The Christie Cookie Co.
Decadent and delicious, cookies, brownies and other items from The Christie Cookie Co., Nashville, Tenn., are practically irresistible. This 30-year-old producer of cookies, brownies and other sweet treats draws inspiration from homemade cookies that the original owner perfected. The cookie business blossomed and now combines a thriving mail-order (and Internet sales) business that provides elegant gift packages and a flourishing foodservice business that distributes the tasty products nationwide.
Christie Hauck probably never dreamed that his cookies would create such a sensation one day. In 1983, he quit his corporate job and set off to bake the “perfect cookie,” and experimented with gourmet ingredients, traveling all over the country, conducting taste tests with friends. As the cookies got better and better, his cottage-industry business got bigger, and soon, he outgrew his home kitchen with his first major order, and The Christie Cookie Co. was founded.
The main line of cookies includes Chocolate Chip, White Chocolate Macadamia Nut and Oatmeal Raisin. Not forgetting all of those chocolate lovers, The Christie Cookie Co. also makes thick, moist, triple-chocolate brownies filled with semi-sweet chocolate chips, milk chocolate chips and mini chunks of Heath toffee. All of the products are kosher-certified dairy and contain notrans-fat or high fructose corn syrup.
In 1984, Hauck started a retail business in a downtown Nashville, Tenn., storefront, and a year later, expanded into a thriving mail-order (now mail and online) business that acquired quite a following for its elegant gift packages and unique corporate gifts. “Christie opened a retail shop downtown,” recalls Sue O’Donnell, executive vice president and president of the Mail Order Division. “And 30 years later, we’re using the very same recipes that he developed back then.”
Today, Hauck operates four of the retail cookie shops separately and is no longer affiliated with this national mail-order and foodservice company, which also operates in Nashville, and is headed by president Fleming Wilt.
Wilt has taken The Christie Cookie Co. mail-order/foodservice business to new heights for more than a decade, saying the company continues its pursuit of cookie excellence today under the slogan reading, “Guaranteed to Make You Smile.” Wilt says he got involved through his father, Toby, who made an investment in the business in the late 1980s. “My father and Christie [Hauck] were football teammates at Vanderbilt in the 1960s,” Wilt remembers.
Serving consumer as well as corporate segments, products for the mail-order business are baked and packed fresh daily, five days a week. Packaging includes luxuriously decorated reusable tins available in about 40 different choices, as well as other specialty containers. The tins, which hold 12 to 60 cookies, can be filled with the Christie Cookie signature assortment of Chocolate Chip, Oatmeal Raisin and White Chocolate Macadamia Nut varieties as well as brownies, and can be customized for personal events, holidays and corporate logos. All of the products are available online at www.christiecookies.com.
“The gift tins can be silk-screened with any kind of graphic design or company logo,” O’Donnell explains. “We store the tins here, so customers like the fact that the cookies are packaged and shipped fresh every day. Customization is important. We can put all three signature cookie flavors in the tin and can also include our Triple Fudge Brownies, for a combination pack. It really works well for gifting and special corporate functions.”
In 1995, the company established a foodservice business, with clients ranging from Doubletree Hotels and casual dining restaurants to grab-and-go retail stores, in-store supermarket bakeries, resorts and caterers. An expansion in 2000 led the cookie company to its current 41,000-sq.-ft. location in Nashville, says Wilt. “We moved into this facility in 2000 and thought we would never be able to fill all the space. Now, we run two shifts a day, five days a week and have four production lines in the bakery and mail-order division.” The company also has more than 50 employees.
Depending on customer requirements, the Foodservice Division can package cookie and brownie dough that’s either frozen or thaw-and-serve, and the cookies can also be shipped prebaked and individually wrapped. Jay McKnight, vice president of the Foodservice Division, indicates that the company has made more than 250 million cookies for Doubletree hotels and in 2012, introduced the individually wrapped cookies.
“We work with many other hotels, but Doubletree offers the cookies as a giveaway,” he notes. “The Doubletree cookie has become very recognized. Folks ask for them when they check in. We sell frozen cookie dough to hotels for their catering offerings, and they bake the cookies to give to groups that come in. We also sell the frozen dough to all sorts of foodservice operators, such as caterers, healthcare and assisted living units, bakery cafes and delis and upscale or gourmet in-store supermarket bakeries across the country. If the supermarket bakers want a gourmet offering, we’re ideally positioned for that.”
The company also offers muffins, bagged dark-roast ground coffee and its newest introduction as of Jan. 29, its hand-crafted Decadent Collection, comprising bite-sized chocolates, large squares of almond toffee, bite-sized caramels, chocolate-drenched almonds and chocolate caramel crunch. “We hope our loyal cookie customers will really like the Decadent Collection of candy as much as the cookies and brownies,” adds O’Donnell. “We want them to be a Christie product with Christie packaging so that consumers will know they are as incredible as the cookies. I think everyone is going to love these new items.”
