Like the friends in her Instagram news feed, Christin Lê responded to the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic by baking banana bread. But unlike those who made a loaf or two before moving on to the next distraction, Lê took her hobby to the next level, opening a functioning one-woman bakery that combines baked goods and charitable giving.
After her summer internship was canceled due to the pandemic, Lê, a sophomore public health major at Johns Hopkins, found herself with time on her hands and a kitchen stocked with baking supplies waiting to be used.
"For years I've dreamed of starting a bakery, but I've been dedicated to the pre-med track for even longer than that," she said. "I didn't see how those two ideas could connect with one another, but when my summer opened up, I realized I had an opportunity to bridge them."
Lê founded Lê Crumb Bakery, where she sells banana walnut bread of her own recipe and mochi beignets inspired by her favorite beignet stand near her mom's family home in Texas. Lê Crumb serves customers throughout the Orange County, California, area, which was hit hard during the early wave of the pandemic. With friends and family working as frontline health care workers, Lê said she saw the impact of the virus firsthand, and realized she wanted her bakery to do more than just sell baked goods to the community.
Lê decided to support Doctors Without Borders, the international aid group currently responding to the pandemic in more than 70 countries that lack robust national health care systems. Doctors Without Borders offers expertise in public health approaches, supports overstretched health facilities, and provides personal protective equipment for health care workers around the globe.
Lê Crumb Bakery donates 20% of each sale to Doctors Without Borders and their larger COVID-19 response efforts. Since June, Lê has raised more than $500 for the organization.
"This is something that resonates with me as a public health major," Lê said. "You get the satisfaction of sending an order out to a family, but it's something else to see that profit donated to people who are working so hard to keep everyone healthy and safe."
On light weeks, Lê makes about 10 to 15 batches of banana bread and beignets, but there have been times, she said, when demand was so great that she's had to bake straight on into the night, filling orders until 1 a.m.
While the kitchen aspects of the bakery came naturally, Lê said the real challenge and learning experience have been running a functioning business. For Lê Crumb's launch, Lê tapped her friends' expertise in logistics, graphics, and website design to formulate a working business plan before taking over all branding and management herself.
In May, she applied to Hopkins' Summer Experience Stimulus Plan program to help support the business. The program, hosted by JHU's Life Design Lab, provided funds for projects, internships, and businesses students undertook as a response to the disruptions of COVID-19. Lê was awarded a Remote Work Supply Fund, which she used to purchase a KitchenAid stand mixer, and a Design Your Experience Grant, which she used to research and select sustainable packaging for her products.
Lê Crumb may have started as a summer project, but Lê said she has no plans to slow down production now that the academic year is under way. She hopes to bring the bakery to Baltimore once in-person classes resume at Hopkins, and she is currently looking at ways she can integrate business management and the bakery into her future plans as a pre-med student.
"I've learned so much about cost-benefit analysis, design, sourcing, and distribution," Lê said. "These are skills that are going to stay with me. I've been so fortunate to have support from family, friends, and customers, and I want to make sure that I pass that forward and give back as much as I can."