|From left to right: Robert Shelton, director of operations and facilities; Jay McKnight, director of foodservice sales; Carolan Trbovich, director of client services; Robert Turner, executive vice president and chief financial officer; and Fleming Wilt, president.|
At The Christie Cookie Co., Nashville, Tenn., sampling is serious business. “As a company, we’ve always known that if we can get people to eat our cookies, we’ve got them hooked,” Fleming Wilt, The Christie Cookie Co.’s president, says. “They just have to taste our cookies once.”
The company’s confidence in sampling first took root in 1983—the first day of business for the operation. When Christie Hauck, founder of The Christie Cookie Co., first opened the doors to his retail operation, the first two customers commented that they would not pay $0.50 for a cookie. After the panic subsided, Hauck donned a tuxedo, loaded up a tray of cookies, and walked up and down the street doling out free cookies.
“This was the start of our sampling program,” says Sue O’Donnell, The Christie Cookie Co.’s executive vice president and president of the Mail Order division. “People followed him into the store like he was the Pied Piper.”
Today, sampling takes on a much different form, but yields similar results. The company’s sampling bravado is bred out of its formulations. Simply put, the company strongly believes that it has the best cookies on the market, and has no problem going head to head against anyone.
“We are not willing to compromise on our quality,” Wilt says. “We keep on making our products with 100% butter, really good chocolate and pure vanilla.”
The company has formulated its gourmet cookies with these ingredients since its first day in business, and continues to do so despite its growth into a wholesale bakery that distributes products nationwide. This strict adherence to quality gives the company a point of distinction, and allows the bakery to compete with larger bakeries that focus only on price.
|The Christie Cookie Co.’s cryogenic freezer has three tiers and freezes products for about five minutes.|
The company’s unwavering commitment to quality also leads to uncertainty in the volatile commodity market, as evidenced by rising vanilla prices that shot up to $9 a gallon in 2005. “We may have some down years from a bottom line standpoint because of rising commodity prices, but we continue to build loyalty from customers by not taking ingredient shortcuts,” Wilt says. “They know we are not going to compromise on quality.”
From retail to wholesale
The Christie Cookie Co. was founded as a retail store in downtown Nashville, and quickly grew into a thriving wholesale business. The company’s first foray into nationwide distribution came through a mail order business. O’Donnell heads this side of the business, and relies on a 12-person sales staff located in target markets throughout the country. The Mail Order division is split between consumer and corporate sales. On the corporate side, the company sells tins of cookies to large corporations, which distribute the tins for various occasions, such as company outings, client gifts and employee birthdays.
The company customizes each of these tins with corporate logos that are silk screened on the lids. “We don’t just sell cookies, we sell marketing programs. We offer an alternative resource for corporate marketing and public relations,” O’Donnell says.
To further enhance its service, The Christie Cookie Co. offers a 100% satisfaction guarantee to all of its customers. This policy was born out of focus groups that yielded rave reviews for the company’s consistency. “We decided to print the guarantee on our package, and make it part of our quality statement,” O’Donnell says. “If a customer is not satisfied, we will reship a package, send out a complementary tin or do whatever it takes to make the customer happy.”
The standard corporate order is 18 cookies, which costs about $30 (shipping included). Tins are shipped with three varieties of cookies: white chocolate macadamia nut, chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin.
|Exiting the cryogenic freezer, products are packaged and sent to a freezer for holding.|
The Christie Cookie also operates a growing foodservice business. The company distributes its products to upscale operators, including high-end hotels, country clubs, catering companies, bakery cafes and coffee shops. For its largest customer, Doubletree Hotels, The Christie Cookie Co. makes products that are given to arriving guests. The Christie Cookie Co. also runs the hotel’s Sweet Dreams Delivery mail order program.
The company ships all of its foodservice products frozen and pre-portioned in two different sizes of cookies. In the last four years, the volume of its foodservice business has doubled. Again, the company attributes this to its sampling program.
“If you get someone to taste the cookies, we usually get the business,” says Robert Turner, The Christie Cookie Co.’s executive vice president and chief financial officer. “We’ve lost on price in foodservice, but never on a taste cutting.”
The different demands of The Christie Cookie Co.’s two distribution channels creates multiple complexities with ordering and manufacturing. The company has streamlined these processes by investing heavily in an integrated software system that coordinates accounting, inventory, shipping and manufacturing. The company installed the customized software platform six years ago, and has continued to update it to gain more efficiencies.
The company’s 41,000-sq.-ft. bakery is dedicated mainly to production and storage. The unique nature of the company’s mail order business demands significant storage space to inventory customized tin lids and other packaging materials. For example, the company stores customized lids for more than 1,500 customers at its facility.
At 2 p.m. every day, the company issues a cookie report, which dictates the amount and variety of cookies that will be baked the next day. In addition, a production report is issued. This report details what size tins and the number of customized lids that are required for the next day’s production cycle. These materials are gathered and moved to the packaging room in preparation for the next day.
When employees arrive in the morning, pick tickets are transferred electronically and printed at the beginning of the packaging line. Each pick ticket has a barcode that is removed and placed on the product’s packaging. Once the product is packaged, the barcode is scanned, and a shipping label is produced.
|The Christie Cookie Co. operates a mail order division that ships customized cookie tins to large corporations throughout the country. These businesses distribute the tins for special occasions, such as client meetings and employee anniversaries.|
At the front end of the line, the company operates a small, but highly efficient production line. The company processes small batches of 300 lbs. in two vertical mixers. The company uses a two-stage mixing process. During the first stage, sugar, brown sugar and butter are mixed. After this initial mix, the rest of the ingredients are added and mixed for three to four minutes.
Mixed dough is transferred to one of two makeup lines that manufactures pre-portioned cookie dough. These two lines feed one conveyor that travels through a cryogenic freezer. This tunnel freezer has three tiers and freezes products for about five minutes at a temperature range of
-90°F to –100°F.
After traveling through the cryogenic freezer, pre-portioned cookie pucks are weighed at two quality control points and placed in boxes. These boxes are conveyed to the company’s blast freezer, where they are stored at about 0°F. The company recently installed a new freezer that increased capacity by 80 pallets. The company ships its foodservice products unbaked and frozen. Its mail order cookies are baked in rack ovens for about eight minutes.
Despite The Christie Cookie Co.’s success, the company is not resting on its laurels. The Mail Order division plans to develop an online platform for its corporate accounts, which will streamline the ordering process and make it more convenient and faster to conduct a transaction.
In foodservice, Jay McKnight, The Christie Cookie Co.’s director of foodservice sales, sees enormous potential for growth. “Ten to 20 years ago, the frozen dough category was very low penetration, but now there is frozen cookie dough everywhere,” McKnight says. “We’re bringing a product that is one or two steps higher than what the market has right now, and we’re just getting started.”