Eight months into the pandemic — following citywide shutdowns, labor shortages, supply chain issues, and a job loss — it was finally opening day for Elise Thomas’ brick and mortar bakery, the Cookie Co., located in Redlands, California.
The fact that she and her husband’s checking account was now overdrawn by $450 only concerned Thomas a little. All she needed to do was sell $500 worth of cookies that day, she told herself. If Thomas had learned anything during the past year, it was that people not only wanted a product made from quality ingredients, but they also needed a little bit of joy — the kind that comes from sharing a batch of homemade cookies. There was a hole in the market, and she knew that the bakery she had started in her home kitchen during a pandemic could fill it.
“Before starting this business, I expressed to my husband that something was missing in the market. We live in a time period where a lot of people don’t have time to bake, but I think that baking is a great way to show people love,” Thomas told the California Business Journal.
Thomas points to her own childhood where her community service oriented-mother would often bake homemade cookies, and then the two of them would take the treats to someone going through a difficult period, or conversely, to someone having a day that needed to be celebrated.
“I felt like, making it possible for people to have fresh baked cookies that are gourmet and use quality ingredients, like your grandma would make, that this is a way that we could ease someone’s burden,” she says. “And to make it convenient, people could just pick up a box and then take them to a baby shower, or a kid’s graduation, or to a friend who’s going through cancer, or to someone who recently had a miscarriage, for example.”
Thomas’ hunch about the hole in the market was reality. According to the market research group, Packaged Facts, food gift sales reached $33 billion in 2021. In Salsify’s 2021 consumer research study, “40 percent of respondents said the most important factor is high-quality ingredients, materials and craftsmanship.”
While many bakery chains have lengthy and dubious cookie ingredient lists — partially hydrogenated soybean oil, non-sustainably sourced palm oil, or preservatives that can turn into carcinogenic agents, for instance — Cookie Co.’s ingredient lists are short and sweet. In each of their 80-plus, proprietary cookie recipes, they only use real eggs, butter, cane sugar, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, flour, and vanilla.
Even though using oil, corn syrup, or beet sugar could certainly help them cut costs and save time, it’s something on which Thomas refuses to compromise. Her staff cracks the eggs themselves, which is unheard of these days. Most companies purchase giant vats of prepared yolks and egg whites or egg substitutes.
When Thomas was doing market research, she taste tested other cookie companies’ products, and often noticed a lack of high quality ingredients.
“They looked good, but they didn’t taste good, and I could tell they were mass producing. They were cutting corners; so the taste wasn’t there. There are a lot of things that people can do to get their costs down. We don’t do any of that,” she says. “I want to make sure that we are producing good quality gourmet cookies that taste like your grandma’s cookie, and that is something that we will always continue to do.”
Cookie Co.’s signature cookies are oversized and available to purchase individually or in boxes of four. They are a special treat, rather than a large quantity indulgence that might lend itself to mindlessly overeating. Thomas is a marathon runner and health conscious person, but doesn’t feel she has to cut out sweets and desserts. She does, however, want to know where everything she eats is coming from.
“I love to run. I try to be healthy, obviously. But if I’m going to indulge, I’m going to make sure that it’s something my body can process normally. That’s really what we strive to do, and what we will always be aligned with: good quality ingredients. And I think that’s what really sets us apart. It also just tastes better.”
In her college and young mom years, Thomas continued her mother’s tradition by becoming that person who always showed up with a plate of cookies. The process of coming up with new recipes and baking the cookies was both therapeutic and fuel for her creative side.
“Every time I went somewhere, people would say, ‘Did you bring the cookies?’” she says with a laugh. “For years, people had been telling me that I needed to open up a cookie shop because my cookies were amazing.”
She had thought about opening up her own bakery but the timing was never right. In 2019, when her youngest son was old enough for daycare, she began to reconsider the idea.
“I honestly just had a gut feeling. I felt that — I’m religious — God kind of was like, ‘Hey, now’s the time to do it.’”
