Chocolate chips and cookie dough are ready for mixing.
Maurice Lenell cookies bake for six minutes before they are cooled and sorted.
Maurice Lenell graphic artists create customized packaging designs for every client. Part of the bakery’s continued success lies in its capability to offer a wide variety of packaging.
Maurice Lenell C.E.O. Terry Cohen.
During peak season, Maurice Lenell produces up to 10 million cookies per day.
When it comes to cookies, consumers crave variety. Since the day Mrs. Fields baked her first chewy chocolate chip cookie, demand for large, high-end cookies has skyrocketed, and supermarket cookie aisles and in-store bakeries began reflecting the trend. But some cookie traditions thrive despite ever-changing consumer preferences. For 70 years, Maurice Lenell Cooky Co., located in a busy retail/commercial strip on Chicago’s Northwest Side, has been producing old-style cookies nationwide to a loyal, multi-generational customer base.
When it was founded in 1937 by the Lenell family, Maurice Lenell cookies were distributed almost exclusively through Chicago-area supermarkets. The company’s two signature items were its pinwheel cookie, a chocolate and vanilla pinwheel-pattern cookie enrobed in pink sugar; and the swirl cookie, with its familiar dollop of raspberry jelly in the center.
Today, 20 years after being acquired by the Cohen family in 1987, cookies with the boy-in-the-cookie-jar logo are sold throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico, primarily in non-grocery outlets, such as Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Dollar Tree, Rite Aid and Family Dollar.
Maurice Lenell also sells products in supermarkets, such as Albertson’s, and Jewel and Dominick’s in the Chicago area.
"When we took over the company, the Chicago market represented 99.9% of the business that the Lenell family was doing," Maurice Lenell Chief Executive Officer Terry Cohen says. "Today, it’s about 6%. We knew the only way we could grow was to expand beyond Chicago so we did a lot of touring and immediately put together programs and pricing for non-grocery retailers, because the Lenell family had nothing in place for chain stores."
Upon acquiring the company, the new ownership’s first goal was to upgrade the formulations, using high-quality ingredients. Kosher certificates are mandatory, as are material safety data sheets and quality reports from all suppliers.
Cohen’s distribution strategy is simple. "I can go to Walgreens and hopefully get us into 4,300 stores, as opposed to a supermarket that would give us 110 stores. That’s why we focus on non-grocery business."
The company’s 100,000-sq.-ft operation produces up to 10 million cookies a day during peak seasons. Typically, business ramps up annually toward the end of the second quarter and continues to run at top speed through Thanksgiving. And while the pinwheel and swirl varieties remain mainstay products, Maurice Lenell has just completed formulation of several new flavors, including lemon, banana bread, mint, New York cherry, black cherry, English toffee and chocolate-chocolate. Along with the pinwheels, the bakery’s chocolate chip and shortbread flavors are best-sellers.
Filling a niche market
"We have the capability to come up with 50 flavors, so we are filling a niche that no other bakery addresses," Cohen says. "And that is a pretty big advantage because I’m finding that a lot of buyers are becoming more hands-on. When they have a specific flavor in mind, they know that when they go to a larger company they’ll have to go through several committees and a lot of red tape. Whereas, when they come to us, they tell us what they’re looking for and we’re capable of doing it."
Maurice Lenell also designs all packaging for its cookies in-house, which considering the high level of customization involved, is no simple feat. Cohen says he and his team work closely with retailers to create packaging that reflects clients’ wishes while retaining the Maurice Lenell brand and logo. Aside from customized boxes, the company is one of the largest users of cookie tins in the U.S. All tin designs, which vary by client and change seasonally, are created by Maurice Lenell graphics specialists.
"Several times I’ve taken orders from customers and then I’ve left their office and asked myself, how I am going to do this,’ Cohen says. "But I get together with my management team and we figure out how we’re going to handle it and we always find a way. We’re proud that we’re able to customize for what a chain wants and produce the volume. There aren’t very many companies that are able to do all that. But here, there’s no such thing as can’t.
"All of our managers have been here since our family bought the bakery 20 years ago, so this is not just a business, it’s a large family and every member takes pride in Maurice Lenell." Cohen adds.
The cookie-making process begins with ADM flour, which is removed from a 100,000 lb-capacity silo, and Indiana sugar, which is stored in a 50,000 lb.-capacity silo. Flour and sugar are mixed with additional ingredients, such as Blommer chocolate and cocoa, in batches ranging from 900 to 1,200 lbs.
The dough then is moved into a hopper via an electronic chain hoist, from which it is brought down to the formers, where each 14-in. roll is cut into 16 cookies. The single variation on this process is the pinwheel cookie, which is formed using two sets of rollers, one each for the chocolate and vanilla doughs. The dough then is manipulated by the rollers to create the signature pinwheel design.
The cookies are moved on Sandvic belts into 150-ft., three-burner, recirculating ovens, in which they are baked for six minutes.
Cohen acknowledges that the bakery is "landlocked," and with only four docks, coordination is key. He adds that he is being wooed by local developers whose offers are "way over market," but he says he has no interest in selling.
One reason Cohen plans to stay put is to preserve The Cookie Jar, Maurice Lenell’s on-site retail operation, from which shoppers are able to view the commercial baking operation. "It’s great to be there during the holidays when you get three generations of a family coming in together," Cohen says. "You get the grandma and the daughter and the granddaughter, and it’s really nice."
There aren’t very many bakers who can say that.