A little illustration I did of the simply wonderful Van Stapele cookie.

Just a chocolate cookie

A product experience at its finest

Just recently I was given the opportunity by Grubhub to go to Amsterdam to be a part of onboarding wizard Samuel Hullick’s workshop, which was incredible. His teardowns are truly magical. Go check them out. I was lucky enough to have the advice of fellow Hawaiian and director of research at Grubhub, Matt Lee, who has worked and lived in Amsterdam for a couple of years, and recommended all kinds of stuff to do in Amsterdam: people to visit, places to eat, how to get around, etc.

He ended his email with — I’m paraphrasing here, “The one thing you MUST do is go to Van Stapele Koekmakerij! They make one thing: a chocolate cookie. You will thank me.”

My last day of the trip was spent running around the city and enjoying the sights. At 5 p.m., my wife Tara and me mosey to Van Stapele to find out what was so special about this cookie.

Van Stapele is on a tiny side street away from the crowded touristy spots within the city. When we arrived there was a line of about 10 people stretching out of the door. Walking to the back of the line, right away I was hit by the incredibly aromatic smell of chocolate being baked. The alluringly sweet smell made my time spent in the line wonderfully enjoyable. The other folks waiting were also chatting about how awesome the smell was to their senses.

As we got in line, I noticed a sign about ten feet behind me saying something to the effect of “From this point the wait will be 45 minutes.” From where I was, I estimated the wait would be about 25 minutes. Throughout our time waiting, I kept in mind that 25 minutes as my point of reference. It turned out that the waiting estimate was right on point. Kudos to whoever placed that sign. They knew exactly where to place it.

A small black sign hangs down perpendicular to the building displaying the bakery’s name in ornate lettering. Black marble stone frames the dark reddish-brown wood lining around the entire bakery. Amber glass sits above the big window pane of glass, sporting the bakery’s mark blazoned in gold. The view showcases the interior of the cookie maker’s shop, and to the left side there’s a lovely wooden toy car track that continuously loops the cars going around its track. All of this looks perfect together. Gorgeous.

There was a young couple in front of us. We chatted about how they had heard about this place. Apparently, they were just out for a stroll around the canals and saw a line inside this small street and just wanted to see what this place was all about.

Over the next ten minutes, the line’s length doubled. Customers at the end were standing in the cross street. People were walking out of the bakery smiling with their baked goods. Slowly, the craving to whatever was being baked was intensifying the closer we got to the bakery entrance.

With no pretense in our joy, we reach the entrance. A dad with his two small kids walked to the storefront window. The toy cars zooming down the spiraled track caught the kids’ eyes, stopping them instantly. As the kids were being entertained, the dad peered through the window noticing the cookies. Soon after, the kids noticed the cookies as well. After about a minute, they started to walk away, still eyeing the window. They were hooked… I wonder if they got in line.

We finally walk into the bakery. Inside, the place is warmly lit and has an old-style, classy look. The look of the exterior continues inside with the reddish-brown wood. The wooden counter top has one cookie left. A lady wearing a black chef’s coat at the counter informs us that it will be six minutes for the next batch to come out of the oven.

Looking around more, there’s a little sign with its own tiny easel placed on the glass covering for the cookies, advising to consume the cookies within four days. Behind the counter there’s a tall wooden shelf with cabinets at the top and bottom. At the center of the shelf are three bell jars on log pedestals set at varying heights. One pedestal displays a stack of cookies with a lovely sky blue ribbon tied into a bow holding the cookies nicely together. In another bell jar is a single cookie in a sleeve with a gold sticker seal. And the last bell jar holds the cookie tin. The tins fill the rest of the shelves.

Continuing to look around in this petite bakery, they are three prices based on amount, but all for the same chocolate cookie. This place only made and sold one thing. One thing.

Just a chocolate cookie.

You can get this cookie in three ways. People that want only one get a single cookie in a nice little paper sleeve with a gold embossed sticker seal, as mentioned before. If you want more, but nothing fancy, there are six cookies in a clear plastic circular container with a bow on it. If you are visiting and you want a keepsake to take home, and to enjoy with a few people, there are six cookies in a lovely branded souvenir tin. The decision making here is so easy.

While waiting the lady behind the counter is setting up her area for the next batch. The young couple ahead of us in the line ask the lady about how this place came to be. It turns out she’s the owner, Vera Van Stapele, and with a friendly smile she simply explains that it took a lot of work, but she was driven by a very simple goal: to create a cookie that people really loved. This idea is the heart of the product experience at Vera’s bakery.

A new batch of freshly baked cookies comes out of the oven. The sweet smell is efficacious, flooding the room, generating smiles all around. After the young couple buys their set of cookies, it is our turn. We purchase a set of six with the tin. The cookies are neatly placed and packaged in the tin. We thank the lady and head out of the bakery.

We had been building up to this moment: the chocolate cookie. We walk to the nearest canal, open up the tin and take out a wonderfully warm cookie. I split the cookie in two, and hand the other half to Tara. The cookie is simple. Brown all over with a slight bump in the middle. Inside that center is a creamy white chocolate. We both take a bite and look at each other with wonder.

It was incredible. The perfect texture and the right amount of sweetness. And the chocolate taste was out of this world. The cookie was easily the best cookie I have ever tasted. Tara and I walked back to our hotel astonished. By the next day, back home in Brooklyn, the cookies had been eaten up and all that was left was that beautifully designed tin.

Since then, that experience has stuck in my mind. Setting up customers’ expectations. Interactions that are engaging. A presentation that’s easy on the eyes. Clear and friendly communication. The product is beyond delightful. So much so that folks highly recommend it to others. A lot of great things happened in my trip, but this bakery performed perfectly in every aspect and detail with the experience crescendoing into the pleasure of eating a cookie.

The world is filled with people and places that will lead you to possible new insights or ways of thinking that can influence your work, product, service, or art in ways you never dreamed of.

All that’s needed is to be aware and open to what’s happening around you, even if it’s a little cookie shop.

You were right Matt, thanks.