Go into Scott “Otto” McDonough’s bakery on a given day, and you’ll find a half a dozen flavors of cheesecake, baked in a Sears home oven, sold by the slice for cash only and rung up on an old wooden register that’s hand-painted red with a yellow lightning bolt.
Otto Cake is a low-tech, do-it-yourself throwback to an era before words like “artisanal” and “locally sourced” became marketing catchphrases and “cool hunters” from companies like Coke and Pepsi were on the constant prowl for funky brands eager to sell out.
McDonough said he’s been approached by investors offering to help him expand.
“But,” he said, “they realize I’m just not interested.”
McDonough’s story is the subject of a documentary film, “Ottomaticake,” which is screening this weekend at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre. Like Otto Cake, the film has a decidedly DIY feel. The filmmaker, Gemma Cubero Del Barrio, made it for less than $10,000, shooting it herself and putting it together with the help of an editor, Kyung Lee.
The movie premiered at the Hawaii International Film Festival in 2017, and Cubero Del Barrio, who lives in Kailua, said she has submitted it to other festivals in the U.S. and Spain. Cubero Del Barrio’s other films have explored subjects like female matadors in Spain. She said she made “Ottomaticake” because she found McDonough to be an engaging character with a universal story about creativity, perseverance and individuality.
“I knew he was choosing to be happy with the things he does,” said Cubero Del Barrio, who is now working on a documentary about same sex tango dancers in Buenos Aires, Berlin and New York.
Much of McDonough’s story is well-known to local foodies. When it opened on Smith Street in Chinatown in 2009, Otto Cakes bakery was in the early wave of hip eateries moving into a neighborhood long associated with Honolulu’s underbelly.
When McDonough stood up to the thugs and drug dealers on his block, the thugs pushed back. The police weren’t much help. And after being repeatedly threatened and harassed, McDonough left and eventually moved to Kaimuki.
All this is documented in the film, which has footage of apparent drug deals taking place in front of the bakery, and, in one sobering scene, a burly man lifting his T-shirt to show off a handgun tucked into his waistband. The police addressing merchants’ concerns at a neighborhood meeting say there’s not much they can do.
What’s less well known are aspects of McDonough’s character that Cubero Del Barrio weaves together in the film: his roller skating, playing bass in punk rock bands and ability to run a small business even though he cannot do complex math and is essentially illiterate. Above all, what comes through is McDonough’s creative spirit and grit. If the recipe for punk rock is three chords and a lot of spirit, then Otto Cake is the punk rock of baking, churning out desserts with a handful of ingredients and a lot of soul.
The notion of the DIY, punk rocker scratching out an independent living is something of a cultural archetype rooted in the 1980s and ‘90s, says Rob Walker, a business journalist who writes about branding and culture.
While hip hop artists like Sean “Puffy” Combs might look to build brands like Sean John, with wide distribution in department stores, and the business media tend to idolize the businesses that can land venture capital to scale up, Walker said some entrepreneurs just want to make a living without working for The Man.
The small businesses tend to be viewed as “artists” while the term “entrepreneur” goes to the big shots, Walker said. But he said the line between entrepreneur and artist isn’t so clear.
Otto Cake “might seem punk rock,” Walker said. “But it’s very traditionally American in a way.”
“I’m definitely an artist,” he says.
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