On Instagram, baker Ela Crawford, owner of Sugar Bakery, gives away all of her secrets. Her specialty is macarons, a French sandwich cookie composed of two meringues filled with ganache that is known to be especially finicky to make.

From her commercial kitchen and storefront inside the Capitola Mall, she shares her structural and aesthetic techniques with her more than 83,000 Instagram followers. With a swirl of a piping bag, Crawford fills her macarons with a homemade ganache and dots of jam; she offers tips on how to create the perfect macaron shell and sifts pink flurries of crushed macaron powder over the cookie’s domed top to create a velvety texture. She shares her triumphs, like how she repurposed a forgotten tray of macaron shells into fresh macarons by blending them with fresh ingredients, and her failures — we watch as a misplaced tray of finished cookies tips from the counter to the floor while a sound effect screams in the background.

At the end of a video, Crawford often turns to the camera to take a bite out of one of her pastel-colored cookies. With a knowing smile, she reveals how the delicate shell gives way to a soft, chewy interior and a luscious filling — a perfect macaron.

Since Crawford launched Sugar Bakery in 2020, she has become an expert in her field, making up to 6,000 macarons a month for commercial clients like New Leaf Community Markets and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Her online baking courses on how to make macarons and other desserts like cheesecake and cookies sell for as much as $99 per video. But before she started her baking career a little over three years ago, she had only opened an oven a handful of times. In fact, she had planned on becoming a housewife. It took a war, a pandemic and a wedding to change the course of her life.

  • Sugar Bakery co-owner Ela Crawford sprinkles crushed pistachios on macaron shells.
  • Colorful macaron shells at Sugar Bakery in Capitola
  • Finished macarons at Sugar Bakery in Capitola.

Crawford immigrated to Santa Cruz County from Ukraine in 2016, when she was 21. Two years earlier in 2014, a Russian bomb destroyed her family’s home of more than 40 years, where Crawford was living with her twin sister, mother and grandparents. They lost everything.

“We didn’t have any money, we didn’t have any clothes, nothing. It was very hard,” she says.

Her mother raised $6,000 so Crawford and her sister could come to the United States. They both got jobs at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and sent as much money as they could back to their family. “We worked just to provide for them. All these years before I opened the bakery, we sent every dollar to them, and they were able to buy new apartments,” says Crawford.

A few years later she met her future husband, Henry Crawford. They filed court documents to get married in January 2020, with the intention of having a wedding in the spring, but the onset of the pandemic postponed their plans. Later that year, their wedding venue canceled on them just six days before the wedding date, but they decided to try to make it happen anyway.

With the help of friends, the wedding came together within a week. Crawford spent five days cooking all of the food for their guests. The only thing they purchased was the cake — which, ironically, was terrible.

While on their honeymoon, the newlyweds found that they enjoyed the process of cooking for a wedding and discussed the idea of opening a catering business. Henry pointed out that if they did, one of them would need to know how to bake so they could make reliable desserts for their clients. He turned to her and told her, “You can bake.”

She didn’t believe him. Crawford had no experience, and didn’t even consider herself an artistic person. “I thought I was going to be a housewife raising kids. That was my goal,” she says. “We prayed and it kind of felt that God told us to do it. But I was scared. All my life I was taught that if you don’t know how to do something, don’t start.”

But Henry and Crawford’s sister were supportive and encouraged her to give it a try. After starting out with cupcakes, cakes and cheesecakes, she discovered that one of the most popular dessert items at the time was macarons — a famously difficult cookie to make. The outer cookies, or shells, are made from almond flour, sugar and egg whites. There is no leavener; the cookies get all of their lift from the eggs. A perfect macaron should have a domed top and a frilly base, or “foot.” It should crack on the outside but have a texture that’s chewy, almost nougat-like. But they can easily become unpleasantly brittle or hollow, causing the filling to squirt out the sides.

Crawford decided to switch tactics: “I said, OK, if I can do the hardest thing in the baking world, I can do anything.” She decided to focus solely on learning how to make macarons.

  • From left: Alla Popova, Ela Crawford and Henry Crawford.
  • Alla Popova, Ela Crawford's mother, immigrated from Ukraine four months ago and works Sugar Bakery.

She baked every day for three months before she finally made a batch correctly. In that time, she learned that the almond flour must have the right amount of moisture; that the egg whites need to have a certain amount of protein; and the correct texture of the powdered sugar.

“I am a person that if I start something, I need to finish it. I would cry on the floor every time they wouldn’t work,” she says. “But one day, they worked.”

While she was in the process of working on her recipe, she and her husband visited a local New Leaf and tried one of the macarons sold at the stores’ coffee shops. They weren’t impressed, and Henry later went back to see if the manager would be willing to try Ela’s macarons.

“He said, ‘My wife is a baker,’ but I wasn’t a baker yet — we didn’t have a business license. I was just baking at home,” says Ela Crawford. But the manager preferred her macarons and wanted to carry them at all six New Leaf Community Markets locations on the Central Coast. She had four months until New Leaf’s contract with the other macaron company expired to get all of her licensing together. She also had to learn how to scale up from making 20 to 30 cookies at a time to making 1,200 every week.

She decided she needed to quit her day job working as a server at a restaurant to focus on this opportunity and officially launch Sugar Bakery. It was a difficult decision because she was still sending a significant portion of her income to her family in Ukraine.

After Crawford secured a major client like New Leaf, local restaurants like Pono Hawaiian Grill in Santa Cruz and The Hideout in Aptos reached out to order her cheesecakes. Very quickly, Sugar Bakery was maxing out space at its commercial kitchen. A friend recommended the food court spaces in the Capitola Mall for their low rent and willingness to work with local vendors. The Crawfords moved into their own space and opened a storefront in September 2022.

In January, Ela Crawford decided to get serious about Sugar Bakery’s presence on social media. “I needed to grow it to sell courses for passive income, but for the first five months, I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I only had 4,000 followers and it wasn’t active.” One day, she saw another baker post videos showing a day in their life. She thought she could do that, too, but knew she was at square one again.

“It was so hard for me to record myself and my voice,” she says, referring to her slight Ukrainian accent when she speaks English. “I was scared to make a mistake. It would take me hours recording the first few videos. I was like, do I want to do that?” But the response was significant. One day, she had 5,000 followers. A few days later, she had 10,000. Soon after, people started asking for her recipes and saying they wanted to learn from her, so she began creating and selling recorded classes.

The passive income generated from her online presence also grew. In October, Crawford says she earned almost $4,000 via subscriptions to her Instagram account and purchases of her online courses.

Three months ago, her mother and grandmother moved to Santa Cruz from Ukraine. They sometimes help Crawford in the bakery, along with her mother-in-law and an employee. Now, she’s preparing to expand Sugar Bakery into its neighboring kiosk in the mall. “With five or six people working together, it’s really tight. We need more space,” she says. “We just rely on God and whatever He tells us to do.”

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Lily Belli is the food and drink correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Over the past 15 years since she made Santa Cruz her home, Lily has fallen deeply in love with its rich food culture, vibrant agriculture...