Still life with cookie
A little secret real estate agents have for selling a house is to have a batch of cookies baking in the oven when the potential buyer walks through your home. It’s a hard sell, that aroma of butter, sugar and eggs enveloping the kitchen, setting off visions dancing in our heads of a warm hearth, a full larder, a soft hug from grandma—who could resist? Many a Purchase and Sale agreement has been filled over a plate of just baked Sonja Henies.
Cookies are big business—we have the Dutch to thank for that. As 17th century settlers of New Amsterdam, the Dutch used to cook their “koekjes,” their “little cakes,” in outdoor ovens. One whiff of that irresistible aroma and Manhattanites were sold. Over the next 400 years, innovations in baking and packaging technologies positioned cookies to become a staple in most households. One estimate I read is that 90 million bags of chocolate chips are sold annually. The Girl Scout Cookie Program is a $750 million business. Mrs. “Debbi” Fields heads up a multinational cookie franchise.
Here in Massachusetts, individual cookie bakers mark their success in financial and in personal ways. “I think baking is a spiritual practice,” Carmela Coughlan of the tiny La Bella Dolce Bakery in Westford tells me. She calls it her passion, and her prayer—it’s a ritual she loves. “Ritual is very important,” she says. In her home kitchen, Carmela makes tender fig-filled cookies, and fresh pear/cranberry crostadas, and lots of other beautiful pastries and cookies. She uses seasonal ingredients from local farms and orchards. Getting her kitchen certified to bake and sell commercially wasn’t easy. “It was a lot of work to get a residential license to sell out of my home…but worth every minute of it.” The timing was right. Her youngest had just gone off to college, her kitchen needed some renovations anyway, and the flyers she had been distributing for a few years had finally begun to pay off. Word-of-mouth helped, and farmers markets, did too. Now, after six years she is where she wants to be. “I don’t want to get any bigger.”
But what if you do—when your product takes on a life of its own, out there in the crowded cookie space? How many cookies can you pump out with a 6-quart mixer and a sheet pan?
In 2008, when Lark Fine Foods’ managing partners, Mary Ann McCormick and daughter, Nicole Nordensved, began making cookies in their home kitchen in Essex, the deal was that when all of their baking equipment no longer fit in one closet it was time to move. It happened. Lark produces “cookies for grownups,” flavors of cookies made for a sophisticated, adult palate—like burnt sugar with fennel, or espresso chip, or salted rosemary. From a home kitchen with a 6-quart mixer and only enough pans to make one batch at a time, the company grew to its current size in commercial space, with an 80-quart mixer, 500 sheet pans, 10 employees including three bakers, and a driver. The cookies are sold to wholesale accounts nationally. “We did not set out to start a business,” explains Mary Ann. “We just thought we’d try selling this cookie [the Cha Cha, a spicy chocolate cookie] to one store. It really was a lark.” Thus the name of the company. The business grew in “baby steps.” But Mary Ann says even with the move to a larger space, business is such that “it’s not enough; we need to double our capacity.” One of the secrets to Lark’s success is the attention given to quality control. All the employees are responsible for quality control. “It’s actually fun,” she says. “The fun thing is that it’s very fast-paced. I’m amazed at how hard every single person here works.” Two of Lark’s products won gold medal Sofi awards in the 2012 National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) competition. A Sofi award is the top honor in recognition of the best in specialty foods and beverages.
Another successful cookie business that started on somewhat of a lark, is Fancypants Baking Company. Co-owner, Maura Duggan, grew up baking cookies with mom. “I thought that everybody baked cookies every day after school.” It never occurred to her “for one second to make it into a career.” In college her degree was in neuroscience. In 2004, she approached her husband with the idea. Justin Housman, now co-owner, was an elementary school teacher in Wellesley at the time. “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if we could bake cookies and sell them,” she asked? Maura says, “I didn’t have to twist his arm too hard.” They began making cookies in their licensed kitchen in their home in Boston. That first year, Maura did the baking and Justin decorated. After a year, the baking became full time and they moved the business to a commercial kitchen in East Walpole. In the world of baking, overwhelmingly dominated by women who often connect to it emotionally, Justin is the man. Maura says “he’s the taste buds behind the business.” The company’s main product is decorated cookies—cookies cut from in-house made custom cookie cutters, and decorated to suit a variety of occasions. “We sell hundreds of thousands of these.” The snowman cookie is their best seller. Maura describes it as, “winter and Christmas and Chanukah all rolled into one.” They recently added a new line of cookies called Crunch Cookies, undecorated, which come in flavors like double chocolate crunch and brown sugar oatmeal. All their cookies are 100% natural and nut-free and are sold online and at grocery stores and specialty food shops.
