It’s always beautiful to see a small business not only succeed but thrive in its community and become a destination for all walks of life to enjoy. For Justine Hernandez, she found her passion in vegan baking and started from grassroots beginnings, selling culinary creations from her home before taking the plunge to open her first brick-and-mortar bakery, coffee shop and cafe. After nearly two years of construction and planning, Hernandez’s business, Just What I Kneaded, was finally given the green light to open its doors. The only catch was that it all happened at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Miraculously, in a time of great peril for small businesses, Hernandez and her team leaned into their creative mindsets and threw out every rule that comes with operating a bakery. Instead, they opted to keep things fresh by coming up with innovative pastry designs, ranging from political statements, Pop-Tarts adorned with cartoon characters such as Garfield and Snoopy, a revolving menu that changed daily and an engaging social media presence. Now nearly two years later, Hernandez’s business is thriving and continuing to foster a fresh and creative atmosphere to elevate the idea of what constitutes great all-natural vegan food. As a result, they’ve become one of the most important culinary fixtures in East Los Angeles.
What was the impetus behind starting Just What I Kneaded?
I was working at a margarita bar in Silver Lake called El Chavo, and it was so fun, but they sold to Scientologists. [Laughs.] I was like, “What am I going to do?” At that time, I thought maybe I would want to start baking. I took a semi-professional class, and it just sparked this obsession. This was around the time when Trump was elected, and it was really stressful thinking about the environment, and it felt like nothing was protected anymore, especially if you are a naturalist, vegan or whatever.
I knew when starting this business that it would be vegan. I started out by doing this all out of my house and sold it to different coffee shops just to see if anyone liked what I was making. Usually, coffee shops will have a vegan brownie or doughnut, but I wanted there to be options for those who are vegan but also want something more substantial and veggie-forward.
It’s awesome to hear how grassroots the start of this was. On that note, you opened the doors to your business at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. What was that process like?
Well, to build this place, it took us two-and-a-half years to even open since the space that it is in was originally a machine shop. When you’re opening something new in the city, in a space that has never been a food place, there are a lot of hoops to go through. We got the call on May 28, 2020 from the city that we could finally open. We didn’t plan to open at the height of the pandemic — it was more like the universe decided for us to open.
That’s interesting, but obviously, it’s worked out. Why do you think that is?
On the worker side, and me being the baker every day, it was such a safe place to work since it was just me and my cousin working there in the beginning. For the customers, we would change our menu every day, really just MacGyvering it, and I think it gave people an opportunity to look forward to something. Business and creativity are such weird things to match, and if you were talking to a business person, they would say, “Oh, you have to set a consistent menu.” With COVID, no one could say anything, so it gave me a lot of freedom to be creative, and I actually cherish those beginning days of the business.
Obviously, the business started with a small crew, but now you have a sizeable staff. What was the process behind building your team?
We found that people just wanted a shelter during COVID, and in the beginning, it was hiring people who strictly had no experience in kitchens. It was way more creatively open, and I’m the kind of person who loves dreaming, so we want to highlight what people are good at. Now everyone has naturally fallen into their roles.
From what I understand, you have an eclectic mix of loyal celebrity customers as well. Are there any, in particular, you would like to shout out?
My favorite celebrity customer is Seal. I just made his birthday cake on Sunday. He is so supportive, hilarious and is always like, “How do you make it taste so good?” We were all pretty tripped out when he first came in, and now he comes in all the time. Kate Mara and Rooney Mara were some of my original regulars all the way back when I would make cakes out of my house. Lizzo is another customer we have delivered to many times. FINNEAS and his girlfriend are here a lot, too. Phoebe Bridgers walked in one time, and we’re obsessed with her. It’s one thing to be famous, but we really respect her art. It’s funny how our neighborhood Frogtown can attract so many cool people.
What kind of music do you like to play at the shop?
What does the future hold for the business, and are there any plans to expand?
We are opening a beer and wine bar called Night Bread. It will be like a little speakeasy behind the bakery. We saw an opportunity to potentially expand to dinner service, and now we’re doing it. We want to make it a very eclectic, art-focused, sexy beer and wine bar with an awesome patio. A second Just What I Kneaded location [is] opening soon in Los Feliz. We have all of our plans approved and just need to start building it.
I am so stoked for everything you are doing and hope you continue to keep winning.
If you’re motivated by wanting to impress and feed your community, then that’s it. This is what drives us.
This interview appeared in issue #404 (The Modern Icons Issue), available here.
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