“Women have used baking as a tool of resistance and community building for generations,” says KC Hysmith, food historian and doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Suffragettes used bake sales as a fundraising technique and to convince men that women's traditional roles in the home were not in conflict with their politics. During the Civil Rights movement, Georgia Gilmore organized Black women to sell pies and cakes to help fund the Montgomery bus boycott. In the 1970s, supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment held bake sales to energize voters and increase awareness of legislation that had languished in Congress.
In recent years, the humble bake sale has been reinvigorated by many chefs and home bakers — and not just women! — and become a go-to way to drive attention and money to their chosen causes, from Black Lives Matter to reproductive justice, in support of political candidates and in opposition to war.
In 2016, New York City-based pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz launched a charity bake sale as a platform for change and resistance. Her recent June 2022 event at Cherry Lane Theater raised $22,000 for The Brigid Alliance, which offers financial and logistical support for people traveling to receive abortion care. Bakers Against Racism was founded in 2020, in the shadow of that summer’s uprisings, by D.C. chefs Willa Pelini, Paola Velez, and Rob Rubba. The trio hoped to recruit 80 chefs to sell baked goods and donate the profits to an organization that supports Black lives, such as United Negro College Fund, the Equal Justice Initiative, or the Innocence Project. The call resonated with bakers worldwide — over 2,000 bakers in at least 41 states and on five continents participated. In the past two years, Bakers Against Racism has raised over $2.5 million for social justice causes in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Yet, the essence of these bake sales remains the same: Put simply, says Haysmith, “You put out a call on Instagram — the same way you would [have at one time] put out a call in your newspaper — for people to bring cakes in for selling or consumers to come and buy things.”
Want to host your own bake sale? I spoke to three professional bakers — Pickowicz, Velez, and Michelle Polzine — as well as Tatiana Bautista, Editorial Coordinator at King Arthur Baking Company, who shared the following triumphs, challenges, and how-tos.
Choose an organization or cause that’s personal, meaningful, and local
At the height of the pandemic in 2020, Brooklyn-based Bautista partnered with seven of her friends and founded Bowl Cut Table, which created and sold dessert boxes inspired by the Asian flavors of their childhoods. The collective donated their proceeds to mutual aid groups and grassroots organizations. “One of the organizations that we donated to, Florida Rights Restoration, helped formerly incarcerated residents of the state pay their legal fees and get out to vote,” she says.
Gather like-minded bakers
Ask friends. Post on social media. Put up a flyer in the library. Don’t underestimate your community. “The folks that I see that are doing the work — some of them aren't even bakers,” Velez says. “They're like government employees that bake cookies on the side.”
Pickowicz is often overwhelmed by the generosity of the bakers. “I'm always blown away by how happy and excited people are just to be involved,” she says.
(And in case you are asked: Preparing food for charitable organizations’ bake sales is typically exempt from federal and state statutes governing cottage food, or non-hazardous goods made in home kitchens. Even in states with stricter laws, there are carve-outs that allow the donation of baked goods to a charity sale or similar cause, without getting any kind of approval from the government.)
Choose the right recipes
For example, San Franciscan pastry chef and author Michelle Polzine is famous for her towering (10 layer!) honey cake, the signature of her now-shuttered 20th Century Café. She recently baked 47 of them in partnership with Zuni Café to aid Ukrainian families fleeing their country. “I do the honey cake because that's what everyone wants,” she says. “I want to create a frenzy, and I want people to go bananas.”
The weather may also dictate what you bake; you don’t want your pastry or cake to melt! And if you’re running a virtual sale and shipping treats across the state or country, you will need to choose a recipe that holds up in the mail. Also, coordinate with other bakers, so the sale offers variety.
But Pickowicz says not to get too precious about it. “It's less important what the pastry is because it's symbolic of the larger moment,” she says. “Bakers shouldn't get self-conscious about how their thing looks or what it tastes like, because people are just happy to support it. They're not here to criticize your baking effort.”
If you're not sure where to start, here are some suggestions:
- Joy's Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies with Pecans
- Salty-Sweet Butter Pecan Cookies
- Big Batch Brownies
- Blueberry Buckle Coffeecake
- Banana Snacking Cake with Chocolate Malted Cream Cheese Frosting
- Bake Sale Fudge Cupcakes
Calculate how many items you want to sell and at what price
Be reasonable, says Bautista, and let those limits guide you. “Scheduling your day is very helpful: Map out how long everything will take,” she says, and “consider [recipes that are] easier to batch. You could make a cake and cut it into eight slices or 12 slices, and that would be easier than 12 individual tarts.”
Stay within your financial and personal energy means, reiterates Pickowicz. “A lot of times people get super excited about the idea because it's such a fun and joyful way to connect with your community, but you want to set yourself up for success,” she says. “When you're thinking about these sorts of civic acts, you want to create something that you're going to be able to do over again, like doing regular community service or volunteer work. Don't just think of it as a one-off thing; figure out a way to create a framework for yourself so that it's something that you can replicate.”
With regards to pricing, Polzine agrees that starting small is advisable, but to fairly account for your skills and time. “Don't undervalue what you're doing,” she says. “The idea is to make a lot of money.” Her fundraiser for Ukraine started with a minimum donation of $250 per cake, before switching to a raffle with $35 tickets. Polzine says some customers placed much higher bids. She ultimately raised $17,000; all proceeds were given to chef José Andrés’ organization World Central Kitchen.
Promote your bake sale!
Social media is key, say experienced bakers. Bakers Against Racism provides support and social media graphics to those who partner with the organization. Word of mouth is also essential. And your number of social media followers should not discourage you, reminds Bautista. “Even if it is just your friends and family participating, that’s still an accomplishment,” she says. “Give it time to grow from there. After we did [our sale] for the first time, we had great customer retention. If this is something that you want to do on a repeated basis, start small, and see where it goes from there.”
Take pre-orders or sell day of
If you decide to take pre-orders, there are many free tools to help you keep track of your bake sale — Google Forms and Sheets are popular ones. Bakers Against Racism offers a step-by-step guide to managing orders with Google Forms with sample language for ordering, payment, and pickup.
Setting up a pre-order system has some advantages: You know in advance how many cakes or cookies or pies you will move, and you can use Venmo or similar apps to conduct transactions cash-free. But you don’t have to go all high-tech! Polzine puts a jar on the counter for customer donations.
Consider packaging (and shipping)
Packaging (and shipping, if necessary) need to account for safe transport. Craft and hobby shops often carry standard-sized boxes; DIY is another option. Factor those costs into your pricing.
Have fun and be inspired
No sale is too small, say bakers. “This type of work is community-oriented and community-based,” says Velez. “I would work in tandem with many communities, and folks were scared that their donation wouldn't be big enough. And I told them, ‘Any donation is enough; it's a labor of love.’”
Pickowicz stresses that, in times of tumult, “The most meaningful thing you can do is think about your neighborhood and how you can serve your neighborhood, who the people are and how you want to connect and give back to those people.” A bake sale is inclusive and joyful, she says, and joy is a powerful motivator. “A lot of people are feeling rage or disgust or despair or hopelessness,” she says. “But feeling activated and excited by your community is a powerful feeling and has a ripple effect. People think, ‘I don't have to be professional to pull off an event like this. I could do that.’”
Bakers have a history of showing up for their communities in big and small ways. Empowered with the above information, you can feel confident about organizing a bake sale of your own and joining that legacy, too.
If you're planning a virtual bake sale and shipping treats across the country, see packing tips in our previous post on how to pack and ship baked goods.
Cover photo by Mark Weinberg.