The story of Dancing Deer is the story of talent and smart business strategy. In 1994, Trish Karter joined her friend, baker Suzanne Lombardi, and began selling premium quality cookies to high-end coffee houses. “It was in a time when the bakery space was new—there were not that many cookie options,” Trish tells me. Suzanne did the baking, which she loved, and Trish managed the business end of things. “We had all the skill-sets needed between the two of us,” Trish says. They engaged in “guerrilla marketing,” competed for awards, targeted catalogues; and they were having fun. “We were successful because the product was great and we knew how to get it in front of people.” Their big break came when Bread & Circus (now known as Whole Foods) asked them to develop a holiday cookie. Suzanne offered the Molasses Clove. “We didn’t see it as a big deal, but it turned us into the growth vehicle that we are today. That cookie launched our brand. Today it’s the same cookie that we made 14 years ago.” From two convection ovens and a couple of sheet pans in 1994, Dancing Deer now operates out of a 50,000 square foot factory in Hyde Park, with a bank of commercial ovens that each bakes 80 sheet pans of cookies at a time. The company is proud of its employee recruitment and training methods, which offer employees opportunities for training and advancement—as well as stock options.
Starting a cookie business is relatively inexpensive and barrier free, which is why so many try and so many fail. Trish says that “there are so many great [cookie] recipes but so few successful cookie companies—it’s such a hard, hard business.” But still, starting up only requires some skill, which many of us learned as children from our mothers, (or sometimes not, as Karen Collins of Babycakes & Confections in Stow, MA tells me. Not a baker, her mom “was very adept at Chinese take-out,”); and a kitchen, which most of us have and which already contains a lot of what we need to commercialize.
Two local cookie makers who turned their hobbies into vital businesses are Susan Callahan, owner of Goodies Homemade, and Joanna Pagliaro, of Joanna’s New World Biscotti.
There’s an image Susan Callahan carries in her head. It’s 1987 and her three-year-old daughter Julie, with a Dutch-boy haircut, is standing on her Fisher Price chair trying to reach the kitchen counter. An apron is tied-up under her arms; mom is baking cookies. Susan says, "I had to do something with her [while her two younger brothers napped], and so we baked." When Julie went away to college she would ask mom to send “goodies.” Then she would ask mom to send goodies to her friends, too. Gradually, Susan realized she was providing a service kids in colleges could really use, and one their parents would appreciate. The business developed over the span of ten years. From her home kitchen, Susan moved to a church kitchen, then to a caterer's kitchen, and finally to her present commercial kitchen in Arlington. "Baking is quiet time for me—I get baking and I go into a different world." For the past three years, Goodies Homemade has been Susan’s full-time job. She makes those fat, chewy kinds of cookies you can sink your teeth into, like Oatmeal Cranberry and Chocolate Peanut Butter Munchies. Susan is also well-known for her beautiful packaging which can be customized and shipped anywhere. A challenge for her is to keep up momentum, to increase the "buzz" about her quality product. “It's hard to toot your own horn. I know there's so much more I should be doing but I have to just keep baking.”
"In the 90s when cookies started to become mainstream I felt compelled to elevate the quality of the biscotti I saw everywhere." Joanna Pagliaro of Joanna's New World Biscotti knew she was a born cookie maker by age four. Her mom was a passionate baker. As a child, Joanna was encouraged to try all kinds of foods. "It helped me develop a palate and helped me understand that flavor comes from all over the place." The increasingly popular biscotti was one cookie she felt she could improve, one she could “elevate to the pastry level.” Her goal was a medium-crunch biscotti which she tested at farmers markets. “Farmers markets really gave me the opportunity to start a business. The low barrier to entry allowed me to test the market.” She says the feedback was “phenomenal,” and encouraged her to continue making cookies and inventing interesting combinations of flavors. Joanna’s New World Biscotti is still just Joanna and her husband, making cookies in a caterer’s kitchen in Tyngsboro, and doing their own graphic design. But wholesale accounts are slowly increasing and she’s meeting her goals. “I want customers to be excited visually, and then blown away by the flavor."
