As I attempt to collect my thoughts, it is approximately 3:30 in the morning, and I’m finding myself writing this, unsure if I will share it anywhere. But I just can’t sleep, having spent the last day or so in a fairly sour mood, which is hard to imagine considering that only 48 hours ago my niece Tara was welcomed into the world (and may already be the world best cuddler).
I can’t sleep because I’m beyond terrified about what the response to this Coronavirus pandemic is going to do to my little cookie company. Fortunately, we have weathered some tough storms before; We launched in the fall of 2014 and proceeded to be suffer through one of the worst winters in recent memory, where every week Mother Nature seemingly delivered 2 feet of snow. I’ll even bet you didn’t even know that it rained on a market Tuesday for 16 weeks in a row in 2018. Even worse, it also rained or was threatening to rain on every SoWA market day in 2019 for six straight weeks. Things were so frantic for us that last year I told an event organizer that I wouldn’t accept her cancellation of our company in her slimmed-down version of an event she had adjusted due to a possible thunderstorm. I showed up anyway, because I had baked thousands of cookies for the original date and just I couldn’t take that potential loss.
Top Shelf Cookies launched in 2014 with $2,500 and the hope that I would shake this crazy notion of running a cookie business out of my head and go back to my office cubicle like any sane person. To this day, I still think it’s a miracle we’ve survived being in business for over five years.
Despite being hit with close to ten feet of snow that first winter, I still navigated my fledgling business well enough to make it out successfully. I have always played a “slow and steady wins the race” approach with the business. We started out just by doing special orders, then we gradually took on farmers markets and pop-ups, then opened our online store and eventually we added our wholesale license.
In the spring of 2015, I came as close as you can to stalking a company and I pestered some contact I had at Samuel Adams/Boston Beer Co. to get my hands on some of their seasonal 26.2 Brew because I knew I could make an amazing cookie out of it. Since I was already in the door, I figured I would ask if they would a need for those cookies. They were a little nervous to ask me for a batch 1000 cookies, given the relatively young age of our company. But I told them “Absolutely. We can do it. Just get us the beer”. Full growlers in hand, I went into the kitchen and created Left on Boylston. It’s a lemon coriander cookie made with their 26.2 Brew. I love it for a lot of reasons, but let’s face it – the Boston Marathon is a really special time of year and to have a product tied to it was something I was incredibly proud of. Top Shelf has eight flavors with Boston inspired names and these are the cookies that are very near and dear to my heart. In fact, I had a customer tell me recently that while everyone thinks cookies at Christmas, she thinks Top Shelf Cookies in April.
Doing business in the city of Boston is a certainly a challenge, especially considering the high rents and transportation situation. We have had a hard time finding an actual home. We currently operate out of a shared space in Dorchester, CommonWealth Kitchen, but we are outgrowing the available space. Traffic is a significant problem for us. I just can’t be sure how much time I’ll be out on the road making a particular delivery. As such, we are able to only offer delivery for larger orders. And because we work in a shared space with varying hours, we can’t really partner with an on-demand delivery service until we have our own space. Thankfully, it’s fairly easy to ship cookies and the vast majority of our customers have been quite amenable to that.
Despite its challenges, this city is my home and I love Boston so much. It’s not often that you’ll run into me and I won’t be wearing something that says or represents Boston. I even have Dunkin’ Donuts sneakers for crying out loud! I’ve been in love with this city as soon as I saw the skyline coming down from New Hampshire when I was little. My dad was a Southie kid, and decided to raise his family away from the city. I moved here as soon as I could. I’ve lived here now for more than half of my life. And when I wasn’t living here, I was trying to get into town as much as possible.
The beginning of the year is always tough for us, as we operate a large portion of our business through farmer’s markets and pop-ups. There’s not a whole lot of that happening in the first three months of the year. In January, everyone is dieting and trying not to spend money. February gives us a little bump from Valentine’s Day. Once we get to March, Lent is upon us and people give up sugar, cookies, sweets, etc. In late winter we are also paying market fees upfront to secure our spots for the late spring and summer. This is a significant outlay for which we won’t see a return for a couple of months at the earliest.
