If you’ve been around town in the Bay Area, you may have noticed these cute packages of pineapple cakes (in compostable packaging!), that say Annie T’s Cakes. These vegan gluten-free spin offs of the traditional Taiwanese pineapple cake have been making a splash with nods from the SF Chronicle and other East Bay periodicals.
Longtime TaiwaneseAmerican.org fan, Tammy Chang, a holistic nutritionist based in Oakland, had the chance to sit down with founder/owner, Annie Wang, to discuss how the Chinese American, who had no formal cooking background, began her own company baking and selling one of her favorite childhood treats.
Tammy: Why did you decide to start making pineapple cakes, a traditional Taiwanese snack food?
Annie: I grew up eating the Taiwanese pineapple cakes from the Chinese grocery store and loved them. When I was tinkering with the idea of starting this business, I thought back to all the snacks I used to eat that I no longer could eat on a plant-based diet. While I started out making more true to bakery-style items like char siu bao and coffee buns, I quickly realized I wanted to focus on on-the-shelf snack items instead. That’s when I remembered Taiwanese pineapple cakes and how much I used to enjoy them and decided to give them a shot. And they turned out pretty well!
Tammy: Traditionally, pineapple cakes are made with wheat flour and quite a bit of butter! Your pineapple cakes are vegan AND gluten-free. How long did it take you to come up with the recipe?
Annie: It actually only took me three tries to get the initial recipe! Looking back it’s actually kind of shocking considering everything else I made often took me ten or more tries to get right. In some ways, it feels like it was meant to be.
Tammy: That’s incredible, you must have drawn from your cooking experience, yes? Did you come from a cooking background?
“… I really didn’t have that much experience. It’s kind of wild, and it’s also heartening. Anyone can learn anything.”
Annie: Not really, I mostly just cooked to live, and occasionally used to help my mom and dad cook meals growing up. Outside of that, I really didn’t have that much experience. It’s kind of wild, and it’s also heartening. Anyone can learn anything.
Tammy: That completely blows my mind. I love that you didn’t have an extensive background in cooking and yet here you are, running your own food business. Not only that, but one that is vegan and gluten-free. Is that how you eat personally?
Annie: I’ve been vegetarian for almost 10 years. I recently transitioned to a vegan diet! I am not gluten-free though. Making the cakes vegan was always something I knew I wanted to do. I’d wanted to start a vegan Chinese foods + snacks business for a few years to solve for the lack of culturally relevant, plant based options that I wanted as a vegetarian myself. Making them gluten-free was a bonus!
Tammy: If it doesn’t exist then create it! Can you tell me a bit more about where you are producing? I know that finding a commercial kitchen can be difficult in the SF Bay area.
Annie: I currently operate using a Cottage Food License, which is a license that allows people to make foods out of their home kitchen. I produce out of our apartment and have been since I launched in January. It’s a major benefit to be able to fold business into rent I’m already paying. But, it definitely is a challenge to fit all my business supplies alongside all the personal items in our apartment. We’re definitely getting a bit cramped, and my partner has been AMAZING and very patient with my creative space maneuvering.
Tammy: The Cottage Food License is so helpful for small businesses especially when starting out! Do you have any plans for expanding into different products?
Annie: I’ve made mooncakes and raspberry filled shortcakes before for my September Mid-Autumn Festival Gift Box launched in partnership with Asha Tea House (whose founder has family roots from Taiwan!). And I just launched my not-Pocky sticks (name in progress is lovingly “Dip Sticks, No Sh*t”) which I plan to release on their own. Outside of those products, I’m working on a few others that I hope will be ready early next year!
Tammy: It must be fulfilling to experiment and create new spin-offs of Asian snacks. Another thing that I find really interesting about your company is that you have upcycled ingredients. What does that mean?
Annie: I do my best to source ingredients from the community when I can. One example is the flour I use. I use Renewal Mill’s gluten-free 1:1 baking flour for the cakes. The company creates flour from the leftover soybean fiber from tofu making–thus making the cakes upcycled! It also helps that the company is Oakland-based and owned by two passionate women. One of the founders is also a friend from college, so it’s doubly special to be able to work with her as we both build our own businesses.
I do my best to source ingredients from the community when I can.
Tammy: Wow, that’s super enlightening. It’s so cool to learn that there’s this whole sustainable movement in Oakland that’s about upcycled ingredients! That’s amazing. Are there any other food companies you know of that are doing a great job of having a similar mission to yours? Ones that are doing eco-consciousness well?
Annie: One company I’ve always looked up to in the food space is Ben & Jerry’s. They’ve always focused on socially conscious business practices, and their founders were true to their moral compasses from the start.
For more recently founded companies, I’ve appreciated Omsom for their strong representation of the AAPI experience tied into dialogue on the intersection of food systems and culture. Renewal Mill is also one of the companies paving the way in the upcycled food space along with organizations like ReFed and the Upcycled Food Association. There’s so many in the upcycled food space to name, I don’t think I have room for them all! But those would be some organizations I really admire.
Tammy: On your website, your mission statement is “Creating a better food system with sustainably produced, traditional Chinese foods and snacks.” How has researching pineapple cakes and other snacks helped you understand their place in Taiwanese history and culture?
Annie: Growing up, I used to love eating Taiwanese pineapple cakes. When I started this business, I originally intended to focus on making vegan versions of Chinese snacks. It wasn’t until I launched the pineapple cakes and dug into their history that I realized they originated from Taiwan. Additionally, as I developed more products and made plans for the future, I realized that a lot of the snacks I wanted to make were more a reflection of my experience growing up as an Asian American, relating with other kids over snacks that were also from all over East Asia, including the pineapple cakes. Since then, I’ve done my best to speak more to that in my online profiles, website, and marketing materials in hopes to better represent my mission and places where the inspiration for my snacks are from.
Tammy: You have a commitment to support community based organizations who are also dedicated to a regenerative food system. What organizations have you partnered with?
Annie: Earlier in the year, I was fortunate enough to speak with a few local farmers and publish a blog series on my website diving into their work. The series launched for AAPI History Month and focused on AAPI farmers working to create a more just and environmentally aligned food system. Coincidentally they were all women as well! I also donated to a local farmer named Kiley Clark who was raising money to start her own farm. Since then, she has moved to Atlanta due to rising land prices in California.
With the increased incidence of violence against the AAPI community this year, a lot of of my donations so far have gone towards supporting local and national AAPI organizations focused on social equity, environment, and local food movements including Good Good Eatz, AAPI Women Lead, Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), and Cut Fruit Collective.
Tammy: That is so admirable! Before we wrap up, can you share any tips for fledgling food businesses?
Annie: Don’t be afraid to test launch or launch a product before you feel like it’s ready! Chances are, if you wait for it to be ready, you may get stuck in your own head and never launch anything. Customer feedback has been an invaluable part of refining my product, and I’m glad I launched it when I did, especially since I’ve seen how much they have influenced the recipes over time.
It was a pleasure to speak with Annie Wang and learn more about her business and her experience starting a food business in the Bay. Like many of us, she’s a transplant to the SF Bay area and grew up in various places in the U.S. (She went to high school in Arkansas!)
Thank you to Annie for taking the time to talk and also for her work and dedication to a sustainable food system. It’s not an easy commitment for a business to make. You can purchase Annie’s T pineapple cakes through her website and find a list of local Bay area vendors there as well.
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