“My mom said, ‘Sweetheart, settle down and marry a rich man.’ I said, ‘Mom, I am a rich man’.”
Name: Caitlin Makary. I also answer to “DANNNKKKK!”
Profession: Owner of Dank Brooklyn, which produces Dank Banana Bread
Location: Bed Stuy, Brooklyn
Flash Foxy: When did you start baking?
Caitlin Makary: Officially? January. I’ve been making the banana bread for years, but it was never something I thought about as a hobby or a job until last winter.
FF: How did DANK come to be?
CM: It was 2015 and I was in a rut in my career. I wasn’t happy at work but felt like working in corporate fashion for so long had squashed my ability to hustle. I was afraid to leave and honestly didn’t feel like I was capable of creating something I was proud of anymore.
Then in July 2015, Don Vu, myself, and some other friends put on Climb on Nepal – a charity photo auction at the Wythe Hotel to raise funds for the earthquake relief effort in Nepal. It was a massive undertaking, but we had a huge turnout, sold every photo in the show, had an amazing time and raised over $20,000 – more than double our goal.
Being involved with that event made me realize that I could still make things happen, and most importantly, make things happen from nothing. We had no budget, no real experience, just wanted to make it work. I wanted something ‘like that’ to be my job, but I didn’t know what ‘that’ was. Something involving organizing things and people… something involving charities? I didn’t know what any of it meant.
At the same time, I was climbing a lot and would bring banana bread out with me to share with friends. A lot of my friends really loved the banana bread. My ex encouraged me to sell it, but that seemed crazy… I had never worked in a restaurant in my life; I had no idea where to start. But the idea was there and I started wondering, “Ok, if I did do this, what would it look like? What would it be called?” It began to grow in my mind as a branding exercise.
Once the seed was planted, my ex and I would try banana breads whenever we came across them. And to be perfectly honest, I didn’t like any of them. I have certainly not done an exhaustive banana bread tour of NYC, but after the 6 or 7th one I tried I started to think that maybe I should try to sell mine… Dank was better!
All of a sudden I had a choice – get another job in fashion or give the banana bread a go while I still had some money coming in and a little extra time. But… It’s really fucking hard to leave the security and money of a job in corporate fashion. Then I thought of myself in 10 or 20 years saying “Remember that time I owned a banana bread company…?”. It just seemed like the more interesting path to take.
It was my breakup that became the “Big Bang” of Dank. My heart was broken and I channelled all of my energy into working on the company. In the first 4 days I registered for the LLC, got a website host, designed the logo and graphics, created an Instagram and got the site live. Then came the recipe – I didn’t even have one written down. I had to figure out what I was even putting into the bread, scale that up, and then refine it again. At this stage I was getting massive amounts of help from my sister, who has been in the restaurant industry for about a decade, her boyfriend (a chef) and her business partners (other restaurant owners). This resource pool was invaluable. I was constantly turning to them for answers to my questions; everything from where to buy bulk ingredients to how to scale the recipe, where to get equipment, how to properly store things, and how to approach sales. This is where it got scary, because all of a sudden this random idea was real. Real time, real money was going into this. It felt like I took a running leap off a cliff with just the vague (and possibly unrealistic) hope that there could be something on the other side to grab onto.
FF: Talk to us more about the symbiotic relationship between DANK and the climbing world.
CM: Dank used to just be a snack I’d bring to the New or the Gunks. After I refined the recipe, I had to find clients. I emailed the buying coordinator at The Cliffs asking if I could set up a table to sell it. They said they allowed people to sample wares at the gym, but not sell. So I thought, “Well, that’s that” and began approaching coffee shops.
A couple weeks later, I stopped by The Cliffs during a day of sales calls and ended up in an impromptu sales pitch with Paul Jung. He decided to give it a try and The Cliffs is one my biggest clients to date. Caleb Freese is the one who got me in the door at Brooklyn Boulders, and Bobby Loeser for Steep Rock. The response from the climbing community has been incredible. It makes me so happy to go to the gym and see people rocking Dank stickers on their water bottles or bikes, have people approach me about the bread, or have friends ask about the progress of the company. I feel so much love from the climbing community which is always something that keeps me going.
Since the climbing community in NYC is so diverse, it’s also been an incredible resource. I have several coffee shop clients that began with people I knew through climbing, my financial advisor is a climbing friend, and I’ve met a whole small business owner community that exists within the NYC climbing scene. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever been a part of.
FF: How do you hope to see DANK grow as a business and in the community?
CM: My goal is to have a company set up that supports athletics, charities, and cultural events in our community. Right now, I’m partnered with Arc’teryx and Adaptive Climbing (who is currently raising money to send their athletes to compete in the World Cup in France! DONATE HERE).
Dank provided a special banana bread for Don and Van Vu’s ascent of The Nose on El Cap. I’m also sponsoring the Flash Foxy GirlCrew Ramble in the Gunks (Dank for breakfast!) as well as some other projects in the works. I love the community aspect of being a business owner – it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to work for myself.
FF: Dank is vegan. Are you vegan?
CM: I personally am not vegan, but my sister is. We lived together and I always wanted her to be able to have the bread when I made it.