Her family shifted priorities and they started making plans. They found a location, hired an architect, submitted plans to the city, and started meeting with contractors. The Thomas’ hoped to open in early 2020.
“Obviously, we didn’t know that a pandemic was going to happen,” Thomas says.
Always a positive thinker, she applied for a cottage permit and decided to start making cookies from home, mostly for practice, but also to start getting the word out via social media. While her husband did demo work at their brick-and-mortar location, Thomas taught her kids during the day, and in the afternoon and evenings, baked cookies in her own oven. She would take orders via Instagram, box them up, write the customer’s name on the box, and leave the box on a table outside her garage for people to pick up.
“What started as one or two boxes quickly turned into 250 boxes a week at home. In my little oven. By myself,” she laughs. “It was crazy how fast it happened too. One week I was like, ‘Oh, I’m selling cookies from my house now,’ and then all of a sudden, word caught on, and everyone was coming to get their box of cookies to get them through the pandemic.”
Within weeks, she was baking 1,000 cookies a week, eight at a time, and staying up until 4 a.m. to get everything done. Some people were even driving in from other towns just to get a box of her four gourmet cookies. There was always chocolate chip, and then she rotated in different types of cookies, like the Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Twisted Rolo, Scotcharoo, or Brownie Sundae.
“Everyone wanted to try the latest flavor. I even had to start assigning days because there was so many people who wanted them, and I couldn’t make enough every day. It really turned into like this thing which I wasn’t expecting.”
The experience also proved to her what she had known all along. A box of special, carefully crafted cookies could be a bright spot, as well as something that provided a sense of normalcy during a tough time.
“We were in a time period in our country where people didn’t know what was going on, and they were like, ‘Well, at least we can go pick up these cookies, and have a little outing, and come home and share them with our families.’ And hopefully, we also provided them with a little bit of joy during that time,’’ Thomas says. “Personally, it provided me with a lot of peace, knowing that I could help people. It definitely helped me feel connected to our community and other people at a time when we weren’t even supposed to be talking closer than six feet apart.”
But back to that opening day: With a negative checking account and another mouth to feed from a surprise pandemic pregnancy, failure was not an option. Thomas’ husband assured her that he could always revamp his college days’ door-to-door home alarm system sales career, and sell the cookies that way if necessary. But it was definitely not necessary.
“Before we even opened the doors, there was a line forming outside,” Thomas says. “I was not expecting that. In my mind, I was going to be opening this small town bakery, where it would just be me baking and serving the cookies. But I had to call my dad, who came down, put on a shirt, and started serving. I called my best friend and was like, ‘Can you come down and help me?’ and she came down, put on a shirt, and started boxing cookies.’”
Even after their grand opening, sales soared. “Within a day, I looked at my husband and said, ‘I think you’re going to have to be full time Cookie Co. now,’” Thomas laughs.
Her tenacity and ability to pivot earned Thomas a 2022 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year nomination. And now, after only two years of being in business, Cookie Co. is slated to open 25 franchises across the country by the end of 2022.
Thomas takes her platform, which includes 25,000 plus Instagram followers, and its ability to teach people how to contribute to their own communities, seriously. She cites one instance where she and her team were able to provide Christmas gifts for a Redlands family within minutes, all via social media. Thomas says that most people genuinely want to help others, but don’t always know how.
“When you have a platform where you can do that, that is part of your responsibility. I feel like that’s part of my responsibility, to show people how to be involved in the community and help others.”
Thomas and her husband are hoping to open 500 Cookie Co. franchises over the next five years, all with these same values of supporting the community, providing others a little bit of joy, and never compromising on high quality ingredients.
“I was talking with my husband and we were saying that it would be fun one day in a decade to take a road trip and visit all the Cookie Co.’s across the country. Or to be traveling through an airport and see a Cookie Co., and reflect on where we started. Like, all of this started in our garage during the pandemic.”
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