Selling Smiles, One Cookie at a Time
When former marketing and sales manager Penny Parker left the beauty industry, she knew that she wasn’t ready to retire.
After much soul-searching, the enterprising Ms. Parker decided in March 2006 to “go for broke” and transform her love of cookies into a business intended to satisfy the cravings of Cleveland’s most discriminating cookie connoisseurs.
“Cleveland is a virtual cookie desert,” says Ms. Parker, the owner of Wow! Cookies! A Gourmet Cookie Experience LLC of Shaker Heights. “If you take a look around, you won’t find many bakeries left in town. My challenge, then, was to provide Clevelanders with a wholesome treat that combined high-quality ingredients with a home-baked presentation.”
Taste of the corporate world
In addition to traditional online sales of gift baskets, Ms. Parker has aggressively sought after the corporate customer. She spends an estimated 25% of her time on networking within that sector, whether it’s by attending trade shows or marketing through word of mouth.
But why focus on corporate gift-giving?
“If you are involved in running a business, there’s always going to be someone to whom you owe a debt of gratitude,” Ms. Parker said. “A successful business is one in which the people in charge have the unique ability to thank the key players at the appropriate time.”
The business of corporate gifts — whether they’re used to promote products or services, mark personal or company achievements or celebrate holidays — is rapidly growing, according to the National Business Association, a Dallas-based nonprofit.
Not surprisingly, a niche industry also is scrambling to get a piece of the proverbial pie by offering corporate America a selection of unique gift ideas.
“The corporate gift-giving industry is a big business with many different players,” says Celia McGrath, sales director for Olympia Candy in Strongsville and herself a member of the corporate gift-giving world. “It can encompass everything from a small mom-and-pop gift basket operation run out of someone’s home to a local florist to a large company like the HoneyBaked Ham corporation.”
Ms. Parker now rents commercial kitchen space in Shaker Heights and has hired six part-time bakers to help bake and sort between 2,500 and 3,000 cookies and brownies that two other employees deliver to her clients each week.
During the holiday season, however, Ms. Parker and her employees produced and delivered more than 50,000 sweet treats in two months. And that’s not even counting the 10,000 cookies that were sold to her clients on Valentine’s Day alone.
Ms. Parker attributes her ability to grow in large part to the good relationship she was able to establish with her bank. And although she wouldn’t give specific start-up costs, she did say that she was very fortunate to have been given a good line of credit — one that enabled her to buy equipment, hire a staff and manage her other start-up costs.
Ms. Parker declined to give specific sales numbers, but said she was able to break even within a year and eventually hopes to purchase a production facility for her business.
No cookie-cutter business
The cookie entrepreneur prides herself on what she sees as the ability to please all cookie lovers through a menu that includes peanut butter, chocolate chip, sugar, oatmeal raisin, chunky chocolate chip, cranberry apple oatmeal, caramel pecan chocolate chip and peanut butter chocolate chunk cookies, as well as triple chocolate and triple chocolate walnut brownies.
“I use natural, wholesome ingredients — real eggs, real butter and real milk. There are no artificial preservatives in these cookies, only quality ingredients,” she said.
“I want people to have a wonderful cookie experience,” says Ms. Parker.“If you’re going to indulge yourself, it might as well be with something good, right?”
Toni Orecchio, owner of Cleveland’s Cork & Beans, a gourmet coffee and fine wine shop, sells Ms. Parker’s cookies at her shop.
“I have customers who come into the shop simply because they know they can buy her cookies from me,” said Ms. Orecchio.
As for Ms. Parker, her venture into entrepreneurship has been a labor of love.
“I am very fortunate in that I love this business,” Ms. Parker says. “It’s really a happy business, and I enjoy bringing happiness to people. People seldom get angry with you when you’re passing out cookies!”
This article was published in Crain’s Cleveland Business, in 2007.