Treat with care: For Skull & Cakebones owners, love is sweet
Yauss Berenji and Sascha Biesi are living their own fairy tale.
Long before they were business partners running a dessert company, or life partners co-parenting a daughter, Yauss Berenji and Sascha Biesi were best friends riding around Arlington listening to David Gray, each with a penny taped to the control panel of their car.
They went to the same high school and met through Biesi‘s sister, but graduated six years apart. Biesi followed her love of theater to New York and then St. Edward’s in Austin, but after hurting her back, she moved back to Arlington, where she and Berenji reconnected.
That summer they clicked, spending every day together, “driving around in her 4Runner, smoking cigarettes and buying fresh Krispy Kremes when the sign was lit,” Biesi says.
That was the summer they each wore the same watch and found those two pennies lying heads up and side by side on the sidewalk.
"You know, find a penny pick it up, all the day you have good luck," says Berenji, a graphic designer and teacher by trade who is a daughter of Persian immigrants.
The couple has had good luck. But it took awhile to get there.
Divergent paths become one again
After that carefree summer, their careers took them separate ways. Berenji left Arlington to study graphic design at Texas A&M and ended up graduating and teaching in Denton, and Biesi moved to England, where she met a man named Paul.
Berenji says that Biesi had always given her "those giggly feelings," but she wasn't sure if it was a romantic crush or platonic affection for her closest friend. In 2005, Biesi emailed Berenji to say that she was coming back to Texas, but she didn‘t mention that she’d gotten married and had a daughter named Ruby.
They set up a lunch date, and Biesi walked in with a 3-year-old. Berenji was surprised, to say the least, but she was thrilled to have her friend back home. She also was in a relationship and realized that she and Biesi would probably always stay just friends.
Biesi and Paul even double-dated with Berenji and her then-girlfriend. Berenji remembers Ruby joining all four of them for a trip to the State Fair. "She was so cute," Berenji says. "She looked like Shirley Temple."
Biesi and Berenji stayed in touch over the next four years, leading different lives in different cities, but in 2009, Biesi was in trouble. She was a young mom in Austin, with her bipolar disorder spiraling, and she was struggling to find her way.
Depression was consuming her. After numerous hospitalizations, she was on suicide watch for “forever” and eventually decided to get electroshock therapy, which required more than dozen treatments over a three-month period.
Berenji didn't know the extent of her friend's mental health crisis until, during one of her crises, Biesi checked into a hospital in Denton. "I saw the level of where that was at, and I thought, ‘My friend needs me.’”
Berenji started going to bipolar support groups to find healthy ways to support her friend, even though they still lived three hours apart.
Biesi’s then-husband was working and taking care of Ruby, so Berenji would take Biesi to her appointments, getting up at 3 a.m. and driving three hours to Austin. After the 30-minute appointment, Berenji then took her friend home so she could recuperate.
"She’d get bad headaches and sleep all day, so I'd put on a movie and make sure there was plenty of Odwalla and avocados," Berenji says.
The treatments continued for two months until Biesi‘s dad had an aneurysm in Arlington. She decided to stop the maintenance treatments to be with him in the weeks before he died. Berenji continued to be there, right by her side.
A new beginning
Between the electroshock therapy and losing her dad, everything started to change for Biesi.
Her marriage was coming to an end, and she had lost memories of her daughter‘s childhood. She couldn’t drive for six months after the treatments and would often forget where she was going. But after years of failed treatments, her mental health was starting to improve, and one thing became clear.
“Yauss was the only thing that made sense to me after I had shock treatments,” Biesi says.
The friendship bloomed into something else entirely. They loved each other as best friends, and now as partners.
"With all of this grief and pain swirling around us, I knew I couldn't come back to Austin," Biesi says, so she stayed with Berenji, but by the following summer, they were packing up to move — together — to Austin, to be closer to Ruby and her dad.
Berenji started teaching graphic and web design at the Art Institute in Round Rock, and they reentered Biesi’s life in Austin as a couple. Because Berenji was already part of Biesi‘s life, it was a seamless transition.
"We have a drawing that Ruby made when we got together," Biesi says. "Her kindergarten teacher said, ‘She'll define it herself,’ and sure enough, she drew a stick figure family with a mom, a stepmom and a daughter.”
Taking the sweet road
Biesi and Berenji were starting a new life in Austin, while Biesi was still recovering from the electroshock treatments.
"I couldn't remember two things together," she says.
Once Biesi started driving again, she often couldn't remember where she was going, so Berenji would stay on the phone with her until she got to her destination.
Cooking was one thing Biesi could do by herself, and she found that cooking through her grandmother's recipe box — and converting the recipes so that they were meat- and dairy-free — helped improve her cognition outside the kitchen, too.
