Not many people wake up and say they want to be a baker when they have never baked a single thing in their entire life, but Dylan Carnes is one of those people. And she didn't decide she was going to be a regular baker -- she chose to be a vegan baker.
After moving from Houston to the northwest, serving in the Washington Conservation Corps and interning at Blacksheep Bakery in Portland, Carnes moved back to Houston with her sights set on opening her own vegan bakery, a first in the area.
"I decided once I was in Portland and practicing my own baking skills that I was going to move back to Texas because there's just no vegan bakeries here," Carnes says. "There are some in Austin -- at the time there were a couple that were pretty popular -- and Dallas has the Spiral Diner, but there was nothing in Houston."
Barely 25 years old, Carnes opened Sinfull Bakery, an all-vegan wholesale bakery, with no professional experience or formal baking education. Everything she knows about baking vegan products comes from cookbooks.
"I don't really think of myself as a baker, even though I am a baker," she says. "I didn't go to culinary school; I can do some of the stuff, though -- I practice a lot. Honestly, for me it was tons of reading. I read every non-vegan cookbook you could read, and I never read a vegan one, and that's what I went off of...how they did it, and eventually I figured out the trick, which was most things don't need eggs, but people think they do."
While Carnes thinks it is embarrassing to admit, she admires Martha Stewart and owns quite a few of her cookbooks.
"I didn't want to know what everyone else was doing in the vegan baking world. Mine is a lot different than what they are doing," Carnes says. "Just because I don't do a lot of adding stuff. I do it so simple. I just go back to the basics -- flour, water and salt is all that is in my pie crust, and nothing else; well, that and Earth Balance, so [vegan] butter. But they do a lot of awesome stuff ... and I have tasted it all and it is great. They put a lot of flax or something to replace the eggs and stuff like that, and I just go very basic."
Currently, Sinfull Bakery sells a variety of vegan products, including cinnamon rolls, cookies, bars, sweet loaves, cupcakes and pies. Her products are sold around Houston at several coffee shops, such as Black Hole, Antidote and Catalina; they can also be found at Central Market, Georgia's Farm to Market, Urban Harvest on Wednesdays and Sundays, and now online.
"If you do the right portions of flour, baking soda [and] baking powder, all of those combine if you do it at the right ratios," she says. "But then there is sometimes when amazing vegan bakers do all kinds of crazy things like make meringues. I know what they use for it, which is great and awesome; I wish I wanted to do that, but I don't for some reason. I like doing it like this."
Since day one, Carnes has stuck to her method of vegan baking, and that's what put her on the road to success.
"When I first opened [in March 2010], I never slept," she says. "For the first six months it was just me, and my dad would come and help after his job. So I was renting a kitchen space out in Bellaire and it was a caterer, so I had to do from like 5 p.m. to 4 a.m., and I would go into every market I could get into. But my first day that I was in business, I started in a grocery store, which is no longer open on that side of town, but it was Georgia's Farm to Market, it was my first customer -- I don't know if they know that. But I had a huge order from them and honestly I don't know how I pulled it together because I never really used a convection oven at that point; I had only used regular ovens, which is totally different, but I pulled it off with no sleep."
It wasn't until Central Market discovered her at a farmers' market that she made her big break. Now her products are sold in nearly 28 establishments. While it is generally assumed her next step will be a storefront, Carnes has a different goal in mind.
"I would love a storefront, but I really really really want to go national first," Carnes says. "I really want to make this a wholesale company. Once I build up my wholesale company and expand and do that part, but yet still keep the same -- never put preservatives...Once we do that...we will go to a storefront, which I am thinking [in] the next two years. Hopefully two years from now, you will see a Sinfull Bakery storefront, which will definitely have food and other stuff because I do miss cooking."
Because she has been cooking her entire life, Carnes hopes to add a cafe component to her storefront.
"There's a lot of things we talk about in the bakery about a storefront. We have a lot of ideas. I definitely know it would still keep to the bakery concept, so what you think you would see in a bakery, but savory items," she says. "So, we might do some croissants that are savory, something like that. I really like making kolaches. I also really like morning foods, like pancakes and stuff like that. I am kind of obsessed with vegan pancakes and I wish there were more places here that had them. It's pretty simple -- the same way you make a regular pancake, you just don't use eggs -- you take [vegan] milk and use baking soda, which helps fluff it -- that's the trick. Add lemon to the baking soda, it gives you that fluff on the pancake."
The development process for new products is never the same. Sometimes she nails it on the first attempt, such as with the Everything Bars and oatmeal raisin cookies, but sometimes it takes much longer than she expected.
"That pumpkin one [pumpkin loaf] literally took me a year or so," Carnes says. "It's a pumpkin cream cheese loaf which we sell year round, that's how popular it is. Honestly it took me a really long time. I almost gave up on it. I really did. But, finally when I got it, I got it. Looking at my original recipe and looking at my now recipe, it was such a little change, but I kept trying to redo the whole thing. It's really about the seasonings and anything pumpkin you have to do your seasoning right. Ginger is the key."
One of her favorite items is the savory vegan veggie pot pie, which is available only at the farmers markets. Her other favorite item just so happens to be her biggest seller, and it's not the original oatmeal raisin cookies.
"I kind of hate to admit it because I always used to say it was the oatmeal raisin cookie, [but my other favorite] is the Everything Bar, oh, and the pumpkin pie -- that's in season right now," Carnes says. "But the Everything Bar, I eat part of an Everything Bar every single day. I think the whole crew does actually; everybody says they have their favorite, but I see them eating that one the most."
Carnes can never give up her love for the oatmeal raisin cookies, though. They are the inspiration behind the name of her bakery.
"I think a lot of stories have the written version about the oatmeal cookie, which is true," she says. "The oatmeal cookie was the first cookie I made when I came back to Houston -- my parents' house actually; I was staying there for a second -- and I ate about like six of them and I was really full. Partly that's where the name came from, but ... that's where I thought I came up with the name Sinfull because I said oh this is so sinful, oh full, add the 'l'."
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However, the name "Sinfull" was created long before she moved back to Houston to open her bakery.
"I looked through my notes when I was in Portland, like when I was just trying to make up recipes and whatnot," she says, "and I have three pages of names that I was coming up with, and I took a dictionary, and looked up all the names I thought my bakery represented and wrote them down and tried to add and do all kinds of stuff and circled a bunch -- I had a bunch of names, I had like six names -- but in one little corner -- these papers were like full, I wasn't writing straight down, I just wrote in like very random [places] -- two of the pages had sinfull with two "l's" circled. So I had come up with it before, but I didn't realize until I like literally made the product and ate it. It all comes back to the oatmeal cookie."
Carnes says she is bringing back a few "classic" items she hasn't sold from the bakery in a few years, including the mint chocolate cookie and peanut butter sandwich cookie. She also has plans for something new in 2014.
"Hopefully people will look forward to our new product in January. We are coming up with a different version of the bar," she says. "We haven't tested it out too much yet, but it is going to have coconut in it. Pretty much it will be oats and coconut -- that's all I am saying right now."