit the spark in me and made me start to believe this could be a viable business idea. People were loving my products.”
Morgan’s original business plan included a tranquil work/home environment. “I wanted to sell at markets and be at home for my family. Bake when I could and have a quiet life. But I just wasn’t ready for the demand that was out there for vegan cake.”
Many people consider Morgan to be one of the original instigators of what was to become a mainstream concern in the UK due to her market stall in Greenwich. This historic semi-outdoor market place set within a World Heritage site has long been a hub for nurturing inventive food pioneers, making it the perfect launching pad for Ms. Cupcake and the type of luxurious cakes still unfamiliar to a lot of Londoners at the time.
The cold mornings on the stone market yard seemed to instantly brighten as Morgan proudly displayed polka dotted plastic trays overflowing with moist, decadently frosted cupcakes. Flavors such as the triple chocolate featuring an irresistibly rich buttercream soon had vegans and non-vegans alike from all over the UK capital referring to the Ms. Cupcake stall in Greenwich as a must-visit destination.
The self-made business owner recalls those early market days by saying, “I felt like I was outside of something. Because I was going through my own personal journey at the same time as I started my business, I felt like an outsider. The face of veganism in London at that point was about wholesome, whole foods and nobody was doing the decadent junk food thing. This idea of fun veganism had already exploded in North America and I thought what I was trying to do was seen as too fun to be vegan. All I could be was to be truthful to myself and make the sort of products I wanted to see on the shelf.”
The business exploded, thanks not only to vegans, but to an ever-increasing army of vegan-curious consumers as well as customers with allergies or religious dietary concerns. Success after success followed, including a best-selling recipe book, which has been published globally, and the permanent Brixton location of the Ms. Cupcake bakery, which threw open its doors on April 1, 2011.
The Brixton bakery quickly established itself as one of the most visited vegan sites in Europe, and having this brick-and-mortar space afforded Morgan the opportunity to greatly expand her product range. Visitors to the bakery marveled at a dazzling variety of new cupcake flavors with towering frosting sitting next to stuffed cookie sandwiches, shelves of hard-to-find vegan pantry items and candy, and a freezer overflowing with tubs of dairy free ice cream.
Visitors to the Ms. Cupcake bakery in 2019 can explore a selection of grab-and-go savory sandwiches which are made in house, as well as an ever-evolving milkshake menu. Items new and old are handcrafted and lovingly served by staff decked out in signature Ms. Cupcake style that includes polka dot headscarves and vintage-style aprons.
And how is Ms. Cupcake finding life now that plant-based products are firmly entrenched in the mainstream? Morgan says, “It’s a very interesting place to be, and we got what we were fighting to get in many ways as ethical vegans, but people got left behind. The people who started it. The original independent businesses can’t compete with huge corporations, and customers have so much choice.”
In this climate, Morgan needs to work harder than ever to maintain her connection with loyal customers: “Our business is not the same as others because people don’t usually eat cake every single day. We used to be a destination where loyal customers would spend a lot of money. The average spend per customer is now a fraction of what it used to be, so the business needs to find new ways of generating revenue. It is more important than ever to connect with locals who see the value of supporting a neighborhood business.”
One way Morgan has branched out is by securing a contract with Whole Foods Market UK, allowing her world-class cupcakes to reach thousands of customers each week. “We used to focus only on direct consumers, but as veganism is now everywhere and the demand for niche vegan businesses has diminished, wholesale has become the real focus for the bakery.”
Despite unexpected challenges such as a recent flood that kept the bakery “closed for four days because the walls were caving in,” things still look sweet for Ms. Cupcake because solid business systems are in place, and the person in charge knows how to look to the future while celebrating the past. Morgan reminisced, “Our business was a big part of kickstarting veganism in London. We inspired other people to take up the mantle and I feel proud that is part of our legacy. We are still here after eight or nine years because we understand how important it is to be ready to pivot at the drop of a hat.”
As Mellissa Morgan looks toward moving past the 10-year milestone of her fiercely independent business, vegans old and new should celebrate the skill and determination of this Toronto native, who just wanted to have her cake and eat it.