Biesi started baking cupcakes for her daughter’s school fundraisers, and for Jester King's second anniversary party, the brewery asked her to make cupcakes that used their beer in the recipe.
Then Cuvee Coffee and Buddha's Brew asked her to made cupcakes with their beverages in them, too. "The light bulb clicked," Biesi says. "Farm-to-table was huge, but not in sweets."
Collaborating with other local businesses was how they could stand out in what they saw as a crowded cupcake market. They weren‘t sure what to do with the idea.
Berenji's dad had operated restaurants, which made her averse to the idea of starting a food business herself, but her mom saw an economic opportunity for her daughter.
"She kept pushing us and said, 'I'll give you the capital to start, so if it doesn't work, you didn't lose anything,'" Berenji says. "How am I supposed to say no to that?"
In 2012, they kicked around names for the company and came up with one that reflected their pixie and punk rock sensibilities: Skull & Cakebones.
Biesi started doing the baking in a commercial kitchen and Berenji continued to teach, scheduling Skull & Cakebones deliveries around her classes in Round Rock and then Texas State. They had a few accounts at Central Market, Whole Foods and Wheatsville, and in 2016, they added a storefront bakery on U.S. 290 east of Dripping Springs.
Then they entered H-E-B’s Quest for Texas Best contest and won the $25,000 grand prize. Their cupcakes and jarred layer cakes would be sold in more than 100 stores across the state within months.
Biesi moved from being head baker to head numbers-maker, who was in charge of figuring out how to manage the logistics of filling these large orders. "I had to learn how to drive a forklift," Berenji says.
Opening the business together tested the relationship, they say, but it also brought them together in ways they couldn't have expected.
"It’s so hard, you have to put boundaries down," Berenji says. They once had to set a hard "no work talk after 7 p.m." rule, but now they intuitively know when it's time to switch gears.
They also have grown the company to a size where they can work in different spaces. “At the end of the day, you can say, ‘How was your day?’ and not know the answer because you had spent all day together,” Biesi says.
“You learn to compartmentalize," she says. "And not take things personally," Berenji adds.
Berenji says she misses being in the classroom, but she feels like she is still fulfilling her mission of being a teacher. "I feel like every day is teaching, meeting companies that are smaller than us and asking us questions, talking to small businesses and sharing the mistakes we learned."
Ruby, now 18 and a senior in high school, works with them at the shop and is getting ready to move out after she graduates. They‘ve always lived close to her dad and had a flexible custody schedule. “She's never had to choose,” Biesi says.
As their daughter looks at life after graduation, her moms are starting to look at life as empty nesters, although life feels anything but empty. They recently started fostering cats and dogs, including one who just had puppies, and the wholesale side of Skull & Cakebones continues to grow as more people look for vegan sweet treats.
When they feel like the company is running them, instead of them running the company, they have learned to pause and reassess.
For example, they recently cut back the cafe hours to focus on production for grocery stores, which helps keep their work-life balance more reasonable. "We have to do what is manageable for us first,” Biesi says. “But it would be sad if (the store) went away. I have all these recipes in my head, and it’s a great way to show off what we can do. Cakes are nice, but sometimes it’s nice to have a sandwich.”
It’s a roller coaster they’ve been riding — a few weeks at a time, one treatment at a time, an hour at a time — for almost 20 years, but they aren't trying to plan out their next 20.
“Let's live in the moment and let’s figure out the next six months, and then the next six months," Berenji says. "We look at the future to determine what we do in the present.”
Taking off the mask
A few years ago, with Berenji’s support, Biesi made the decision to be more public about her struggles with mental health.
After an employee and friend of the family died by suicide, Berenji and Biesi started working with the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness to do outreach through classes and events, including the Depressed Cake Shop, a pop-up bake shop at bakeries across Austin each May.
“I spent every moment after shock treatment pretending that I was fine and that I remembered everything," Biesi says. "I did not want anyone to see any residual signs. It was the coat I snuggled myself into to pretend nothing happened."
Baking cupcakes and hiding behind normalcy "felt like I was doing penance over my illness," she says. She feared what people would think of the company if she missed a deadline or she made a mistake. "I didn’t want anyone to think less of Skull & Cakebones because of what I’d been through."
But survivorship is worth sharing.
Biesi says that hearing someone else drop the mask and tell an honest story about what they'd gone through to get where they are helped her when she was sick, and now she wants to do that for others.
"We argue a lot more than we ever did, but we are more committed more than we ever were before,“ Biesi says. ”We love each other more than ever.“
Overcoming personal challenges is what brought Biesi and Berenji together initially, but running a business has set their partnership in stone. "It's solidified that it's not going anywhere," Berenji says. "We're in it forever."