Nina Fisichelli Gaffny is the third generation owner of Fisichelli’s Pastry Shop in Lawrence (of all the cookie makers I interviewed for this article, this is the only one that sells retail from a brick-and-mortar store). Nina just opened a much-anticipated second location in Andover. “These people act like they never ate sweets before!” she exclaims. There’s never been anything like it in this bustling, upscale town, and folks seem to love it. Nina has Italian pastry in her DNA. Her grandfather started the business in Lawrence in 1915, selling bread from a horse and buggy. Her father (who was a baker in the United States Navy and later worked at Modern Pastry in the North End) continued the business with his wife and only child, Nina. “As a baby, I took naps in a bread box in the bakery,” while her parents baked. In 1991, when her father decided to retire and close the business, “the Italian guilt kicked in.” Nina took over the business. She was 21, a graduate student in speech therapy, but felt a strong bond to the family business and its preservation. She left graduate school, and today, seemingly, has no regrets. “I feel I’m still using my creativity. I invent recipes when I’m sleeping.” Nina now runs both locations, with six employees, including Angie, who is 88 years young. Fisichelli’s specializes in those small, pressed, multi-colored Italian butter cookies—the kind you either hate or, like me, can’t get enough of. Everything is handmade in the Lawrence bakery. During the holidays, Nina’s kids and husband pitch in to help make the cookies, squeezing out stars and other shapes from a pastry bag. “They just squeeze, squeeze, squeeze…”
Karen Collins’ three kids spent a lot of time in a bakery, too. She named her business Babycakes after them. "They slept on top of bottle crates and would be covered with a thin film of flour dust.” Karen always loved baking. One of her first jobs was in a bakery in Burlington, Vermont—but as a dishwasher. When the pastry chef there quit, Karen got the job. After she married the bread baker, she went on to start Nashoba Brook Bakery in Concord where she was the pastry chef. In 2003, she left Nashoba, and in 2004 she started Babycakes & Confections, all on her own. Karen sells her cookies mostly through wholesale accounts. She built a commercial kitchen at the Minute Man Air Field in Stow, Massachusetts and says she has no desire for a brick-and-mortar business. She now has five people working for her. Her husband does the marketing. Karen tests out a cookie recipe four to five times before making it commercially available. As of this writing she was testing a new praline cookie, grinding toffee and tossing it into a shortbread cookie until it tastes just right. Her best seller is a lemon shortbread cookie with a citrus lemon glaze. But her favorite cookie to make is her linzer heart--a butter cookie base with almond meringue piped on the edges and raspberry jam filling the center. "It's time consuming but I love every part of making them."
So there you have it—cookie as still life. And in case I’ve gotten a little too serious, Fancypants’ Maura Duggan reminds me: “Let’s remember at the end of the day, it’s cookies. It’s very important, but it is cookies. They do make everyone smile.
Rosie DeQuattro is a regular contributor to Edible Boston. You can reach her at email@example.com or tweet her @rosiedequattro.
Babycakes & Confections 978.938.4911 babycakesandconfections.com
Dancing Deer 617-442-7300 dancingdeer.com
Fancypants Baking Company 508.660.1140 fancypantsbakery.com
Fisichelli’s Pastry Shop 55 Union Street, Lawrence 978.682.7774 fisichellispastryshop.com
Goodies Homemade 866.433.3757 goodieshomemade.com
Joanna’s New World Biscotti 978.944.1568
Lark Fine Foods 978.768.0012 larkfinefoods.com
La Bella Dolce Bakery firstname.lastname@example.org 978.692.4845 www.labelladolcebakery.com
Secrets to Making Great Cookies from Some Great Cookie Bakers
Mary Ann McCormick of Lark Fine Foods tells us to pay attention to mixing the dough—too much mixing will create too much air in the batter and will affect the texture of the cookie.
Joanne Pagliaro of Joanna’s New World Biscotti says to use the very best ingredients you can buy and “use imitation nothing!” She also offers the following advice about preventing over-browned (burnt) cookies, an irretrievable condition: Know your oven’s calibration. If over-browning is a problem, the oven might be running too hot.
Always use a light-colored metal baking sheet. Dark metal = more browning.
Using insulation makes one of the biggest differences in preventing over-baking. Use an insulated cookie sheet and parchment paper, although Joanna prefers reusable silicone baking sheets on light-metal pans.
Carmela Coughlan, of La Bella Dolce, says baking is a spiritual practice. “To make good cookies, be mindful of who you are baking for.”
Karen Collins, of Babycakes & Confections, says invest in a scale, and convert everything to weight. See how much ¼ cup weighs in order to duplicate the recipe exactly. People measure differently—you might be a “skinny measurer.” Karen herself tends to be a “heavy measurer,” so always weigh.
Susan Callahan, of Goodies Homemade, says always use butter, and be patient.