By Marina Mayer
When Don Ellis started Ellison Bakery in 1945, he was baking several hundred dozen donuts, pastries, cakes and pies out of a two-car garage with the help of his seven brothers and two sisters.
“Some of us had routes, some of us had trucks and delivered the cookies, some of us did sales and the DSM [direct-store marketing] part of it. And when we all worked in the bakery, we also all lived about a mile apart from each other,” says Bill Ellis, one of Don’s brothers and current company chairman.
Now, the Fort Wayne, Ind.-based cookie manufacturer resides in a 120,000-sq.-ft. facility that pumps out close to 100 different SKUs [stock-keeping units] of premium, soft cookies a week.
The facility also is home to nearly 100 employees, several of whom are, yes, related. In fact, Bill says, there could be as many as 30 cousins working in the bakery at one time.
While many Americans can’t fathom being in the same room with even half of their family members, this tight-knit crew proves that the only way to succeed is to keep it all in the family.
“It’s not just a job. It’s more of a passion for the business, passion for the company, passion for the cookies,” says Jeremy Ellis, research and development and quality assurance manager and Bill’s nephew.
That’s why, after producing cookies for the Archway franchise for the past 50 years, Ellison Bakery has branched out to form a new family of its own, one that reflects comfort, home cooking and, yes, that key ingredient – passion.
The Ellison Bakery line of premium, soft cookies has been expanding steadily since it was first introduced last year. Currently, it’s distributed in Michigan, Indiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and parts of Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky, with intentions of becoming national by the end of the year, says MJ Sparks, director of sales and marketing.
“Our five-year goal is to be the recognized national brand,” he adds.
Part of becoming a nationally recognized brand, however, is being able to deliver a fresh, delicious cookie that doesn’t look, taste or feel like an institutional-type cookie, Sparks notes.
It’s about producing a product that appeals to consumers of all ages, not just the 45-plus range that accounts for many of Ellison Bakery’s current family of shoppers, he adds. As a result, the premium cookie line includes varieties such as Apple Raisin, Chocolate Chip, Molasses, Date Filled and Classic Sugar. Its top-selling kinds are Rocky Road and Raspberry Filled with Oatmeal and Oatmeal Raisin close behind.
“From the very beginning, we want to establish a foundation with some core products, grab hold of those consumers that are already buying soft cookies and build a trust with them so we can move forward,” Sparks says. “One of the things that’s held us back is that [the soft cookie market] isn’t marketing to the younger consumer. [The products are] not appealing off the shelf, they’re not appealing in the varieties to the younger consumers.”
The new cookie line also speaks to the younger generation of shoppers thanks to the 10-oz. nostalgic, boutique-looking bags with the company’s tagline, “Find comfort in our cookies,” emblazoned on the front.
“We have a background, gift-wrap-type packaging that says, ‘here’s a gift from myself,’” Sparks says. “The other things we’ve done are change the directionality of our packaging. We don’t package it vertical, we package it horizontal. We’ve upgraded to metallized film so we have a better UV barrier and better moisture protection. All things that are designed to help protect what we have in our package, which is a 13- to 16-week shelf life [product].”
To correlate with its feel-good, wholesome image, the Ellison Bakery line also includes an assortment of holiday cookies, which epitomize the “comfort” of comfort cookies and account for the company’s single largest cookie sales “event” of the year. The holiday cookie lineup includes Striped Coconut Macaroons, Cashew Nougats, Wedding Cake with Pecans and fun-filled Trees and Bells, which are tree- and bell-shaped sugar cookies covered in red and green sprinkles.
The Good Ole Days
While the folks at Ellison Bakery continue to flourish in their new family tree, the $25-million cookie producer has certainly had its share of growing pains.
Four years after the inception of Ellison Bakery, it snagged the Archway franchise, with distribution throughout Indiana, Kentucky and Wisconsin.
Then in 1978, Don passed away, which encouraged Bill to buy out the remainder of the family members and bring on Rob Ellis, Bill’s nephew and now chief financial officer, and Richard Smith, Rob’s brother-in-law and current executive vice president.
Shortly after, Rob’s two sons, Jeremy and Jon Ellis, the plant manager, came on board alongside Richard’s son, Stuart Smith, service and logistics manager.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
In 2005, Catterton Partners, a Greenwich, Conn.-based private equity firm, purchased what had been re-named Archway & Mother’s Cookie Co., which had previously filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In 2008, Lance, Inc., based in Charlotte, N.C., purchased Archway in an auction and later re-opened the Ashland, Ohio, plant under new management.
After producing Archway cookies for nearly 50 years, Ellison Bakery had lost their No. 1 – and favorite – account.
“Archway was the greatest company that ever was,” Bill notes. “They were just one of those Cinderella companies.”
Furthermore, losing Archway meant the Ellis family had to come together and figure out what to produce next.
“When Archway went bankrupt, it was sort of a surprise to all of us. And we thought, ‘where do we go from here?’ We couldn’t compete in retail as long as Archway was our customer. How were we going to compete after that? We never made anything else,” Rob says.
Like the saying goes though, when one door closes, another one opens. In the case of Ellison Bakery, that meant several doors opened.
Being a new brand has allowed the company to take advantage of several creative opportunities in the marketplace that may have not been an option had they still been producing Archway cookies.
In addition to its own Ellison Bakery brand, the company has branched out into other industries, such as foodservice ice cream, which accounts for about 70% of the business.
“We are small enough to be very nimble, very creative, yet we’re large enough to be able to service large customers, produce large volumes and our objective is to grow our retail into a national brand,” says Todd Wallin, president. “We have a great deal of history in the soft cookie market. We’re at the crossroads of America, so distribution is a positive thing with this area. Getting supplies to our facility is not an issue. We have a strong sense of community, values and hard work ethic. This is a farm community so we have a tremendous amount of advantages.”
Whether it’s introducing a hip and trendy variety or diving into the unknown, the folks at Ellison Bakery are moving on from the past to continue expanding their brood of products, consumers and family ties.