There’s a different cookie flavor of the month, which can be Snickerdoodle, Rocky Road, Chocolate Chunk, White Chocolate Cherry or Peanut Butter, and more new flavors are always in the works. “We continually evaluate our offerings to remain current and serve our customers with the most desired flavors,” says Wilt. “We want to present new flavors, but like to do so in collaboration with our customers.”
“Some of the most popular varieties in the program include White Chocolate Cherry, which has just been fantastic,” O’Donnell mentions. “When we take them to food shows, they just disappear. We’re working on a few new flavors that will be launched in the next few months.”
Which one is the top seller? “Chocolate chip, of course,” says McKnight. “Our cookie dough sells the most out of all of our stock-keeping units and our Chocolate Chip sells the best.”
Jokes Ken Wilson, vice president of operations and plant manager, with a smile, “After all, if you can’t sell a chocolate chip cookie in the cookie business, you shouldn’t be in this business!”
There’s also a brownie recipe of the month that’s posted on the company’s website. Recipes pair the Triple Chocolate brownies with all sorts of additional treats such as fruit, ice cream, sauces and cake. “For the muffins, we have a partnership [that] works very well,” Wilt explains. “Our operational partner is well suited to produce the muffin batter, and we complement each other. The next hurdle for our muffin business will be when we begin to run out of capacity and need additional space.”
No compromise on quality
The Christie Cookie Co. prides itself with only using the best-quality ingredients such as real premium chocolate, real butter, Heath toffee, pure vanilla, fresh macadamia nuts, butter and the finest sugar. Known for never sacrificing that quality, the company hand measures all of its ingredients. “It’s a very sensitive process, and even if we triple our business, we want to make sure that we maintain it,” says Wilson. “We have plenty of capacity to continue to hand measure and would put on another shift if we had to, in order to continue hand measuring. Other bakeries may cut their quality to keep costs down, but we wouldn’t do that.
“It’s definitely a challenge to maintain that quality in light of escalating commodity prices, weather-related [crop] problems and the economy, but we have to. It’s hard when commodity prices keep going up, but we keep researching. You have to buy smart. Commodity prices are a concern for everyone in business. When you’re buying commodities at volatile prices, you’ve got to really watch the market and watch what’s going on. The buying decision is never going to be a compromise in quality here.”
Another factor that Wilson says keeps The Christie Cookie Co. successful is its rare group of employees. “They’re great,” he notes. “You can walk out to anyone on the production area or in the offices and see the sense of pride they have. They’re so proud of the fact they make the best cookie you’ve ever eaten. That’s rare out in the field, but it happens here. It’s amazing. I’ve been in other bakery companies and there’s usually 20% turnover. We don’t have any.”
O’Donnell echoes Wilson’s assessment: “We’re very fortunate because we’ve made the staff feel very proud of what they do and of the company. They stand behind the perfect cookie. They’re so happy to represent a product they know they can depend on.”
The cookies range in size from 1.45 to 4 oz. The sizes are very consistent, but the cookies and brownies still have a homemade quality. On the mail-order side of the business, the cookies are hand-placed inside clear-film bags, cartons and tins. A gold twist-tie is applied, and the bags are then inserted inside the tins with cushioning. “When you open up a tin as a gift, the cookies look like they were on a platter and presented to you,” O’Donnell observes. This is done so that the aroma is best when the tin is opened. A Classic Assortment includes White Chocolate Macadamia Nut, Oatmeal Raisin and Chocolate Chip—in that order, top-down—so that each flavor retains its individuality.
“The the fact that the cookies are hand measured is huge,” O’Donnell adds. “They’re layered into the container a certain way, which is a huge selling point. That gives them a nice visual affect. They don’t have a mass-produced look or feeling. When we talk to people, we can say that what they’re tasting is like something made in their own kitchen. The ingredients are not premixed, and the cookies are packed one at a time. That’s why ours is a gourmet cookie and this gives us an edge in the market.”
Lean Manufacturing procedures were instituted this winter, and there are weekly training classes for employees. “We are striving for continuous improvement and operational excellence,” Wilson explains. “We’re bringing the [production line] operator into the forefront, and they’re getting more involved, more empowered. In this environment, with the people we have, the results are priceless. We have very low turnover and that says a lot. To meet our operational excellence goals, we put in the work to reduce waste, increase output, reduce downtime, and Lean Manufacturing is the way to do it. We have the buy-in and inclusiveness from the people on the plant floor, which gives Sue and Jay a tremendous amount of flexibility.”
