In parking lots across the Triangle, you’ll find Peanut Dela Cruz warmly greeting customers. Some regulars have, by now, become friends; other shop customers are first-timers. All, however, receive beaming smiles and hugs as the Cary baker hands out bags of coffee cookies and Ube Latte buns from the trunk of her gray Hyundai.
Dela Cruz is the one-woman force behind Bad Oven, an “online micro-bakery” specializing in Filipino sweets that she founded in October 2020, just as restaurants were being devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, the small bakery has managed to thrive and even take on a minor cult appeal.
The Bad Oven system is simple: customers place orders online for weekly pickup at outdoor locations in Cary, Raleigh, and Durham. The routine of the model, it turns out, is exactly what customers have sought during the pandemic. The model also suits Dela Cruz’s needs. Scheduling around her full-time marketing job at an internet publishing company, she bakes limited quantities in her home kitchen, where she is unencumbered by some of the regulatory barriers to entry faced by large-scale food businesses.
And for Dela Cruz, who moved to the U.S. from the Philippines in 2017 and settled in North Carolina in 2019, Bad Oven has been a wonderful introduction to the Triangle.
“I had no idea what to expect from North Carolina,” Dela Cruz says. “The people that I’ve met so far, they’ve all been so welcoming. Like, I have not met a single asshole.”
Personal connection is central to the bakery’s appeal.
“People at that time were longing for human interaction,” says Dela Cruz, reflecting on the early pandemic days. She does her part to facilitate these connections using social media, which is where many customers initially discover Bad Oven. When customers make the leap from social media to in-person pickups, she encourages them to pose for photos and boomerangs when they pick up their orders; often, in a sort of chain reaction, the photos shared on Bad Oven’s Instagram page are reposted by bakery loyalists. These faces of the Bad Oven community have become integral to its success.
Bad Oven’s playful existence, in fact, can be attributed to Instagram. As a home baker sharing her failures and successes on her personal account, Dela Cruz was surprised when the popular local foodie Instagram account Cheerwine and Dine messaged asking to purchase baked goods. From there, the craze for her products spread by word of mouth. When That Vegetarian Couple, another local Instagram account, first tried her products, they waited until Dela Cruz had established a name and a logo, then posted to their wide audience.
In the early days, whenever Dela Cruz baked something that turned out less than perfect, she would jokingly blame the failure on her oven, as if it had a mind of its own. “Bad Oven,” she’d say as if chiding a dog, and thus the name came to be.
One Saturday in April, standing beside her trunk in a Starbucks parking lot in Cary, Dela Cruz chats with Megan Cataldi, a patron who worked at UPS when the two first met last year. Cataldi says that Dela Cruz was her favorite customer and that the baker often dropped off a Bad Oven shipment order with free samples in hand for the UPS team to try. Another customer arrives, and Dela Cruz retrieves a gift she’d brought for the man’s young daughter.
A Bad Oven customer does have to jump through some hoops, though, which Dela Cruz recognizes: first, they have to order on a Tuesday evening and pick up their order at a specified location, the following Saturday, within a 15-minute window. But she aims to make the experience, as well as the flavor, something that customers look forward to. She includes personalized notes with each order, often throwing in a free bun, or—on this particular Easter weekend—a plastic egg filled with candy.
The business, Dela Cruz recognizes with a laugh, is “definitely not scalable.” There is only so much time in the day, and Dela Cruz only has two hands. Bad Oven goods come in limited quantities and are in high demand. A seasoned regular knows to set an alarm and be at their computer when the clock strikes 8 on Tuesday night. It can take first-timers several weeks to learn the ropes, having repeatedly visited the shop website at 8:10 p.m. to find everything was already sold out.
The most beloved Bad Oven item is the Purple Bun. The bun, pandesal, is a yeasted and slightly sweet Filipino bread roll. Several years ago in the Philippines, a modernized version became hugely popular; it’s dough-flavored and filled with ube, a variety of purple yam. The unique flavor, as Dela Cruz describes it, has earthy notes of vanilla and taro.
The Purple Bun is so beloved at Bad Oven that Dela Cruz has made the bun into a character, creating a fully-fledged personality named “ponpon.”
Dela Cruz’s communications background is evident across Bad Oven’s online content, which is alive with lighthearted, eye-catching graphics. The coffee buns take on a personality of their own, adorably branded with a sad face.
For all its deliciousness, this micro-bakery is more than a bakery; it is a micro-community. No traditional food business brings people together such that individuals hang around parking lots chatting, swapping ramen recommendations, or offering to help change a flat tire.
“I just thought it would be a side hobby for me,” Dela Cruz reflects, as she pulls out of the parking lot after the last pickup of the day, “but it’s been amazing.”
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