The owners of Skull & Cakebones, a bakery and market outside Austin, Texas, have built a brand around being authentically themselves. Sascha Biesi and Yauss Berenji founded their business to spread kindness through food—starting with plant-based, allergen-free baked goods, inspired by their daughter’s severe allergies.
“At Skull & Cakebones, we see a lot of people who have different allergies,” Sasha said. “It’s really important for [our staff] to know [what we are feeding you] because the customer expects that… Our mission is that if we won’t feed it to our kids, we won’t feed it to you.”
It was equally important to Sascha and Yauss to provide a safe space for customers with stories and values similar to their own, particularly other LGBTQ people and anyone affected by mental illness. As the business has grown, the couple continues to support these causes close to their heart to expand their community.
Having some separation between your business and personal life is necessary for maintaining mental health. But as the public face of your business, your personality can also be your superpower. Below, Sascha and Yauss share insights on how they intertwine their business’s brand with their own identities.
1. Partner with people that share your values
On your small business journey—as with your mental health journey—you don’t need to go it alone. Whether you turn to a trusted mentor, other small business leaders, or organizations that share a common interest, the support of others can help you navigate challenges and prevent burnout.
“For me, it’s really important to raise awareness for mental health concerns as someone who has suffered lifelong with mental health concerns myself,” Sascha said. “I believe that in telling my story, it’s paving the way for other people to tell their stories.”
To spread her message, Sascha reached out to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to host a “depressed cake shop” pop-up at Skull & Cakebones in 2018—joining a national community of bakers who create baked goods to talk about depression in an accessible way. In keeping with the theme, Sascha’s creations were decorated with gray frosting on the outside but bursting with color on the inside.
This is just one way that Sascha opens up to customers, hoping to serve as an example and help them feel comfortable in the shop. “The struggle is real, and the stigma is real, and I wanna be a part of the change in the stigma of mental health,” she said. “I want Skull & Cakebones to be a platform where people are surprised by the fact that they can walk into a bakery and talk about how they’re feeling.”
2. Embrace your authentic voice
Social media users are looking for business owners with an authentic voice—not a perfectly curated Instagram feed. As social media manager for Skull & Cakebones, Yauss channels her own personality and posts with as much transparency as possible. For example, the team recently shared their deep disappointment about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, writing, “It’s okay to not be okay right now.”
“The more honest and the more real I’ve been with it in sharing my voice through social media, the better the response has been,” Yauss said. “It’s been awesome to watch Sascha through the mental health stuff, allowing me to use her voice [on our social media] because that for her was a big issue and being able to tell her story because of the stigma and fear attached to it. So now I’m just like, ‘Go for it.’”
In fact, Yelp reviewer Kate S. found Skull & Cakebones by following their Instagram page, proving once again that your social media presence is crucial to building both a brand reputation and a customer base. “I think that their use of Instagram is really powerful because they’re able to send a message on their platform,” she said. “It really made me feel firstly, like I wanted to support them, and also like I had a safe space.”
Increasingly, customers like Kate are spending with their values. Using your online platform to highlight issues that matter to you can resonate with customers and make them feel more comfortable entering your space.
Kate said: “Authenticity is number one for me. That’s the foundation of my existence and that’s where all of my mental health issues stem from too. Seeing them take pride, being loud, and advocating for [mental health on social media]… is huge.”
3. Find your community
For Yauss and Sascha, activism is not only part of their business—it’s essential to their identities. Dripping Springs, Texas is a primarily rural town with a much more conversative background than neighboring Austin. Being transparent about their values was one way for the Yauss and Sascha to begin developing connections, and soon, a community.
“When we first moved into where we are now, which is just west of Austin, I was scared to put anything rainbow on the door because I didn’t know who our community was,” Yauss said. “And from the outside, looking in, it’s a little scary as LGBTQ+ person, but as we’ve been more open about it, we’ve learned that actually everyone is really loving. And there are many more people that are a part of our community than we thought. So why not be proud and open and out about it?”
These gestures can be as small as putting a Pride flag on the door or as large as hosting a depressed cake shop pop-up. The key is remaining true to who you are. “Community is at the heart of what we do and it always has been,” Sascha said. “I think by just being honestly who we are, we’ve created that space.”
And as Kate found when she first stepped foot in Skull & Cakebones, a business owner’s passion and authenticity carries through to the customer. “It feels like going to a friend’s house,” she said. “When you walk in, you have that sense of relief of [it] being a safe space—[it feels that way] even over the internet.”
Interviews by Emily Washcovick; photos from Skull & Cakebones
These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen below to hear more from Kate, Sascha, and Yauss, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.
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