Cats Luck Vegan’s Michelle Mancuso: ‘Create the space you want to be in’

The Neptune City bakery has been steadily building a fan base of locals and pilgrims from around the state, of course because of the quality of the food, but also because Mancuso works her tail off.

In our conversation with Michelle Mancuso, owner and operator of Cats Luck Vegan Bakery in Neptune City, we cover her history with baking, veganism, the punk scene and morality; however, the one subject we didn’t really delve into are the items on her menu. In the few months since being introduced to Cats Luck Vegan, I’ve tried way more of their baked goods than I’d like to admit.. they’re all good. From hand pies (which look kinda like Pop Tarts, but holy hell are they way better) to crumb cake to black and white cookies, there hasn’t yet been a menu item I’m willing to pass on.

The sweet treats are practically irresistible, but upon visiting Cats Luck for this conversation with Michelle, I ordered one of her savory items: the original crunch wrap, which was outrageously good. Like, good to the point where I’m trying to get friends to surf closer to Neptune City now, so that I can get to Cats Luck faster once we’re off the water. To those of you who might be thinking, “Well, just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s good for you. A crunch wrap isn’t healthy food.” No shit. First of all, I encourage you to treat yourself once in a while, you sound like you need it. Second, I implore you to try a Cats Luck crunch wrap, and then eat the equivalent at Taco Bell or Chipotle, and tell me which one made you feel like junk after you ate it. Not only will the Cats Luck version sit easier in the stomach, but I’d bet it tastes better too.

Since opening almost a year ago (with a grand opening featuring a Brian Fallon performance), Cats Luck has been steadily building a fan base of locals and pilgrims from around the state, of course because of the quality of the food, but also because Mancuso works her tail off. The work pays off in Mancuso getting to live her dream, while also helping grow Neptune City into a place more people feel welcome.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

NJ Indy: So, Liz Parsons (Big Nothing), actually told us about you a while ago and from what she described, you two used to run into each other a lot at punk shows and you’d both have your vegan baked goods in tow. Oddly enough, that’s exactly how I first met you: running the Cats Luck table at a punk show held by Light Brigade Collective in Asbury Park. How long have you been bringing your baked goods to shows?

Michelle Mancuso: Hmm, probably since I was 21; so, like, the past 10 years. I used to bring stuff to Meatlocker [Montclair] shows all the time. Any shows I was playing at, our merch table would have treats on it. Then I started really doing it more often at Warren American Legion [Somerset County] shows; I did a big bake sale at the Drop Dead show there back in 2015 I believe.

NJI: You opened Cats Luck not too long after your move down to Monmouth County [from Maplewood two and a half years ago]. Were you baking elsewhere during the interim (start of the pandemic)?

MM: When I originally came down here, I couldn’t get a job because it was winter in a beach town; no one is hiring, you know? So I started baking out of our house and doing cake orders for people who knew that I managed a bakery for years before. After like two weeks, a friend of mine through music, the drummer for Ides, said, “Yo, my friend owns a restaurant in Asbury called Sami’s Street Food and he’s looking for a baker.” So, I’m thinking I’m going in for a job interview when in reality he was just looking to rent me his kitchen… which was sick. The only trade-off was that whatever extras we had from that day’s baking, I agreed to fill up his bakery case with. It was the best barter system ever. That was like mid-January 2020; then the pandemic happened and I started doing treat deliveries around Monmouth County. I’d go as far north as Long Branch, then all the way down to Point [Pleasant] and as far out as Millstone. We would just drive for around four hours every other day. 

NJI: So how did you ultimately end up at this location?

MM: Well, I did that [used the kitchen space at Sami’s] for almost a year and a half until my friend who lives next-door [to Cats Luck’s current location] mentioned this place was for rent. I came to check it out and there was this kitchen hood system installed already for an oven setup—which costs like 20 grand or more with the roof fan and everything. The cost of rent was perfect so it was basically a no-brainer.

NJI: Did you attend culinary school or take classes at VoTec at all before getting into baking?

MM: No, I started with bake sales at shows, and then my step-sister worked at a bakery that I then ended up working at for seven years, three of them as a manager. They needed a baker and I was like, “Well, I don’t know. I only know vegan baking, but, OK.” I made a collage of all of the pictures of things that I had made to show them, which when I look back at them now, they look terrible! I gave that to the owner, gave him some cupcakes to try, and the next day he called and said, “Yeah, we wanna offer some vegan stuff, but I’m going to teach you the regular stuff, too.” So he taught me traditional baking and I just applied all of that knowledge to the vegan stuff I made. It was a cupcake place, Cupcake Corral. It was country-western themed; the cupcakes were named after country-western singers. Then they changed the name to Cedar Ridge a year into me working there and brought in breakfast and lunch items. By the time that I left in 2019, I made the whole bakery case vegan, half the menu was vegan; and then I left and they added meat back to the menu and six months later they went under. But yeah, I learned everything I knew from the owner, Joe, who passed away in 2017, I believe. 

