A few blocks up the road from Rosie the Riveter national park, cookies, brownies, and fruit bars are whirling around in convection ovens at Zoe’s Cookies and Other Delights.
It’s a bake and pack day at Zoe Smith’s wholesale bakery. Smith is a petite blond with a quirky demeanor and warm smile she is quick to share with everyone. She walks the floor among her production crew as they complete various stages of the process. While the pace is fast, the mood is relaxed, and Smith’s employees are quick to return her smile when she pauses to ask questions. The warm air is thick and intoxicating with the sugary heady smell of freshly baked cookies. Everyone is so busy that there is very little conversation happening. The clank of baking pans, the rattle of boxes being folded, and the mechanical purr of the rack ovens are the sounds that echo off the high ceilings.
You can find Zoe’s Cookies at places like Berkeley Bowl; but most of the company’s baked goods are shipped directly to businesses that serve or sell them to clients and workers. Earlier that morning, orders from clients like UC Berkeley, small delis and cafés in Richmond, art spaces in San Francisco, and corporate cafeterias in Silicon Valley were tabulated by Smith’s staff. Then the production crew placed hockey puck-shaped rounds of cookie dough on baking sheets and loaded them into rack ovens. Each oven can hold up to 90 dozen medium-sized cookies at a time. While one employee monitors the current batch of cookies on the rise, another checks on the tall rows of shelves containing cooling treats, in the back room. The employee takes care to step past one of the many fans set in the alternating aisles to help circulate the air.
“I’m not automated, so we’re almost all hand work. It’s not like these huge companies where everything comes out of a machine and nobody touches anything,” said Smith. “We’re like a big corner bakery.”
The company has been baking for almost 30 years, and turns out a variety of products like chocolate chip cookies, cream cheese brownies, and scones. But recently, Smith has adapted her product line to make it friendlier to vegans and health food aficionados. Although Smith’s big corner bakery produces treats and frozen dough made with eggs and butter, the vegan chocolate banana walnut cookie is a big seller.
Smith, who isn’t a vegan herself, began adding vegan treats to her company’s line about three years ago. “I did it because I keep seeing more and more vegan products in the stores,” she said. “I wasn’t impressed with the way they tasted. Sometimes if they tasted okay the texture was weird and my jaws hurt eating them. Sometimes they were like sawdust.”
Smith was certain she could do better. She spent six months working on her vegan recipes, and last year Zoe’s (pronounced “Zo’s”) debuted three new vegan cookies: lemon pecan, snickerdoodle, and tuxedo fudge. These joined the vegan chocolate banana walnut, fruity oatmeal, and peanut butter cookies already being produced. Now, she says, “If I don’t tell someone it’s a vegan cookie they won’t know it.”
That wasn’t the only new addition to the menu. Smith also introduced the !KRUNCH! Bar—a snack made with khorasin wheat, dried fruits and nuts—to take advantage of the energy bar craze. It hasn’t made quite the splash that she’s hoped, but she hasn’t given up on the bar. A change in packaging may be in order for better branding, she said. Currently the !KRUNCH! Bar is cut into squares. Smith thinks she might need to make it look more like a bar.
Innovating and nimble thinking have been part of her company’s evolution throughout its history, which Smith started as a labor of love. “My daughter Nia Blackston Doyle was really the inspiration for my company. After I had her I didn’t want to go back to my job,” she said.
Smith came to the Bay Area in 1967 after being raised in Tempe, Arizona. Her mom worked in a bakery, but Smith had other goals. She majored in art and biology at San Francisco State University with plans to go into biological illustration. Instead, she worked for Pacific Telephone and Telegraph for over three years in the planning department. After her daughter was born, Smith joined the girl’s father in Richmond in 1981.
Smith soon started experimenting with recipes at home. “I will often pull a recipe from somewhere and try it out to see how it is then I start changing things until I get the texture, flavor and degree of sweetness, and spread that I want,” she said. “I haven’t yet ever found a recipe that comes out of someone else’s cookbook that I was happy with. Then I make my own creations. I make up combinations of things that nobody else is doing.”
Despite never having gone to business school, Smith soon started selling directly to clients. Her first customers were local cafes in Richmond.
As the business grew Smith rented space in commercial kitchens. Then in 1986 she moved into a bakery space of her own. They quickly outgrew the 1,700 square foot space and in 1993 upgraded to the 8,300 square foot warehouse she has now.
Her daughter, Nia Blackston Doyle, now a married stay-at-home mother of three tots, has fond memories of growing up with a mother who made cookies for a living. “We used to have carts and run around and crash into stuff,” Doyle said. “We’d have box-folding contests with the staff. Sometimes they’d let me win and sometimes not.”
Doyle recalled one time when she was six-years-old when she ate fistful after fistful after fistful of white chocolate chips on the sly from a storage container. “I made myself sick,” she said. “It’s only been in the last two years that I’ve been able to eat white chocolate chips.” Now her favorite cookie from her mom’s menu is the triple chip—it has chocolate, white chocolate, and butterscotch chips.
Smith now lives in Oakland, but plans to keep her business in Richmond. “I put down roots. My very first bakery was here in Richmond, just on the other side of the freeway on the same street,” she said. “It was easy to stay, and the rents were better over here at the time—and they still may be.”
Thanks to the recession, business isn’t as sweet as it’s been in the past. The downturn in the economic climate has had a huge impact on Smith’s business. Smith was reluctant to go into full detail, but she was willing to share that she has lost some clients and has had fewer sales.
However, there are many clients who have stuck with Zoe’s Cookies and Other Delights, like Angelo’s Gourmet Delicatessen, located on 12025 San Pablo Ave in Richmond. Owner Jae Choi said he has stocked Zoe’s Cookies for almost ten years.
Angelo’s receives regular deliveries of various cookies, brownies, and macaroons from Zoe’s Cookies. Choi said Zoe’s chocolate chip cookies—with and without nuts—are his best sellers. When asked why he carries the brand, Choi was frank: “If people complain, then I won’t keep it. My customers really like Zoe’s cookies.”
Selling wholesale instead of retail may be one of the accidental secrets to Smith’s success. “Considering I come from an artistic background and not a business background I didn’t have a business plan when I started the company,” she said. “I did it all backwards. I just started making cookies and selling them.”
Managing a wholesale operation within an 8,300 square foot warehouse rather than in a small storefront may seem daunting, but Smith takes it in stride. “In retail you’re limited to your walk-bys and traffic,” she said. “Wholesale is really up to me. I can go out and get my customers. I don’t have to be in a good location where lots of people are coming by. It seemed easier to me.”
However, the lobby of Zoe’s Cookies does have a small retail stand at the front desk where passers-by can drop in to check out the famous vegan chocolate banana walnut cookie or an orange pecan softie.
The door between the lobby and the front office is covered with thank-you letters, cards, and crayon-drawn tokens of appreciation from local schools and other organizations that Smith has donated treats and frozen dough to. “She always tries to give,” Doyle said of her mom.
Back in the production area the baked treats are cooling and ready to be individually wrapped and divvyed up into boxes before they are spirited away to clients. As a finishing touch, each treat has a sticker affixed to the top with the Zoe’s Cookies logo that Smith designed herself.
In spite of the dicey economic climate, Smith is hopeful that word of mouth from happy customers and clients will encourage more people to request her fare at their favorite café, deli or work place cafeteria. While many other companies have succumbed to the recession, she is determined not only to keep her doors open, but to thrive.
Her favorite part of being a businesswoman, she said, is getting to be a part of Richmond’s local community. “I like being able to give cookies away, getting called ‘the Cookie Lady’ and getting all those cards,” she said.