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Sunday, June 4, 2023

Are You O’caKe? The Kiwi Baker Combining Mental Health Awareness With Baked Goods

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Cakes are a sign of a celebration but the act of baking and then sharing one can also be a damn good way to show someone you care during difficult times as well. Emma Clifton talks to Auckland baker Lauren Stewart on her experience with anxiety and how it lead to her new venture, Are You O’CaKe?

The hypothesis that baking is good for your mental health had already been around for a few years but the combination of a global pandemic, and country-wide lockdowns suddenly meant that around the world, the resurgence of banana bread and sourdough starters took on biblical proportions. The mindfulness of the actual act of baking, added to the camaraderie of either cooking with a friend or sharing your food – the term ‘breaking bread’ being an obvious winner here – meant that baking was already something that fell under the all-too-vague umbrella of ‘self-care’.

But – waffly words aside – there is something very satisfying about the sensual aspects of baking; the stirring, the kneading, the smells of the baking, the feel of warm cakes or cookies under your hands. And it’s also the kind of activity that keeps your hands occupied, meaning that the pressure is taken off a busy mind. The combination of all of these feel-good factors is behind the friendly and cleverly named ‘Are You O’CaKe?’ movement by Auckland baker Lauren Stewart.

“When I look back now to when I was young, there are so many moments I recall where I think ‘Oh, that was probably anxiety,’” she says, over Zoom from her home, surrounded by Floss Cakery kits. It was five years ago when Lauren’s mental health reached a crux after her mother, who had had several health issues over the years, required a liver transplant. “I was not doing well; I was listening to all the horrible thoughts in my brain and I remember lying in my bed, crying. My dad heard me and came in, and all I was saying was ‘I hate myself, I hate myself.’”

It was a moment when both of them realised that Lauren was struggling and it was while making dinner, later on in the week, when they were able to talk about stress and the different ways they handled it.  By the end of the chat, Lauren’s father suggested she seek professional help and she says she can still remember the “giant sigh of relief” that flooded her whole body. Since then, Lauren has found a therapist that she clicked with and has been going regularly for the past five years. “It has made a huge difference to my life,” she says.

After finishing a degree in hospitality, Lauren went to New York for a gap year, working in the restaurant/events sector. Upon returning home, she couldn’t find something that had the same excitement and creativity she’d found overseas, so eventually she bit the bullet and decided to start her own business, registering the name ‘Floss Cakery’ in 2017. Well aware of New Zealand’s ever-rising statistics in suicide and self-harm, Lauren decided she needed to do something to help. “I thought back to my dad helping through that conversation while we were cooking and all these different points came together.”

Her mum came up with the name ‘‘Are You O’CaKe’ and in March this year, Lauren launched ‘Are You O’CaKe’ nationwide; designing a package that combined a Floss cake kit with a conversation card, to help spark people to have those mental-health check-ins with their friends.

“When you know someone is struggling, it’s hard to bring it up in a way that doesn’t make it sound like you’re saying, ‘You’re acting crazy! Talk to me!’ The card is there to help you get them talking and help get some answers.”

“My whole motto around Floss Cakery was ‘making people smile, one cake at a time.’”

In the few months since she started ‘Are You O’CaKe’, Lauren has seen sales come in steadily – with word-of-mouth a powerful tool. “Everyone who buys one tells me their story, and it’s really nice to be connecting to the customers in that way. It’s so cool to be bringing people together on that front – it’s wonderful when people come to me and tell me their story, but then they take it to someone else and do it together.”

The first ‘Are You O’CaKe’ event was held in May this year, with 50 baking and mental-health enthusiasts turning up to watch Lauren bake and decorate cakes and cupcakes, plus have a self-compassion teacher lead the class in a self-compassion check-in and design their own self-care menus. “I wanted to make it a really open, cosy space to talk about how you feel.” There are plans for more events to be held around the country and Lauren is also starting an ‘Are You O’CaKe’ podcast to help broaden those conversations further.

Helping reduce the isolation that can come with mental distress is a key part of recovery and Lauren thinks the after-effects of last year and the lockdowns have helped create a more level playing field when it comes to discussing mental health. “Kiwis are such a ‘Yep, she’ll be right, it’s all good’ kind of people and he lockdowns definitely brought out the empathy in a lot of people. As horrible as they were, it has helped people who don’t go through [mental distress] to understand it a bit more.

“My whole motto around Floss Cakery was ‘making people smile, one cake at a time,’” she says. “I am so proud of what ‘Are You O’CaKe’ is becoming. We can help family and friends have conversations with each other that are going to make a difference.”

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