Mark Benhard grew up mesmerized by Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He imagined an environment where everything was edible and the fantastic was possible. He and business partner James Kelley hope to re-imagine that sort of wonder and imagination with Kookie Krazy, a bakery allowing customers to invent and bake their own cookies in Thousand Oakes, Calif.
“For me, I have a 20-year background in PR, and I've always wanted to create my own experience-based brand,” Benhard says. “I saw how well Build-a-Bear was doing and noticed the paint-your-own-pottery places opening up. I thought I could replicate that. And creating an experience behind the food product, that really made sense to me.”
While he was mulling over possibilities, he thought of his friend Jim, an insurance agent by day who ran a cookie business out of his home. One day, it clicked for Benhard.
“The idea had legs, ‘create your own cookie,’” Benhard says. “It tapped into two constants: A kid's imagination and a kid's willingness to get his or her hands dirty.”
As the idea took shape, Benhard and Kelly focused on a concept that would tap into a child's uninhibited nature. The idea was about possibilities as opposed to restrictions. Kookie Krazie was born.
“We think of it as sort of a Coldstone Creamery for cookies,” Benhard says. “Instead of ice cream, we have dough. Espresso dough, peanut butter dough, oatmeal dough — not just your standard chocolate and vanilla. Add to that a full selection of potential toppings, inclusions and sprinkles, and the combination possibilities are limitless. Actually, I think it's at 44,000 possibilities right now.”
Benhard and Kelley opened their doors in a bustling outdoor shopping center least summer after an initial investment of $250,000. The business initially boomed, as kids, families and dating couples streamed in. They had exceeded all of their expectations at the time of their opening.
The business did $106,000 in sales by the end of its first fiscal year, and Benhard estimates that 20,000 customers had walked through their doors.
Unfortunately, the market downturn couldn't have happened at a worse time for the business. Its outdoor mall location seemed ideal when the partners signed their lease, as they hoped to receive business from mall patrons on foot. Unfortunately, the foot traffic at malls is at record lows.
Benhard is confident that Kookie Krazy will be a big hit when the economy rebounds. He considers the business “store poor” at the moment, with all available money for marketing tied up in the facility. For a marketing guy like Benhard, this is especially frustrating.
Still, Kookie Krazie is gaining popularity despite missing the foot traffic they anticipated. They charge $4.99 for a custom cookie experience, so for $20, a family of four can spend an hour together and share a great experience. Customers consider that a value.
Franchising is the eventual goal, Benhard says. He considers the business a sleeping giant, and he plans on being ready when the economy turns around.