Food safety has been a vital aspect of the operation, and The Christie Cookie Co. has been updating its practices to best comply with changing regulations. It’s audited by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which takes a coordinated approach to improving global food safety through its certification program. “Two years ago, we started working more closely on the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and brought on a quality manager who keeps us updated and moving in the right direction,” Wilson explains. “So as the regulations and compliance standards change, we change. It was a big change and a lot of work. But it’s well worth it, makes a lot of sense and we get superior ratings.”
Another distinction is that the company operates on a just-in-time basis and only bakes enough cookies to satisfy the orders for that day. When an order is placed before noon, it ships out the next day. Orders after noon are shipped the day after. “We’re pretty unique in that we bake, freeze, package all in the same day. That’s still pretty unusual,” McKnight points out. “It also guarantees our quality and freshness.”
One trend McKnight notices is that foodservice customers are looking for both higher quality as well as convenience. “They’re starting to get away from baking some things from scratch or even baking off certain products,” he explains. “Five years ago, we didn’t sell frozen prebaked products, but we do now. Customers may want to sell a prebaked brownie or cookie with super quality—something in a thaw-and-serve format—so that’s something we started doing, which is still relatively distinctive. I don’t see too many competitors going to market with an all-butter, high-end, gourmet cookie or brownie in a thaw-and-serve format. So that’s been big—we’ve increased our customer base doing that.”
Clean labels are another customer/consumer preference that McKnight sees. “People want to know what’s in the food they’re eating and want things that are natural,” he says. “The beauty for us is that we’ve had clean labels from the very beginning. We don’t use preservatives. We see clean label as a big factor. There’s also a growing (what I call) ‘healthful indulgence’ movement. People want good-tasting, healthy products, but if they’re going to splurge, they want it to count. They want the real thing. We’re uniquely positioned in that not only do we have clean ingredients, we also have a product that tastes out of this world.”
Portion packs are also hot right now, which is why the foodservice group added individually wrapped, prebaked cookies to its lineup. “We launched the individually-wrapped cookie packs in the summer of 2012,” McKnight explains. “They’re sold in grab-and-go retail channels, concessions, to caterers for boxed-lunch items and to large hotel customers for conventions.”
The mail-order business is gradually becoming more of an online business for its convenience. “What we bring to the table is personal sales representatives who have been with us for five to 10 years,” O’Donnell notes. “That’s something few competitors have, if at all. Our salespeople go into the field to call on corporate customers, not just phone them or email them, which personalizes things. We’re also putting a lot of focus into our growing e-commerce business to stay competitive, so we’re covering every end of the spectrum.”
Achieving 14% sales growth last year, The Christie Cookie Co. has had steady growth every year it has been in business, O’Donnell affirms. “Everyone here knows that we must grow,” she says. “We just expect it, and everyone works hard to achieve those goals. We meet monthly as a company to get updates on what’s going on in each area of the business. And we have a ‘Guaranteed to Make You Smile’ award each month, where employees can receive $100, so this helps us maintain our goals.”
What’s The Christie Cookie Co.’s secret? O’Donnell sums it up as a combination of things, including sticking to quality ingredients, even in tough economic times and doing what you know. “We do what we know best and use the same, premium ingredients that Christie used when he started the company,” she explains. “So we stay with that and provide consistently good product. The cookies are memorable. I’ve been here 18 years and people say the products have the same quality they had years ago and never change. It’s important to stay true to your products and not change them.
Running like a much larger corporation than a 50-employee business might be another key to The Christie Cookie Co.’s success. “We’re small, but we have a lot of big-company procedures,” affirms O’Donnell.
One partner is redistributor, Dot Foods, which provides The Christie Cookie Co. with access to just about any frozen food distributor in the country, according to McKnight.
Staying true to the product
“Although we operate the facility with big business ideas, we have never lost the core value of a family business,” Wilt adds. He says that last year The Christie Cookie Co. implemented strategic planning initiatives and came up with performance measurables for each area. The entire company meets each month to go over these plans and is regrouping for 2013, he says, adding, “We are in the midst of our long-term strategic planning process, which focuses on national branding, lean manufacturing and product expansion as well as a continual focus on the highest quality of baked goods.”
And what’s on the horizon? “Well, if we get much bigger, we have a lot of the infrastructure in place to meet growth head-on, so we’re prepared for what’s ahead,” McKnight says.
“We have added several new product lines in recent years (the individually-wrapped, prebaked cookies and prebaked brownies),” says Wilt. “We have been able to expand into these product lines by utilizing existing equipment. We are very disciplined in our decision making as it relates to adding new products. We have the capital and team in place to take on any opportunity that would be beneficial to the company.”
The energy and enthusiasm exhibited by The Christie Cookie Co. must be coming from those taste-tempting cookies.