We have to really hope that our efforts during the holidays put enough in the bank to allow us to hold through to market season.
This year, I tried to focus on ways that we could do bigger things and not have to rely so much on farmers markets to generate income. We have done a lot focused on the Boston Marathon the last couple years, not directly with the BAA, but showcasing all our Boston inspired flavors and offering fun gift boxes. This year we went out and secured a bunch of large orders specifically tied to the Marathon – businesses along the route, marathon sponsors and the like. We are in the process of negotiating for additional large opportunities as well. Looking ahead to May, we even managed to get this little cookie company into the Boston Calling food vendor lineup! I couldn’t be prouder to hit some of the goals we set at the beginning of the year. But now, I’m faced with the stark reality of watching our city figure out how to deal with the Coronavirus outbreak and cancel public events out of “an abundance of caution”.
I’m not here to get into the politics of it or debate if it’s the right move to cancel everything from a health perspective. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying it. I already take all necessary precautions – I mean, keeping our hands clean is kind of something that’s engrained in us kitchen folks. Heck, I’m not even much of a hand shaker to begin with.
But, allow me to tell you what all this means from a business perspective.
The Southie parade was cancelled with less than a week’s notice. It’s a time honored tradition but is also a huge revenue boost to local businesses that are in the same boat as mine - the first three months of the year are tough. The parade is probably a light at the end of the tunnel for a lot of these folks.
Yesterday morning the first thing I read was about Harvard going online only for the remainder of the school year. By the end of the day many other area schools had done the same.
With students staying out of the area, my business could be directly affected. I provide frozen cookie dough to a number of local colleges; the income from these sales is what I pay my rent and utilities with.
Later in the afternoon, when I heard that the Boston Marathon is still on, but the situation is fluid, my heart sank. All the hard work that we have been focusing our efforts on for the last two months could be for nothing. We had these amazing custom boxes designed for our 617 packs that I couldn’t wait to get ordered and up in our online shop. But now I’m paralyzed with fear and I can’t place the order to have them printed.
Boston Marathon isn’t just good for business, it’s good for my soul. I just love it. I can’t run 26.2 miles (I’m not even sure I could eat 26.2 cookies), but the energy and vibe the city has on that third Monday in April - I wouldn’t trade that for the world. I love going to the only scheduled morning game in all of baseball and wandering around town. I love watching regular runners (the elites have all finished by then) try to reach their goals. I love the chance to congratulate someone wrapped up like a hotdog. I love just being in my city and that it’s open to everyone for those couple of days. Over the years of delivering items at hotels in the city, every time I talk to hotel staff about this time of year, they talk first about how special it is and secondarily about how much work it is. I just love it so much.
We have worked so hard and defied the odds for more than five years. The fact is that our business is dependent on seeing people face to face. Not only do we rely on it, but we relish it as well. I love doing markets and interacting with our customers. I love that we have such an amazing and supportive customer base. I could tell you a bunch of stories about people we’ve met on this crazy cookie journey that I just love to pieces.
There are so many people that we have such lovely interactions with. It’s not uncommon to get personalized notes with our orders asking how CDO Brady is doing or commenting on how the Bruins are faring. I recently gave a longtime customer a discount code due to a delay in shipment that was my fault. She flat out told me she wouldn’t use it because “You are a nice girl and I want you to stay in business for a long time”. We aren’t perfect, we make mistakes, we learn from them, and we try to make them right. We pride ourselves on trying not to make the same mistake twice.
I work on average 70 hours a week. I handle all of our sales, marketing, and accounting. It’s a lot, but I have my dream job. I make cookies for Boston, which in my opinion is the best job in the world. There’s no question that doing this for more than five years has taken its toll on me, but I still love it. I have three part time girls - two that help me with events and assorted administrative stuff. My best friend is about to take over the accounting full-time. Yet, there is a very real chance that this could be delayed if we lose vital business in the coming months.
The simple fact is that if we lose the marathon, I’m not sure if we’ll be able to come back from it. I have so much riding on it this time around. As much as my heart breaks at the thought of not having it as a Bostonian, I am truly concerned for what it will do to my business and to our small business community.