Rebecca Swanner wipes her hands on her frosting-caked jeans. She lets out her squeaky laugh and arranges her homemade gray cupcakes into a semicircle among the other gray desserts. A woman in her mid-20s reaches for the goodies, and without hesitation picks one of Rebecca’s cupcakes. As the customer devours the treat within seconds, Rebecca can’t stop smiling.
Welcome to the Depressed Cake Shop, a sweet idea for a pop-up fundraiser that raises awareness about chronic depression. Swanner organized this end-of-summer event, the first of its kind in the United States, at Buckwild Gallery on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. Depressed Cake Shops in Houston, New York City and Seattle will follow. It’s a trend that has already jumped the Atlantic, and one Swanner hopes will sweep worldwide.
Emma Thomas, the founder of Eat Your Heart Out, an association of creative food artists based in the United Kingdom, started the awareness campaign this summer. She sees the cake gatherings as a way to open up topics that are not widely discussed, such as depression. She had previously started other pop-up bake shops, such as Cakes for Japan, which donated an array of tasty sweets inspired by Japanese flavors to raise money after the earthquake in 2011. She wanted the Depressed Cake Shop to bring awareness to depression, a mental condition that affects more than 350 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. She opened the first pop-up bakery in London on Aug. 2, and it was followed by locations in Bristol and Essex, among other British cities.
Swanner, the owner of the online baking company Secret Marmalade, brought this movement to L.A. after discovering the Depressed Cake Shop on Thomas’ blog, Miss Cakehead. Thomas suggested that Swanner, who has dealt with depression since she was a teenager, start her own pop-up bakery movement.
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“A lot of people suffer in silence,” says Swanner. “I didn’t think I knew anyone who was depressed. I only started finding out that other people were depressed when I started doing this.”
The laid-back event attracted a wide assortment of people, from 5-year-olds who came to munch on sugary goods to 50-year-old tattooed women who came to drink cocktails and bid on the art. A sign read “Cakes Cakes Cakes” in flashing lights at the opening of the gallery. The space was small and dark, but smelled sweet and delicious. The pop-up included an art auction and a sugar-flower demonstration by Shaile’s Edible Art. However, the baked goods were the center of attention and spread over three long tables in the front of the gallery.
All the sweet treats reflected the bakers’ imagination. Cookies shaped like Prozac pills, macaroons twisted into anxiety squiggles, mis-fortune cookies and blue velvet cupcakes with gray frosting lightened the room.
Customers lined up at the tables, grabbing their gray cupcakes, gray macaroons and gray cronuts (a croissant-doughnut meld) and placed them into their big white boxes that each had stickers that read “Depressed Cake Shop.” Swanner worked swiftly with her friends and volunteers to meet all their customers needs. At the end of the event, she reported that, including all the desserts and art sold, more than $6,000 had been raised.
Each pop-up bakeshop donates proceeds to a charity that raises awareness about mental illness. Swanner chose the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Los Angeles because she was impressed by how the organization reaches out to people who have depression and their families, with funding for education, support groups and advocacy.
Once Swanner set up a Facebook page for the event, many people reached out to her, including all the bakers who made the goods. The bakers shared personal stories about how depression affected a family member or themselves, and how they used baking to cope with and express their feelings. She came in contact with Sweet Insanity Bake Shop, which donated gray macaroons; Miss Ali Cake Pop’s in Temecula, Calif., which made cake pops that looked like monsters and gray-dipped Oreos; Alexis Lowery, who made mis-fortune cookies; and more than 20 other bakers who added their desserts to the table.
Swanner says that starting a Depressed Cake Pop-Up is simple. All you need is to find a location, make gray desserts and donate the proceeds to an organization that raises awareness about mental illness. No frosting-caked jeans necessary.
You can follow the spread of The Depressed Cake Pop-up Shop at depressedcakeshop.com. Swanner is looking for bakers for a holiday event in Los Angeles on Dec. 13.
Top photo: Cookies in the shape of a Prozac pill sit next to lemon cookies at the Depressed Cake Pop-Up Shop in Los Angeles. Credit: Julia Adams