How a Rising Hollywood Producer Found Sweet Success Baking Cakes
When pulling film and TV projects out of her bag of tricks grew stale, Lisa Olin, the onetime executive producer of 'Roswell' and other shows, treated herself (and Los Angeles) to Cake Monkey: "I took my producing skills and produced a bakery."
Lisa Olin's breaking point came after a deal breaker.
It was 2006, and Olin, then an independent producer partnered with Graham Ludlow (The Condemned), was in the final stages of negotiating a deal with Lifetime on a book adaptation. The network wanted a different writer, and the pair scrambled — only to see it all go south. "They just changed their mind," recalls Olin, who was then juggling about 10 independent projects. "I got tired of being a carpetbagger. You think you have the greatest thing on Earth, and they've heard 20 pitches that day that sound just like it. You feel so defeated."
Olin knew the time had come, at age 43, to walk away from Hollywood. "I always wanted to be a producer. I moved out here, worked hard and made it happen," says the native New Yorker. After two decades of working in L.A., she had assisted Wayne's World producer Hawk Koch ("Whatever needed to be done, she would get done," says Koch), served as director of development to uber-producer Jerry Weintraub, amassed executive producer credits on The WB/UPN's Roswell and worked alongside producing partner and Star Trek: The Next Generation star Jonathan Frakes at their Paramount-based company, Goepp Circle. With a financial planner husband, Jeremiah Williamson, at home and no kids, Olin also dabbled in her other passion. "I love baked goods, and I'd drive anywhere in the city to find something I had read about," she laughs. The lightbulb moment came while walking her dog, Tug: "I was trying to pull him, and I said, 'Come here, baby cakes.' " she recalls. "Cupcakes are everywhere, but no one was making mini layer cakes. I knew it could be a thing."
Olin had one major problem: She wasn't a baker. "I took my producing skills and produced a bakery," she says of her vision to offer upscale versions of such cheap treats as Ding Dongs, Pop-Tarts, Ring Dings and Yodels. She penned a business plan and put an ad on Craigslist in 2007. It read: "Must love cake." To Olin's surprise, pastry chef Elizabeth Belkind, who trained at former industry hotspot Campanile, replied. Together, they worked out of Olin's Laurel Canyon kitchen, mostly for charity events, until a Daily Candy feature on what would become Cake Monkey’s signature offering — the Cakewich, a decadent cake sandwich now made in four flavors (including a wildly popular gluten-free version) — mushroomed their business.
The Cakewiches became a verifiable phenomenon with features in local and national press including Bon Appetit and Food & Wine, and a designation from L.A. Weekly as the "best reason to skip the designer cupcake." Wholesale partnerships with Umami Burger, Intelligentsia and Williams-Sonoma followed, as Will Smith, Amy Adams and Jennifer Garner became fans. (Garner donated wood from her kitchen to the store, and it became a counter for customers.) By 2012, Cake Monkey had moved to a 6,000-square-foot production kitchen in North Hollywood; in the fall of 2015, a storefront opened on Beverly Boulevard across from CBS Studios. "That was always the goal," says Olin, now 53, of her now-profitable business, adding that more locations and a lifestyle brand with cake mixes and kitchen accessories are in the pipeline.
"I couldn't believe we had gone from Lisa's tiny home kitchen to this ample, shiny, well-equipped space in such a short time," says Belkind, who adds that their partnership works so well because they trust each other and their respective "outsider's" perspectives. "It meant we were doing something very well, in spite of all our trials and tribulations. And, it was the move into this facility that sparked what is now almost a decade of continuous growth for us."
Olin may be 10 years deep into her sweet career, but there are some entertainment industry ingredients that she misses the taste of. "I love the campus feeling of having worked on two different lots, Paramount and Warner Bros. It's creative and fun and I miss the camaraderie," admits Olin, who is proud of her two major executive producer credits on the beloved sci-fi series Roswell and the TV movie Dying to Live. "I don’t miss the knocking on doors, and not knowing where the next paycheck is coming from. It's anxiety-ridden to live that way."
Still, she loves her Hollywood past even if she doesn't need to search very far to find a reason to smile today: "I'm passionate now about our Cake Monkey customers. When you see how happy cake makes people, it's worth it."
This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.