NJI: How long have you been a vegan for?

MM: 11 years.

NJI: Well done! I think I’ve been plant-based for two whole months now, haha. Well, that’s not true, I’m probably at 90% plant-based, with that 10% reserved for pizza/pasta—a statement that I’m sure will piss off all of my militant vegan/meat-eater friends equally. 

MM: I don’t believe in being a vegan elitist; I think anyone doing anything and trying is great. Granted, I don’t love people that are like, “How do you not eat bacon?! I love bacon!” You know, just needing to shit-talk me because of their meat-eating habits. But if you’re a vegetarian or just don’t eat certain animal products, I think that’s great. It’s also unrealistic to think that everyone can be vegan. There are a lot of food issues or sensitivities, eating disorders, general health things that I don’t know anything about and, as accessible as [veganism] is now, it’s not accessible to everyone. If you don’t have your own kitchen, it’s not exactly cheap and easy to be vegan.

I’m not one to shit-talk people if they are vegetarian or whatever; I think that is a complete deterrent for anyone to try anything. No one is going to go vegan because you’re screaming at them. There’s always going to be a way you can appeal to someone’s sensibilities about anything: whether someone cares more about their health, or the environment, or the fact that they love animals, or maybe people just hate how the government subsidizes meat and dairy and won’t let us have cheap vegetables. If you hate the government, then you probably shouldn’t eat the cheap food that they’re shoving down your throat to make you sick, right? 

NJI: So how have you been able to appeal to the local community and the larger Monmouth county area?

MM: You have to appeal to people where they’re at and think about what would make them be interested in veganism at all. I’d argue that most of my customers here probably aren’t vegan; they’re vegan-curious people who want to try something beyond a smoothie and a rice bowl. So, they come here, where they can get a crunch-wrap or a breakfast burrito, things that are more recognizable and not insanely priced. I really try [to be as reasonable with pricing as I can]. We pay our employees a living wage and we give back as much as we can to the community, which is something that’s really hard to do in the first year of a business; but if I can incorporate everything I love, from baking and being in the punk scene, and create the space that I want to be in, then hopefully the right people will be attracted to it. I definitely just try to make things familiar, accessible and not so wildly priced that it would deter someone from trying it. That’s sort of the name of the game at this point. 

NJI: Your approach, the positivity, it’s very much congruent with that of the scene in this area; it’s so much more open or welcoming than other places/groups I’ve been around that are hardline in an overtly aggressive, exclusionary way. To each their own, but I’ve come to really appreciate the greater Asbury Park/shore scene.

MM: Well some people definitely think we are hardline; they do not like what we are putting down! But we don’t need to appeal to those people. As far as us taking a political stance, people have actually written reviews about us saying like, “Just letting you know, in case you don’t want to be in a place that shoves their beliefs down your throat, don’t come here.” I’m not shoving my beliefs down anyone’s throat! I’m making it a point to be like, “We like gay people, we believe Black lives matter, we believe in [body positivity].” Those are the beliefs that people have literally pointed out in reviews and I’m like, “Are you kidding me?!” This business is my whole life, and again, because I come from punk, I’m never going to shut up about what I think. I care about people and human rights and it all comes from a compassionate place, not from hatred… I’d rather throw all of my fucking money away, burn it all, than pretend to not care about things in order to get money from people who genuinely hate people on our staff or friends of ours that are trans. I don’t need their money.

NJI: Thoughts on Cats Luck’s first year in business?

MM: This is not easy. I can see how a lot of people fail at this. When I hear, “I wanna open a bakery!” It’s hard to keep from laughing. This is the most exhausting, labor-intensive, soul-crushing experience of my life… and, yet, I suddenly wake up every morning really stoked to do it again. I’m surrounded by people I like and I don’t want to work for anyone else ever again in my life.

NJI: Anything upcoming to promote? Any events in the works?

MM: Right now I’m really figuring out what our daily output needs to be so I can organize more events and pop-ups. We have a clothing swap on [May 22nd] and I plan on doing more stuff like that. I wanna utilize this outdoor space more, still have more vendors inside and open up more shelf space for people, local artists to sell stuff; but again, all of that sort of requires me to have a little time out of the kitchen so I can work on it without being super burnt out when i get home.

Cats Luck x Steady Hand Clothing Swap, Sunday, May 22nd 11 a.m.-3 p.m. For all things Cats Luck Vegan, including daily menu updates/announcements: Instagram Website.