Annabelle McMillan Has the Dream Job (Constantly Surrounded by Cake)

The vegan baker also mentors small business owners out of her Petersham project space.
March 9, 2017, 11:26pm

This article is presented by Vodafone Upsiders. We profiled a bunch of young Australians who are following their passions and perfecting their pursuits outside of their day jobs. You can watch the episode featuring Annabelle McMillan and read our interview with her below.

Baker Annabelle McMillan, 26, makes cakes "you won't believe are vegan" under the name My Little Panda Kitchen.

About two years ago, she started home-making lunchboxes—filled with things like tempeh Reuben sandwiches, and roast pumpkin and black rice salad—and delivering them by bike all over Sydney.

These days, her focus is on tiered vegan cakes dripping in bright buttercream. They look like artworks, and they taste like coconut and sour cherry, chocolate and hazelnut, and olive oil and lemon curd.

Annabelle makes everything by hand in a shared commercial kitchen and project space in Petersham called MAKER, which she co-founded in September last year.

We spoke to Annabelle about starting a business from scratch, and evolving as things grow.

VICE: How did your delivery business first kick off?
Annabelle McMillan: I became vegan a few years ago and started a blog about vegan Indonesian food [Annabelle grew up in Jakarta]. I was surprised by how many people were reading it and telling me they were making stuff, and I thought, 'Maybe I just bring the food directly to them. I know what I'm doing!' I didn't really. To make the business as sustainable as possible I delivered the lunches by bike.

Was it hard to get the word out, and what was the reaction like?
I was completely shocked and I'm still shocked. I made a very crap Photoshop menu and put it on Facebook and Instagram, and people just emailed me. The allocations I had were all sold out by the next day. And it just kept building. I have a very, very small kitchen at home. I got to the point where I was making 70 lunches a day and had started doing cakes, so I was trying to fit them in my small fridge at home. It was heinous. A friend, who had a space in Marrickville, said I could move in and that's when I connected with Kate, my business partner. We then had an opportunity open up a bigger, better space, but we needed more people. That's how the idea for MAKER came about.

The Upsiders episode featuring Annabelle.

Sounds like lots of hard work, but a bit of luck too?
A lot of luck! Of course there's been hard work and making opportunities happen, but there have been a lot of times where Kate and I look at each other and I think, 'This is amazing. How did this happen? Oh well, we'll just run with it.' And we're still running.

Tell us about the reality of running a side gig…
It's amazing, but also it's hard. The glamorous reality is not sleeping and not eating properly. The irony of being surrounded by food and never eating properly is definitely not lost on me. It's so hard to balance everything all the time. Even when you get successful, success comes with all these other things attached to it. It's challenging. I've had very little social life in the past two years. After a while, I realised the cakes were taking over and so to manage everything I decided to just focus on those.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you at the start?
Do your taxes. Don't shove all your receipts in a paper bag and ignore them for two years. There are now a lot of paper bags and they're very scary. And, it's okay to ask for support. This is really connected to everything that MAKER has turned into. Working in isolation is really hard. I was by myself for a really long time. It was incredibly lonely.

The finished product.

The finished product.

Why do you think community is so important for smaller businesses?
When I started working in the same space as Kate I had someone to keep me company, and also to test ideas with and talk business. We realised we could help each other, leverage social media, and push our followers to one another. There is so much power in community, so MAKER is a working space where we can also build that. We've started running events. The other night we held our first workshop on aquafaba—the juice that comes from chickpeas that has revolutionised vegan food.

Who else works from MAKER?
All small, small businesses. Very early days. Vegan. Predominantly women, which is really important to us. A lot of queers. We're all pretty loud and proud feminists. We also try to be a supportive place for young people to come. Avalon, who runs our social media, is 16. She's got her own Instagram that has a substantial amount of followers, but she's an activist who wants to be a filmmaker and do animal rights films. We make sure she's paid but we also mentor her and try to support her in growing. We want to help empower people to learn and give them knowledge to make their own autonomous decisions.

Find out more about Vodafone Upsiders to inspire your side gig