Koreatown bakery Harucake is headquarters for the viral Korean minimalist cake trend in L.A.

Ellie You spent years dreaming up the Harucake universe, down to the color of the walls — the same soft faint yellow as butter that has been creamed for hours. The bakery walls were painted three times to get the color exactly right.

You’s vision for her Koreatown bakery was so clear that she didn’t need to hire an architect. She was meticulous about what she wanted: the chic, large glass front doors, a photo booth near the entrance that prints customers’ happy images on stark white receipt paper, and a pastry case at the angular counter displaying her minimalist cakes as if they were jewels.

Baker Ellie You opened Harucake in the summer, when a friend posted a video of her minimalist cakes to Tik Tok. Within days, the Koreatown bakery was a viral sensation.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

On weekends, crowds might spend two hours waiting in line at Harucake, located in a strip mall at the corner of 6th and Kenmore streets. (Weekdays are a bit easier to navigate, but the bakery typically sells out every day.) According to You, the bakery is an “accidental” TikTok sensation — though one could argue the aesthetics of the brand have always primed it for social media success.

When she opened in August, a friend of You’s posted a video of her cakes to TikTok, and they watched the numbers rapidly climb. Within days, You’s nascent bricks-and-mortar business was a viral sensation.

It’s not surprising that customers are lining up for You’s cakes in flavors such as Yogurt Green Grape, Strawberry Milk Cream and Lotus Mocha. You is a master of the Korean minimalist cake-decorating style popularized by bakeries throughout Korea that have persistently flooded Instagram over the last couple of years.

The cakes are a celebration of pastel color ways, cursive writing and decorative elements like tiny hearts, mini fruits or animals, or small flowers with lots of negative space between each one. There is often a pop of something playful and childlike like a smiley face, or Harucake’s omnipresent dog-like mascot OO-U (pronounced oo-you), which means “milk” in Korean; OO-U is actually a cookie that loves the milk cream frosting for the cakes so much that he is covered in it.

Made from layers of fluffy genoise sponge and frosted with airy milk cream, the cakes hit that “not too sweet” sugar level deeply prized when it comes to Asian baked goods. You sells her cakes by the slice, by the standard full cake, and also as “lunch box” or “bento cakes,” another popular trend that took off during the pandemic of creating mini cakes that are essentially meant for one to two people.

Decorated mini bento cakes in a case at Harucake.

“Bento cakes” are mini cakes for one or two people.

She might be surprised by the viral success of her bakery, which You started out of her home in 2019, but everything about Harucake is intentional. Raised in Korea before relocating to the States to finish her education, You first pursued a law degree, in an effort to please her parents, before pivoting to design school, even though she always loved baking. At 29, miserable in her graphic design job, she decided to quit and work in a bakery part time as she set about dreaming up what would eventually become Harucake, and a fulfillment of her childhood dream.

With Harucake, You highlights and celebrates the Korean flavors she was raised on. “My goal is to make Americans fall in love with Korean cakes,” You says. While the flavors that are available in the glass pastry case always rotate, they include options like Green Grape Yogurt, which features layers of vanilla sponge, layered with a tangy lemon yogurt cream and sliced fresh green grapes; Matcha Strawberry, which has striking layers of green matcha sponge, pure milk cream, matcha cream and fresh strawberries; and Mugwort Injeolmi, which You says is the most popular flavor and her personal favorite. The cake is made with layers of sponge flavored with mugwort, an aromatic green plant used frequently in Korean cooking, stuffed with plenty of injeolmi — or roasted soybean powder — cream and topped with a housemade injeolmi crumble.

The soosoo corn latte at Harucake.

The soosoo corn latte at Harucake.

Harucake's cake display case.

Harucake’s cake display case.

An array of layered cakes at Harucake.

Made from layers of fluffy genoise sponge and frosted with airy milk cream, the cakes hit that “not too sweet” sugar level and come in flavors such as Yogurt Green Grape and Strawberry Milk Cream.

The cakes at Harucake might be minimalist in nature, but they are not minimalist in price point, with slices going for around $15, standard full cakes retailing for $70, and lunchbox cakes retailing for $30. “It’s the biggest complaint we get,” You says of the price point. “But we only use the best ingredients.” Even though the bakery now has a staff of 15, she still personally shops for the organic dairy they use and spends extra money on a super fine flour that helps create the texture she loves.

Still, the prices have not stopped the crowd, and Harucake, which You says means “from the heart,” sells over 1,000 cakes a month. They could sell more, but scaling up has been a slow process. The morning team currently bakes the cakes fresh, every single day. Even if it means they run out in the afternoon, You doesn’t want to compromise on quality.

More than six months in, You still considers Harucake to be in “soft open.” She is meticulous about the tiniest of details, from how you are greeted (with a smile and an explanation of each cake flavor) to what temperature the cakes are served at (they should always be slightly chilled). You also still insists on hand lettering each cake herself.

Ellie You, owner of Harucake, decorates a cake at her shop.

Ellie You decorates a cake at her shop Harucake. “I want to make sure we nail every part of the bakery experience,” she says.

“I want to make sure we nail every part of the bakery experience.” To ensure this, You works 16-hour days at the bakery, and then manages the bakery’s social media when she gets home.

The Korean minimalist cake trend has jumped beyond Korean bakers, and to bakers of Asian heritage at large — especially in Los Angeles. Domi, a pop-up bakery owned by pastry chefs Evelyn Ling and Joe Cheng Reed, also make charming minimalist bento cakes in Asian-inspired flavors, something they added to their menu during the pandemic.

“My sister called me and begged for me to make them so she could gift them to her friends,” says Ling, who is Chinese American. The small cakes, decorated in the minimalist style, quickly took off as celebrations also became smaller. Kylie Miyamoto, the Japanese American baker who opened the Tustin-based online cake shop Kymoto Co. in 2021, says that this style of cake remains incredibly popular — she still sells around 40 cakes a week.

None of the bakeries have a plan to stop making these particular cakes any time soon. Celebrations might be larger again, but this style of cake is fully in demand. Ling says customers buy them to give away as presents, or as smash cakes for babies’ birthdays. Customers also continue to find these pastel color ways “uplifting,” says Miyamoto. “As a cake artist, I strive to create edible works of art that bring joy.”

Writer Khushbu Shah is the former restaurant editor at Food & Wine and the author of the forthcoming book “Amrikan: 125 recipes from the Indian American Diaspora” (W.W. Norton).

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