Two years ago, a 27-year-old Akiva Resnikoff acted on his inner entrepreneur and launched Awaken Baked, a caffeinated, organic coffee cookie. The natural industry has its share of energy bars and energy drinks—but energy cookies?
Inspired by his experience at two natural energy drink companies and a stint in culinary school, Resnikoff combined his two interests into one baked good and The Cookie Department was born. After the San Francisco Bay Area market began clamoring for more, Resnikoff expanded his offerings and became a "functional" cookie company.
As the company prepares to scale up this January, Resnikoff shares the story behind his journey, why he only sleeps on the weekends and how The Cookie Department is preparing to exhibit for the first time at Natural Products Expo West 2012.
newhope360: Why cookies?
Akiva Resnikoff: About 11 years ago I went to culinary school for pastry arts. But I never took it to the field after college. I went from not that much field experience to launching my own product. I was fortunate because my cousin owns a well-known artisan bread company, Metropolis Baking Company, so he had a space for me to do my test products in and begin selling to cafes. If I had gone the route of renting my own kitchen space at the beginning, I might not be doing what I'm doing today.
I started with one product. The idea was never to create a functional food line; it was just to come out with an energy cookie. I didn't want to become like an energy drink, which had its peak and now is just another product on the market. Likewise, there are so many protein bar companies doing the exact same thing—it's not fun anymore. So I decided to create a line of functional products that would fit into every lifestyle. Cookies are not boring. I'm not reinventing the wheel; I'm just creating cookies for other industries. I have an energy cookie, protein cookie, an aphrodisiac cookie, a healthy antioxidant, vegan cookie and in January I'll be launching a hangover cookie.
newhope360: Who is your customer?
AR: My customers are people that are interested in gourmet, natural products, those who are experimental with what they eat and early adopters. I hit different lifestyles. I do really well in gyms. I've got students who need a "wake me up" during final exams. I do well with corporate America. And when I do the hangover cookie, I'm gearing toward bars. I want to be the cookie that is in every category of the grocery store: in the alcohol department, the produce aisle, the coffee shop, the protein bar section.
newhope360: Do you create the cookie concept first or do certain ingredients drive the concept?
AR: I have the concept first and then I go after the ingredients. I pick the recipe: snickerdoodle or ginger snap? Then I break down the recipe and research the functional ingredients, how much should go into it. And then boom—one month later a cookie is born. The Awaken Baked was different because I was having issues with the ground coffee in the cookie. I wanted to get opinions about tasting the grind or not. And also I didn't want to just throw it into the marketplace, hold my breath and cross my fingers. I wanted to prove it in the market, so I gave it away at coffee shops and traded coffee for cookies so I didn't have to pay as much for ingredients.
newhope360: How many employees do you have?
AR: The last two years I've been doing every single thing myself from advertising, marketing, packaging, tasting and delivering. I didn't have any employees until now. Starting in January, we'll have five people.
newhope360: Is organic certification something you're interested in, beyond using organic coffee?
AR: In January we'll have five products. Right now we have four. Two of the five products we want to certify organic because of the market. Our vegan cookie is geared toward healthier vegans and people, and our sexy cookie will be organic as well because its maca ingredient fits into the natural category. [Editor's note: Look for the new names of these cookies as they relaunch in January.]
newhope360: Your branding, website and delivery car have a unique, throwback design to the 1940s. What inspires you about that time period?
AR: Our marketing is like Mad Men in the way that we have a classic look to ourselves, and we're trying to appear vintage, but we're very forward in what we're trying to accomplish. Have you ever seen the old Volkswagen Beetle advertising? It's what we're going for in our packaging, very simple and impactful. The 1940s feel came from Awaken Baked as we were trying to market to offices.
And it's interesting because people think we're a lot bigger than we really are. I have one personal vehicle that I drive everywhere, so people assume I have a whole fleet. I've been branded as "The Cookie Guy" in Berkeley!
newhope360: Describe your typical workday.
AR: I'm a nighttime baker due to shelf life and kitchen availability, but my afternoons are basically delivering product and sampling at coffee shops or gyms. Gyms are one of my best accounts. But it's just me and it can take up to a whole day to deliver. While I'm on the road delivering I spend about 25 percent of my time getting new accounts. I also spend a lot of time in coffee shops researching and developing new products.
newhope360: And you sleep when?
AR: On the weekends!
newhope360: How do you finance your business?
AR: Myself, for two years. Now we have one strong investor and are trying to source more funding. We're still seeking out private funds from friends and family. After we go over the third-year hump, I think we'll be more visible in the marketplace. I definitely have been approached but by small investors, where it may cost more to draw up the contract than what they're willing to invest.
newhope360: What's the biggest lesson you've learned so far?
AR: I've learned so much about business in the last six months and the last two years being in the natural products industry. But the biggest lesson is not to grow too fast. When I first started, I went to all the accounts I had from the energy drink companies. Out of the 60 accounts I got picked up by 30. That was my biggest mistake because I really wasn't able to produce for that many. It's something I'm going to take moving forward because we're going to be scaling up drastically in January, but I'm going to be more strategic.
newhope360: What advice would you give to other food entrepreneurs just starting out in the natural products industry?
AR: Prove your model first. Prove the product. Do focus groups. Hit the pavement giving away your product to educated consumers or consultants. People will just start a company and then a couple months later they're gone because they didn't do their research. I spent a whole year proving Awaken Baked in the marketplace on a small scale, and after a year people started saying 'OK we want to see more product." That was the first indication that I needed to come out with more product because my customers were requesting it.
newhope360: You're a first time exhibitor at Natural Products Expo West 2012. What's your game plan?
AR: I really just want to show the world my product. I want people to taste it. But on a bigger scale, I want to meet with distribution companies, excite the media and have local and national stores get wind of my product. I've always been a strong supporter of small, independent businesses because they've been the bread and butter of my company.