Vegan cupcakes make Tiger Cooler debut

Debbie’s Delights vegan cupcakes outside of The Tiger Cooler at Occidental College in Los Angeles, on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. Miaja Lemieux/ The Occidental
Robert Starec, Associate Director of Campus Dining, discusses his involvement with the baked goods outside of The Tiger Cooler at Occidental College in Los Angeles, on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. Miaja Lemieux/ The Occidental

At the start of this semester, the Tiger Cooler switched from cake slices to vegan and gluten-free cupcakes. Associate Director of Campus Dining Robert Starec changed the Cooler’s bakery supplier from Melrose Bakery (formerly Susina Bakery), the company that provided the cake slices, to Debbie’s Dinners, the company that now provides the cupcakes. After Melrose Baking Company bought out Susina Bakery, Starec said that the Cooler staff anticipated a decline in quality and customer service, a hike in pricing and general uncertainty about the long-term future of the business — all of which motivated the transition to Debbie’s Dinners.

According to Starec, the Cooler experienced frequent discrepancies in Melrose product orders, including incorrect quantities and missing orders. Compounded with increased prices, Campus Dining began to doubt the business’ future reliability.

“Last year, Melrose attempted to raise the price of all Susina products by more than double. As a result, we too would have to raise prices. But under the proposed increases, a slice of cake, for example, would have gone from $5.95 to $13.95,” Starec said.

According to Starec, all Susina products would have had similar markups applied. This did not seem reasonable, so Campus Dining immediately stopped placing orders. Campus Dining had lined up a new provider over the summer — Los Angeles-based catering company Debbie’s Dinners —in anticipation that such a situation might arise, Starec said.

Not all students are happy with the change, as evidenced by a recent Oxy Confession — which garnered 37 reactions and eight comments — that decried the switch.

“Anybody else miss the days when the Cooler had real cake?” the confession read.

Maya Angulo (sophomore), one such dissatisfied student, said she was disappointed by the texture of the new cupcakes.

“My issue with the cupcakes isn’t the frosting. The frosting is great, it tastes almost as good as the previous one,” Angulo said. “But the cake in itself is so dry. On top of that, my really big qualm is that they don’t have red velvet, which I feel like was a real fan favorite.”

Angulo said she first had one of the Susina Bakery cake slices with a friend after a stressful oboe audition for a spot in the school’s orchestra. From that point forward, Susina’s Bakery cake slices held a special place in the hearts of Angulo and her friends that the cupcakes have failed to fill.

“Every Tuesday night after rehearsal, we would always go the Cooler, and my thing was I would always get cake,” Angulo said. “That was my way of bonding with my music people.” 

According to Starec, students can give their input about food options and other concerns via an online suggestion form.

The fact that Debbie’s Dinners’ products appeal to a wider portion of the Occidental community also drew Campus Dining to the new supplier, according to Starec.

“[Debbie’s Dinners] provide[s] us a vegan and gluten-free option which we’ve never been able to offer through the Tiger Cooler before, because there were very few suppliers that have products that taste the way these taste. And we’re able to offer them at a similar price point as our conventional items. She [the owner] also uses organic ingredients, so it’s a win all around,” Starec said.

According to Debbie’s Dinners owner, Debbie Gambino, her bakery substitutes in vegan and gluten-free ingredients but does not make low-fat cupcakes, aiming to maintain that traditional cupcake taste.

“Fats are what captures the flavor and are a binding agent. That is why these items work so well and give the muffins and cupcakes that more traditional flavor and style,” Gambino said.

Debbie’s Dinners also sources as many environmentally friendly and organic ingredients as possible, according to Gambino.

“The flour in our gluten-free cupcakes is all natural and local. The majority of our ingredients are local, with exceptions for things like baking soda or baking powder,” Gambino said.

Campus Dining has several student-led initiatives to promote sustainable food options like the new cupcakes from Debbie’s Dinners. Sammy Herdman (senior) is Campus Dining’s lead intern for sustainability, research and implementation. Herdman said that she looks at potential new foods to determine whether they should become a permanent fixture based on nationally recognized sustainability metrics.

Sammy Herdman (senior), the lead intern of sustainability, talks about the new vegan cupcakes outside of The Tiger Cooler at Occidental College in Los Angeles, on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. Miaja Lemieux/ The Occidental

According to Herdman, Debbie’s Dinner’s is sustainable because they use organic ingredients, which means laborers are not exposed to as many chemicals and that the production is better for the environment.

A year ago, Herdman and Diego Zapata (senior), director of the Food, Energy and Sustainability Team (FEAST), started developing the Community Investment Procurement Standards, which outline a commitment to purchasing from local companies so as not to contribute to gentrification. Susina Bakery fit these guidelines, according to Herdman.

“Susina was a local company that was in the area for a long time, and keeping those kinds of longstanding businesses is a problem that LA has, with all the turnover of businesses and rents going higher,” Herdman said. “It’s sad to see fixtures in the community go away,”

Herdman will assess Debbie’s Dinners on sustainability and community standards in the near future. According to Herdman, it is difficult to say whether or not the cupcakes are a good swap. She also said that it is of great importance that students make the effort to purchase local, organic items.

“We can provide all the sustainable food in the world we want, but if no one buys them, it doesn’t make any difference. There are labels on all the sustainable food so just keep your eye out for those and buy things with those labels,” Herdman said.