Every month or so, Dwane Bowen drives two hours across Pennsylvania to buy cookies, brownies and sticky buns from a vegan bakery in Bethlehem — and he’s not even vegan. “A friend brought me here about a year ago,” says Bowen, “and I said, ‘It better be damn good if we’re driving two hours just to get a cookie.’ He was right, though.”
Bowen’s pilgrimage is to Vegan Treats Bakery, and owner Danielle Konya says she is not surprised. “We’ve actually found people camping outside the store when we arrived to open up in the morning, from Europe, Israel, all over,” she says. “People track us down.”
When Konya, 41, started baking vegan goodies for herself at home back in the 1990s, she had no idea that her hobby would become a phenomenon. Eighteen years later, her 1,600-square-foot bakery employs more than 40 people in a round-the-clock operation that in 2012 was named one of the top 10 bakeries in the world — not just the top vegan bakeries — by American Express’s Departures Magazine.
“Maybe it was just good timing,” Konya says.
Ellen Kassoff, co-owner of Equinox restaurant in the District, says it’s much more than that. Equinox gets a regular delivery from Vegan Treats of mini cheesecakes and petits fours for its weekly vegan brunch. “What she’s doing over there is phenomenal on a big scale,” Kassoff says. “Her experience shows.”
That experience is entirely self-taught. With nothing but a passion for plant-based baking and a flair for design, Konya experimented with triple chocolate chip cookies and whoopie pies, and they were a hit with her family and friends. But it wasn’t until 1998, after she gave a cake — her now-signature chocolate peanut butter mousse bomb — to a guy in Philly who was selling vegan cheesesteak sandwiches, that she thought about a business. “He used to always say that there was no such thing as a good vegan dessert,” Konya says. “I just brought him the cake to prove a point, but then he called me a few hours later and said, ‘The cake’s all gone. Can you make me 12 for next week?’”
Although the cheesesteak operation didn’t stand the test of time, Konya spent the next eight years building her own business from scratch with the help of her mom, Vicki, working 80 hours a week, first from home and later in a shared commercial kitchen. The storefront bakery opened in 2005. It clearly has been a labor of love for Konya, but also a way to promote her agenda as an animal-rights activist. “Eating vegan food is the easiest way to make a difference on the planet,” she says. “Compassion starts with your fork.”
For those who think baking without eggs, butter or milk is a challenge, Konya and her staff — the vast majority of whom are not vegan — would strongly disagree. “It’s just science,” says pastry chef Samantha Armstrong. “If you can come up with a recipe made with traditional ingredients, you can always come up with one that’s vegan.”
Potato starch, tapioca starch and silken tofu are some of the ingredients that help give Vegan Treats desserts the same rich mouth feel their non-vegan counterparts have, but, to Konya, it all comes down to flavor. “Honestly, no one takes a bite of the Chocolate Peppermint Dream cookies and asks where the butter is. The focus is on the dark chocolaty base and that bite of peppermint.”
Using pureed fruit, such as applesauce or mashed pumpkin, in place of eggs to provide moistness is a technique common to fat-free baking, but, as Konya says, “I’m not cooking with substitutes. I’m just baking the only way I know how.”
For instance, when she was developing the Molasses Pumpkin Streusel Bars in October, autumnal flavors and textures were the starting point. “Then it started to come together as a classic bar cookie, with a layer of vegan cream cheese to balance out all that rich flavor and a crumbly topping for texture. It was really just about imagining what I’d like to eat on a chilly gray afternoon.”
When you’re churning out thousands of cookies a week, along with doughnuts, brownies, cupcakes and 500 or so cakes, you don’t have time to be daunted by ingredients. “Space is a much bigger challenge here than the recipes,” says pastry chef Ryan Mason. “We’re just trying to figure out where to put all the layer cakes.”
The wholesale and retail business shows no signs of slowing. Even at midday on a Tuesday, there’s a steady stream of customers of all ages at the retail counter, on a street that is not a pedestrian thoroughfare. Outside, a truck is being loaded with wholesale orders — one of five deliveries a week to more than 100 coffee shops, restaurants and boutique grocery stores in New York, Philadelphia and Washington.
“I call it the ‘bakery on a treadmill,’ ” says Konya, laughing. “We’re always trying to catch up.”
Vegan Treats also pitches its tent at vegetarian food festivals in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, where fans will line up for several hours. The array of treats in the tent can be mind-boggling, from mini-cakes coated in chocolate ganache and topped with colorful handmade fondant flowers to Bavarian cream doughnuts to Key lime pie. “I like the classics,” says Konya, “but also to innovate.”
Pastry chef Armstrong agrees: “Other bakeries will give you the opportunity to be creative, but a vegan bakery — especially this one — challenges you to think way outside the box.”
Konya’s commitment to operating an ethical and earth-friendly bakery means spending energy on sourcing ingredients that fit both her mission and her standards, all within the confines of a high-volume operation. Sweetened condensed soy milk is shipped from a supplier in Portugal, while custom-blended chocolate made without palm oil (an ingredient linked to deforestation and animal extinction) comes from Switzerland. On the flip side, Konya forages for wild black raspberries herself in the nearby countryside each summer for a house-made soft-serve ice cream that is available only at the store.
“We could definitely make condensed soy milk in-house,” says Konya, “but we go through so much of it on a daily basis that it would be a full-time job for someone to produce the volume that we need. On the other hand, those black raspberries are local and seasonal, so they are worth that little extra effort.”
Mindful of her commitment to veganism, Konya immediately pulled candy sprinkles off the line in 2014 after a customer asked whether the sprinkles on the doughnuts were made with shellac, a common ingredient that is also a byproduct of beetles. When the manufacturer couldn’t adequately explain what ingredients it was using, Konya switched to sprinkles coated with carnauba wax.
Besides the ethical concern, the ingredient swap also pointed to the trust that she wants to build with her customers. “We have people coming here who are vegan or kosher or have food allergies,” she says. “Our ability to know exactly what is in everything we make is important.”
Searching for a new building to house a larger bakery is next on the agenda, says Konya, who says she also dreams of starting a retail project that would bring more of her products to other cities. Just don’t expect her to move from Bethlehem.
“I grew up here,” she says, “but, more importantly, my mom’s here. And I really love my mom.”