FF: So being vegan isn’t the “point” of DANK, just an added perk?
CM: Yep, total added perk. It’s a good selling point and really just makes it more universal – almost anyone can have it.
FF: What is it like being a small business owner in New York City?
The birth of Dank reminds me of stories you’d hear about people starting companies in the 1930’s, like “I found 25 yards of fabric that fell off the back of a truck, so I had it cut into 12 raincoats. Then, Gimbel’s bought the coats and I used that money to get a couple seamstresses working for me, etc”. Real scrappy, DIY, pick-up-by-the-bootstraps style.
I think that operating like that is only possible in a place like New York. I started this company with $5,000 of savings and went from there. If I had 1000x that amount, I would have started a clothing company; banana bread just had much lower overhead. Working in small companies taught me how to juggle several roles at once on a shoestring budget. Working in big companies taught me how to look, act, and appear professional.
When I started I was doing everything – all the baking, all the deliveries, sales, paperwork, etc. I’d work the freelance job, then sleep 1-3 hours, bake overnight, run deliveries on the motorcycle, then do sales calls. I tried to pretend that I wasn’t the only person in the company when I would approach clients, haha!! NYC is all about grinding it out and the connections you make along the way.
FF: Do you think being female affects your experience of business ownership?
CM: By and large, I don’t think too much about being female as a business owner… I’m kind of a forceful personality so if I want to do something, I’ll do it. A lot of that comes from being part of a long line of strong women – my family is matriarchal, on both sides. I never grew up considering myself to be any lesser for being a woman. I also never had a chip on my shoulder about having to ‘prove myself’ to be equal to men – I am equal to a man. I always wanted to keep up with the boys when I was growing up, but mostly because I identified more with the camaraderie – the dirty jokes, everyone giving everyone else shit, no babying. I know women with those characteristics as well, but women still tend to be more nurturing in a group. Which is also amazing – most of my closest confidants are women.
I do think it makes a difference being a woman though, I think it would be impossible for it not to. One of my accounts has a woman manager and I think she picked up Dank in order to ‘give me a shot’. Other sales calls with male managers or owners have felt flirtatious. But it’s no different than any other interaction in life – people make judgements, good, bad, or indifferent, based on how you come across to them.
FF: How many people do you have working for you right now?
CM: I currently have 3 women who bake for me (Hi Camille, Shannon, and Jen!) and Justin who is makes deliveries (by bicycle!)
FF: How’s business?
CM: Business is doing great! It’s growing all the time, but I’ve been very careful to keep growth to a manageable rate. I don’t want quality or service to suffer at the expense of getting bigger.
Dank has been self-sufficient since March (2nd month of business!) The last time I put money into the company was to open the Dank bank account; Dank has been steadily making money since then.
I’m still freelancing to pay my own bills but am quickly approaching the time when I can make this my only job. I’ve been fortunate to have my friend Alex Drew as my financial advisor – his analysis of the business has given me the confidence to move forward.
I’m an ideas and ‘let’s make it happen’ person. When I want to do something it has to happen NOW; I don’t have the patience to plan things out. Until Alex took a look at my numbers, I didn’t even know if this was a sustainable business model – like, maybe the cost of growth would always ‘break even’ with the increased income. I used to lay awake at night wondering if I was just spinning my wheels.
FF: What would you say to someone looking to work for themselves? What do you think the biggest challenge has been so far?
It’s corny but the key is being persistent; this isn’t my first rodeo. I had my own business selling vintage clothes about 10 years ago. I tried designing a line of re-vamped vintage clothes to a store in NJ. I used to direct an artists collective which would throw parties and art shows. I’ve tried to break out of the normal work mode a bunch of times with varying degrees of success and failure.
There are a lot of challenges. Right now, baking happens between 2am-7am three nights a week. Even though I’m not there every shift, or even every week anymore, there are weeks when I still bake. Two weeks ago I worked 38 hours at my freelance job and baked all three overnight shifts. Weirdly, that doesn’t feel like the biggest challenge to me, but I come from a family of workaholics. And it’s mine, so it seems worth it.
Weirdly enough though, my last piece of advice is to not be afraid to give up. Don’t bang your head against the wall pursuing an idea or venture that isn’t working. I bailed on two trade shows because I just had too much else on my plate. I pulled out of buying a car 3 hours before my appointment at the dealership because it just wasn’t the right time to make the investment. Have the ability to look critically at a decision you’ve made and say “You know what? This isn’t the right thing for me or my business at the moment – this is getting put on hold”. It’s ok to recognize when things aren’t working and make adjustments, even if you’ve already invested money or time towards it.
Also, I have an annoucement for all New Yorkers! On September 10th, Dank is sponsoring a NYC climbing community end-of-the-summer Booze Cruise bash! We’ll be partnering with The Cliffs, Brooklyn Boulders, Flash Foxy and others. Come out for a night of boozy boaty fun, music, raffles, and all for an awesome cause.
All proceeds will go towards funding the Adaptive Climbing Group’s trip to France for the Paraclimbing World Championship! Follow @dank_brooklyn on Instagram for more info and updates.