Comforting and convenient, cookies are mainstays of supermarket bakeries -- and hot sellers at the moment. Whether they're choosing chewy chocolate chip cookies or snickerdoodles, discriminating consumers demand cookies made from high-quality ingredients, bakery managers told SN.
Cookie sales in the United States are currently nibbling at $6.2 billion, reflecting a 10% increase over the last five years, according to the latest statistics in a report released this year by MarketResearch.com. Americans also prefer rich cookies to low-fat ones, and cookie makers have responded by cutting back on production of varieties marketed under the low-fat or fat-free label, according to the U.S. Cookies Market report.
The appeal of cookies goes back to nostalgia and convenience, sources told SN. Consumers associate cookies with their childhood days, and for many, cookies are a form of comfort food, which has gained favor since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Demand for cookies has jumped double-digits over the past year, a clear sign people are craving foods that make them feel good, said Steven Roberts, vice president of culinary operations for Bethesda, Md.-based Sutton Place Gourmet. Roberts said the company's 12 stores sell anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of cookies a week now. Sutton Place Gourmet operates stores under the Sutton Place Gourmet, Hay Day Country Farm Market and Balducci's banners.
"One thing that's been great for us is people are not so obsessed with calories and fat," he said. "They seem to understand there's an art to eating in moderation and still being able to have all the food you love."
The in-store bakeries report strong sales of old favorites, including chocolate chip, and less common varieties, including Mexican nut cookies, European-style macaroons and French palmiers, a crisp pastry cookie. Under the company's own Hay Day Market brand, Sutton Place sells peanut butter, lemon snaps, coffee snaps, oatmeal raisin, chocolate chip, chocolate chip pecan and double chocolate cookies, packaged in 10-ounce bags for $4.99. Bakers make the butter-rich cookies from scratch at the company's central bake shop, as well as on-site in some store kitchens.
The busiest times of day for selling cookies are at lunch and dinner, Roberts said. In addition to bagged cookies, Sutton Place sells individual large cookies in service cases, and carries the Hay Day line and individually wrapped varieties in the food-service department as well.
While children occasionally talk their parents into buying cookies, the sweet treats are mostly an impulse purchase for grown-ups. In fact, Roberts said, the largest volume of cookie sales is generated by impulse purchases.
Within the last two years, Albany, Calif.-based Andronico's rolled out an upscale line of traditional cookies under the Andronico's label, mainly to keep up with competitors who were reaping profits from their own premium lines.
Baked in-house from frozen dough, the cookies come in six traditional flavors: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, white chocolate macadamia nut, snickerdoodles and ginger snaps. The stores sell the cookies individually at service counters and in five- and 10-packs. The individual cookies sell best, followed by the five-packs, said Robert Gott, bakery buyer for the 11-store independent chain. Chocolate chip is the hands-down top seller, followed by ginger snaps.
The sweet aroma of cookies fresh from the oven seems to help sell the products. Without having to do much promotion at all, bakery officials have met sales expectations, said Gott. In fact, he plans to add more flavors to the line.
He's seen a noticeable increase in cookie demand in recent years. "There's more demand, definitely, than five or 10 years ago," he said.
While the stores carry other cookies, including handmade s'mores and M&M cookies popular with children, Andronico's Fresh Baked Cookies are the top sellers. The stores sell 15,000 to 20,000 of the private-label favorites every week. The line "definitely filled a void," Gott said. "We didn't have high-end cookies of traditional varieties before.
Big, round, bumpy and chewy, the chocolate chunk and white chocolate macadamia nut cookies are the most popular among gourmet cookies in the ISB at Kowalski's stores. Those varieties, weighing about three ounces each and measuring four inches in diameter, are sold out of service cases. Smaller versions are wrapped up and sold in four-packs on self-serve tables. Not quite two years ago, the company introduced the premium line, which is baked at the company's central bake shop.
"They're very eye-appealing," said Steve Beaird, bakery director for St. Paul, Minn.-based Kowalski's, which operates eight stores in the Twin Cities. "They do very well."
The rich, high-quality cookies came along at the right time. The fastest-growing area of bakery goods seems to be in premium products, Beaird said.
"Customers will pay for the upscale, high quality-ingredient cookie," Beaird said. Kowalski's late last year introduced a specialty item, a Dutch waffle known as stroopwafel, and these sweet treats have found a niche, too. In some places in the United States, they're simply called caramel cookie waffles. Regardless of their name, stroopwafels and coffee go hand in hand. Europeans typically eat the cookie with the hot beverage, sometimes placing the caramel-covered varieties on top of their coffee cup and letting the steam from the hot drink melt the caramel into the coffee. Kowalski's relies on an outside vendor to supply the cookies, which are sold in multiple-count size boxes.
Kowalski's rolled out stroopwafels in time for the winter holidays and, initially, the stores sampled the cookies to get shoppers familiar with the product. It didn't take long for them to develop a following.
"Now the repeat customer base is pretty good," said Beaird, speculating the cookies are popular with consumers who drink gourmet coffee.
Good old chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies easily outsell all the other more exotic varieties at one of Chicago's newest specialty food stores, Fox & Obel. Over the course of a week, the store's full-service bakery and cafe sell 3,000 cookies and, of that total, 1,200 are chocolate chip and about 1,000 are oatmeal. Those cookies are made from scratch, "the difficult way," said Pamela Fitzpatrick, executive baker at the store, which opened in 2001.
Among the more unusual cookies the store carries is mandelbrot, a dunking cookie similar to biscotti that's a good seller, said Fitzpatrick. Rugalach, biscotti and peanut butter shortbreads also have a following with certain customers. The store carries imported, packaged cookies supplied by small manufacturers in France and Italy.
In her experience working at a number of high-end bakeries, Fitzpatrick has concluded that customers buying cookies want products made from high-quality ingredients, more than anything else. Today's consumers have become accustomed to top-notch food and recognize quality when they taste it, she said.
"The market is much more aware of quality in products," she said. "They definitely notice if you use real butter."
The ease in which cookies can be consumed definitely appeals to modern consumers. "My feeling is people continue to like cookies, and anything they can grab and go," Fitzpatrick said. "They grab it, and many don't wait for the bag."