“Cookies take the number one slot in terms of popular sweet baked goods, even beating doughnuts – possibly the most intrinsically Canadian of all sweet baked goods,” says Joel Gregoire, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel. “Given their flexibility and portability, it is not surprising that cookies are eaten more than other sweet baked goods.”
In Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood, Sweet Flour Bake Shop has seen business grow by 40 per cent year over year since opening its doors in 2009. Kim Gans, founder and chief cookie officer of the popular bakery, says the store’s concept has evolved from a retail storefront to a production kitchen in order to meet burgeoning online and wholesale orders from across the country. “We kept the storefront for six years, but two years ago we decided to close it and focus our efforts on where the growth was happening.”
When the retail store first opened in its Bloor West Village location back in 2009, its concept was simple: pick your cookie dough, place your order and receive your warm cookie in two minutes flat, straight out of the store’s custom oven. Of course, customers were hooked by the fresh-baked goodness and usually took a dozen cookies to-go as well, which spurred on Sweet Flour’s gift business. The result was a second kitchen located in the Junction to fulfill production orders. In 2015, Gans decided to close her Bloor West retail store and turn her full attention to her corporate and wholesale orders. While Gans’ business model has morphed, her vision remains the same: “We specialize in simple goodness. We use all-natural ingredients with no preservatives and we are still fully-customizable, with a range of 18 to 20 different flavours to choose from.”
With small batches and premium packaging forming the crux of the business, plenty of staff are required to pull off this labour-intensive, hands-on approach. Gans now employs 20 to 25 full- and part-time employees, with that number rising to 45 during the holidays to fulfill cookie orders from across the country. Sweet Flour has also added to its offerings, with custom cupcakes, cookie cakes, gingerbread and shortbread gracing the menu.
In Port Coquitlam, B.C., Designer Cookies has also been experiencing a growing demand for its themed sugar cookies. Alyson Neufeld, owner and principal cookie artist, started the custom sugar cookie business in 2010 and has seen orders steadily rising ever since. In 2016, she expanded the menu to include designer cupcakes, bringing Sandra Grylls onboard as artistic director and cupcake artist. Together, the pair provides memorable sweet treats for personal and corporate functions. “You name it and we can cookie-fy it,” says Neufeld. “We get clients who start with a bridal shower, then return for their baby shower and then the child’s first birthday, so we get to see families going through these life stages.”
Creating about 25,000 custom cookies in 2016, Neufeld says demand for themed treats continues to grow. She sees more and more parents turning to specially-designed cookies as an alternative to standard loot bags, while corporate clients are using them to attract attention at trade shows, replacing the usual company-labelled pen or magnet with a more memorable logo-themed cookie. “Before, we were never turning away orders, but now on a weekly basis we have to. Designer cookies are more and more popular. And it’s nice because it’s word of mouth and it really has just taken off from there.”
Neufeld explains that the cookie trends she’s been seeing have closely followed cake trends, with requests for unicorn cookies continuing to soar, as well as pineapple- and flamingo-themed options and woodland creatures. When it comes to colours, blush pink and gold are leading the way, which suits her personal style as well. “I like doing really classic cookies with soft colours and rosettes, and I really like doing script writing, personalizing the cookies with names. They’re soft and pretty.”
In Toronto, Gans says her three top-selling cookies are chocolate chunk, followed by her fitness cookie (think oatmeal, blueberry, dark chocolate and almonds) and finally, butterscotch toffee. However, the biggest trend she’s noticing right now – and perhaps the most surprising – is customer interest in edible cookie dough. “People have been eating cookie dough their whole lives, it’s that nostalgia of licking the bowl. But this year people are really starting to sell it like ice cream, so we’ve partnered with some of our retailers to sell it in their ice cream and coffee shops,” says Gans.
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Adding a scoop of your favourite cookie dough to your ice cream cone or indulging in a spoonful with your afternoon cup of coffee has been taking off like wildfire. The trend originated in New York City last year and as Gans says, “it went viral.” It was a natural addition to the Sweet Flour menu, as it really spoke to the business’ roots. “Through our history we’ve always had dough shots with a glass of organic milk. We always used pasteurized eggs to make it safe, but then this year with the craze of edible dough, we launched a whole new line made with heat-treated flour to prevent any possibility of bacteria,” says Gans.
Her most popular edible dough flavours are “The Break-Up” and “After Dark.” The former is a plain cookie dough base with brownie bits and salted caramel, while the latter is a brownie cookie batter with marshmallow fluff and crushed Oreos. While this rich treat is currently enjoying its heyday, Gans is careful to see the trend for what it is. “Everyone will always love cookie dough. I think as a stand-alone retail concept I see it as a short-term play, which is why we’re doing it more online and with our retail customers, like an add-on, as a complement to ice cream or a larger dessert.”
Finding inspiration for new designs and products is an important area for any business-owner. It provides opportunities for growth and keeps things fresh. Both Neufeld and Gans agree that customers are a great source of inspiration. “That was the beauty of having our store; it was our laboratory where we got our requests,” says Gans. “Now we look to the retailers and stores where we sell our cookies. What do customers want that we don’t have? We also use social media to see what people are looking for. We look less for food trends and more for what ingredients are trending that we can put a twist on.”
Catering to new trends often presents its own set of challenges, which continues to be the case with the still-strong demand for gluten-free products. At Designer Cookies, Neufeld attempted to offer vegan and gluten-free cookies for a period of time before abandoning the offering. “We tried to pull it off, but it got too complicated.”
For a true gluten-free product that’s safe for those with celiac disease, a bakery needs to address how they are going to prevent cross-contamination. Gans has noticed that many of her clients want gluten-free products not because they have celiac disease, but because they simply feel better when they avoid gluten. For this reason, she has a line of gluten-friendly options. “We put a warning label on to stay it’s been produced in a kitchen with gluten. It limits markets, but a lot of our corporate clients who do gifts will order a gluten-free box of cookies, so it works well in that capacity.”
Another challenge can be pricing. Using high-quality ingredients and incorporating details like edible gold accents come at a cost. Neufeld offers some sage advice: “Know the price of your product. Those charging too little are fizzling out, so keep it steady and know the value. If people want gold, that’s going to cost a little bit more. The client will return to you if they like your product. I find people come back to us because they like the services and we can accommodate last minute orders.” / BJ
Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance writer based in Uxbridge, Ont., and a regular contributor to Bakers Journal.