We spoke with Ilana Kadonoff, owner and chief baker of Sweets from the Earth, and vegan mom. Sweets from the Earth makes a full line of original recipe, egg and dairy-free baked goods, made with 100% plant based, and GMO-free ingredients. We found out her favourite dessert, the ingredient she dreamed of creating a menu around, and what maternity leave is like for an entrepreneur.
Have you always wanted to own a bakery?
When I was kid, after wanting to be a teacher, a vet, and then the first female major league baseball player (I was obsessed with Little League that year!), I decided I would open a restaurant. Ironically, a restaurant specializing in eggs. When I first became vegetarian at the age of seven, I started cooking for myself, and my parents’ insistence that I get enough protein led to eating eggs pretty much on a daily basis. Plant-based proteins like tofu, tempeh, and seitan weren’t readily available like they are now.
I loved being in the kitchen and became a master egg cooker! The restaurant never happened, and I ended up becoming an occupational therapist. While I was practicing as an OT, one day it occurred to me that I was spending all my free time in the kitchen, and enjoying it more than anything else.
On a whim, I decided to take a leave of absence from my job to go to pastry school. At the time, I figured if I wanted to try something different, it was now or never. I had no idea what would come of it, and I actually thought I would just go for the experience and get it out of my system. But it stuck. I worked in a few restaurants using traditional pastry ingredients, and slowly started transitioning from a vegetarian to a vegan lifestyle. At the time there weren’t many vegan desserts on the market and the ones that were available, tasted “healthy”. There was a reason vegan desserts had a reputation for being dry and bland!
As a new vegan, I no longer wanted to work with eggs and dairy, and I also wanted to be able to indulge in something decadent once in a while, so I started experimenting with vegan desserts. The feedback from my family & friends was great, so I started approaching some retailers, and with no initial plans to start a business, a bakery was born.
You’ve left out so many ingredients that are in “conventional” desserts. Do you think people notice a difference when eating your vegan sweets?
Our customer base started off as mainly vegan, but we’re now in as many mainstream markets as we are in the natural food ones, and I honestly don’t believe anyone can tell the difference. There are so many people who aren’t vegan who enjoy our products – people who avoid certain ingredients for religious or medical reasons, and people who generally want to eat healthier, and want to have a delicious treat without all the nasty preservatives, flavours, colours and bad fats found in so many commercially prepared baked goods. I think if our products didn’t taste as good as traditional baked goods, and if people could tell the difference, so many people wouldn’t be eating them. (Find them at a retailer near you, and see if your family can tell the difference!)
You became vegetarian at age 7 and then vegan years later. Do you think it’s easier to change the way you eat as a child or an adult?
There are definitely arguments for both sides. As we all know, the longer you do something, the harder it is to break the habit. So on one hand, I think it’s easier to change the way you eat as a child. Especially if the parents are the ones implementing the changes for the whole family. But if it happens to be the child initiating the diet change, how easy or hard it is will depend on how supportive the parents are. If a small child wants to stop eating meat, it’s not as likely to happen if his/her parents aren’t on board. On the other hand, changing the way you eat as an adult may be easier if it’s for moral reasons. To this day, I have people I’ve known for a long time say to me “you still don’t eat meat?!” When it’s something really meaningful to you, it’s not a difficult change to make or lifestyle to maintain. If it’s “forced” (medical reasons for example), a major diet change as an adult would likely be agonizing!
What’s your favourite dessert you make?
Plain old chocolate cake, washed down with a tall glass of ice cold almond milk. It was one of my first recipes, and it’s still my favourite. Chocolate chewy nut bars, right out of the freezer, are a close second.
What’s maternity leave like when you run a business?
Maternity whaaa?? Let’s see… there was that week I took off after my first daughter was born. Then there was that other week I took off when my second daughter was born. OK, slight exaggeration… I did slow down a bit after my kids were born, but there was definitely still work to be done every day. A business is like a baby itself – it requires constant attention, and doesn’t stop just because you have other things going on. “Sleep when the baby sleeps” does not apply to the self-employed! There were definite moments of bitterness when my kids were newborns and I didn’t have the luxury of spending every moment with them. But I got over it and realized that this is just the way it is for me. My youngest is still a baby, but my older one knew from a young age that I work a lot, and has found a way to be involved – she’s my number one taste tester, cookie labeler and paper shredder! There probably aren’t many six year olds who can name every obscure baking ingredient and utensil…
Why Gluten-free OR Nut-free?
When we first started, we baked all kinds of different products out of one facility – items that had no nuts and items that had no gluten. But we couldn’t call anything nut free or gluten free because we couldn’t control allergens properly while we were producing everything under the same roof. Almost all of our nut-based products happened to be gluten free, so we decided to split up our lines into two separate facilities – one dedicated nut free and the other dedicated gluten free. We were able to keep all of our products except for the spiced nut biscotti – it was the only one that didn’t fall neatly into one of the categories as it contained both nuts and gluten. This was almost four years ago, and we still have people calling and asking us to bring it back! (SFTE will be combining both Gluten-free AND Nut-free soon!)
You collaborated on a cookie with vegan Chef, Doug McNish. What was that experience like? And tell us about the cookie!
The cookie is great! It’s a low glycemic (sweetened with coconut sugar and agave), vegan, gluten free almond-based cookie, filled with a super dark & rich fudgy centre. Working with Doug was so much fun – we both love what we do … but we’re both perfectionists, which is probably why the cookie hasn’t been launched yet… Once we get it perfected, it will be available in stores for people to enjoy, and then we’ll start collaborating on our next co-branded product!
What can we expect from you next?
We’re working on lots of great stuff… gluten free breads, gluten free cookies, bars, and yes, the coveted biscotti! I’ve got a long list of products I’d like to develop, but the key is finding the time to do it!