Interview With Stephanie Lester Of Caveman Cookies
Tell me about your business model—do you sell online only?
I’m a one-woman operation and I work from home. I don’t have a storefront, and I now use a facility that produces the cookies for me. Early on, I used to make all of the cookies myself in a commercial kitchen located in Long Island City; actually, a lot of small businesses started out there. Right now, I sell the cookies through my website. I only have three varieties at the moment, so if I had a storefront, there would only be those three choices to sell. I don’t sell at farmer’s markets in the city because I don’t have transportation or a tent, and I actually looked into becoming a vendor at the Union Square Farmer’s Market, but you have to be an actual farmer to sell there. I’m considering getting a booth at one of the holiday fairs in the city; there’s a huge one right outside Central Park in Columbus Circle that I’m looking into. But, I focus more on online sales and trying to get into stores.
What made you start this business?
I’m not a baker. I’m actually an attorney by training. Out of a lack of creativity, I went to a big law firm in NYC after law school, but I didn’t really enjoy practicing law. I stayed at the firm for a year and a half, but, even a few months into it, I tried to think of other options. I’d been making these Paleo cookies for friends and family since college, and they were received well, and people started requesting them. It’s an interesting niche—there aren’t a lot of products out there for the Paleo community, and they haven’t really been introduced into the mainstream. So, I thought it would be fun to take this idea and start my own business.
While I was still at the law firm, I started doing everything I needed to start the business: I trademarked the name, figured out where I could make the cookies, decided what packaging I’d need—I went through three graphic designers before I found the one I have now—I went through all of these steps. I started producing on the weekends and would occasionally take a day off from work to produce, and I got the packaging ready and the website up and running. It got to the point where I was ordering so many boxes and supplies, and they had to be sent to my law office, so it looked a little suspicious. Eventually, people started ordering on the website who weren’t just family and friends. Eight months after officially starting the business, I left my law firm and started working on this full-time; that was early 2010.
Aside from the niche market aspect, why Paleo?
Back in college, I dated this guy for a while during the school year and then we both went home for the summer and didn’t really see each other. When we returned to school in the fall, I saw him again and remember thinking, ‘Wow!’ His skin was glowing and eyes were shining and he mentioned that he was on the Paleo diet. I looked it up then read a book called “The Paleo Diet,” and started following it strictly during my junior and senior years of college. I felt amazing and noticed a change. The whole diet concept makes sense to me: We evolved eating certain foods and our bodies are accustomed to digesting these foods found in nature, not foods we create in labs. I fell off the wagon in law school—there were days when I would eat just cereal and I felt like crap. Two or three years ago, when my husband was reaching a certain age threshold, I said, ‘We’re going back to Paleo.’ He’s Italian and wasn’t very pleased with the idea—he loves his pasta—but, he said after the first week, he didn’t even miss pasta anymore. He had stomach issues before that he doesn’t have now. Really, the motto is to eat healthy, natural foods you find in nature.
Because you can only work with certain ingredients, how do you sweeten the cookies?
Honey provides sweetness and moisture. It actually almost provides too much moisture. The cookies are a little sticky to work with, but if you put some water on your hands, that counteracts the honey so the dough doesn’t stick to everything. The honey also binds them together. They don’t rise like normal cookies, so that’s a bit of an issue.
How do the cookies stay fresh?
Again, it’s the honey—it’s a natural preservative. People ask me if I make varieties with agave nectar. That’s not an entirely Paleo ingredient, so I’m not entirely sure I’d be able to use it, but I’m also not sure it has the same qualities honey does in keeping the cookies fresh. When I was originally producing them in the commercial kitchen, I would give them a shelf life of six months, but if you put them in a Ziplock bag, they’d last longer. This was when I was packaging them myself, but now they’re wrapped individually, which gives them an even longer shelf life. This is good for advertising them to stores because stores want a really long shelf life.
Have you considered making treats for other diets?
The thing that’s really neat about the cookies and the Paleo diet is that it fits a lot of requirements of other diets as well. The cookies are gluten-free—they’re produced in a dedicated gluten-free facility—and they’re naturally free of gluten because they don’t contain grains. A lot of vegans also enjoy them because they don’t contain dairy; they do contain honey, but half the vegans I meet will eat them and half won’t. They don’t contain any sodium and they’re sugar-free in the sense that there’s no added sugar, only honey. I really like that while they’re technically based on the Paleo diet, they fit a wide variety of dietary restrictions.
In terms of adding a new product, I have a great recipe for Paleo brownies, but it’s incredible the amount of work and money it takes to add variety to what you already have. You have to complete new pictures and design, get nutritional analysis, update your website … it can take many months for just one person to get it all done. You have to make a decision about where you want to put your resources. Do you want to expand your line to your current customers and hope they like the new product? It’s tough.
How do you assess the success of the products?
A lot is based on customer feedback. From the very beginning to now, I’ve changed the packaging on the inside five times. Because of the cookies’ honey content, the cookies would stick together and I had some customer complain about that, especially in the summer, because the cookies weren’t individually wrapped. Another way of getting feedback is to do demos at stores. A phrase I hear a lot now is: ‘It’s a really clean ingredients list.’ I hear that so much that I’m including that in my application to Whole Foods national. I think a lot consumers want products like these; everyone is tired of looking at the back of a package and seeing all these ingredients you can’t pronounce. I feel good about these cookies because I can comfortably feed them to my children.
Did you have to overcome a lot of challenges when developing the recipes?
I developed the original variety back in college and I remember doing some online research and found that almond flour was a good substitute for regular flour, and I just went from there. for the more recent varieties, I wanted to follow a theme. I based the tropical variety on what a caveman in the tropics might enjoy—coconut and macadamia nuts. For the alpine variety, I wanted to have a Swiss-inspired flavor of chocolate and hazelnuts. But, I didn’t want to use chocolate because I think people find carob a little healthier. It’s the one ingredient that isn’t entirely Paleo—some people say it is and some say it isn’t. Technically, anything that’s a bean—cocoa bean, carob—isn’t Paleo. But, they’re lower on the list of “don’ts.”
What do you think the biggest appeal of your cookies?
I conducted a survey to find out when I first started the business, and the fact that the cookies contain protein seems to be the biggest appeal. The fact that they’re Paleo makes them interesting and unique to consumers and it definitely appeals to those who follow the diet and Crossfitters. And it has a gluten-free appeal.
What’s in the future for you?
You never know what’s around the corner. I’m hoping to expand into more stores. I’m in Whole Foods locally [New York City area] through the local vendor program. Regionally, Whole Foods accepts products once a year in your category. This year, I’m hoping to expand, whether that be in Whole Foods or another large chain that would give me more national distribution.