Someone once asked Courtney Cowan, founder of Milk Jar Cookies what her secret ingredient was. Her answer?
"The salt from my tears," she joked.
But it's a little more complicated than that. "The context of that statement was that, as I was preparing to open, my dad was diagnosed with lymphoma and shortly thereafter, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. So, between the exhaustion and stress of opening the shop, keeping the train moving forward, and worrying about them, it was a pretty tough time that was definitely accompanied by some tears."
She had also left her job in the television industry, deciding to put her whole heart, soul, and focus into Milk Jar Cookies.
"I’m a fighter for whom failure isn’t an option, so even though I had to dig deep at times, the commitment to make it work never escaped me."
Today she is casual, (dare we say?) relaxed even. "Do you think I should put shoes on?" she asks when we arrive to shoot. There are donuts waiting and a batch of fresh cookies. It's like walking into your favorite aunt's home. The one who tells you bad jokes while baking up a storm. The one you have real talk with. And we do. We talk about 20-hour days and pivotal business moments. We talk about the decision to put off having kids. We talk about the reality of writing a business plan when you have no idea how to write said plan. And we talk about her beginnings.
"When I was a kid— my mom taught me the Tollhouse Recipe," she explains. "I found myself making cookie dough anytime I could-- like every Friday night." It was in a suburb of Indiana during her teens that she started futzing with that recipe, landing on what become the base for her famous Milk Jar Chocolate Chip cookies. Her tried-and-true-and-tested by all friends and family recipe. Everyone knew, no matter the occasion, Courtney was going to show up with cookies.
It's a trait that followed her to LA and her job as a post-production supervisor in one-hour TV dramas. Per her M.O. she was bringing cookies into work, leaving them in the kitchen, and people kept mistaking them for bakery purchased cookies. At that point she was still relying on her trusty go-to chocolate chip recipe. Milk Jar now bakes 15 flavors daily.
In 2005 she stared an online cookie company (originally named Sweet Cheeks Cookies), hustling on the the side while she worked full-time in TV production. For seven years she shifted back and forth between cookies and her day job, using industry hiatus' between shows to her benefit.
In 2012 while laid up after a back surgery she realized she could either go back to TV or she could focus on baking full time. During the 8 weeks she wrote her business plan. She committed.
"I went through probably twenty iterations of a business plan," she says. "I didn't know where to start."
"I had a really hard time was putting into words why I wanted to do it and why I felt it was important. It’s just cookies. But my whole goal was to provide more than just cookies- I knew the experience was as important as the cookies themselves."
She says a resource that was immensely helpful was the Small Business Administration located in Glendale. "They have a small business development center— and it’s free," she says. "They have seminars and counselors you can have one-on-one meetings with and their connections were critical in helping connect us to a bank that would give us a small business loan."
It was on December 4, 2012 -- which, she points out, happens to be National Cookie Day— is the day they got approved for the loan. January 1, 2013 they moved into what would become the Milk Jar Cookie flagship-- "a former Quiznos," says Courtney, "that left everything. We had a Quiznos party the night we got the keys and started tearing everything off the walls. We sold everything," she says, "down to the meat slicer."
Today that shop keeps her immensely busy, but she wouldn't have it any other way. "As crazy as it sounds" she says, "my favorite time to bake is extremely early in the morning. I thrive on the busy times that require me to be at the shop at 3:30am, jamming to some music, and doing my thing. My life will never be as simple as it was before I opened the doors of Milk Jar Cookies, so those mornings when it’s just me and my cookies are special to me and remind me why I love this."
She says it's a "cool combo" of remembering the simplicity of the days when cookies were still a hobby and relishing in how far she's come. How far she's come currently does not include kids, which, was a conscious decision she made with husband Adam when they first launched. He also worked in television (to which he has returned) and took time off to get the business up and running. "It was a solid year and a half where we worked together— and we talked about nothing but the shop. World events and then cookies."
“I’ve never worked so hard in my life," she says. "Every book says 'be ready for 12-hour days,' but we’re talking 20-hour days.” But it was something she knew she had to do. "I didn’t know if I would ever get around to doing it if I had kids. You’re not eating, not sleeping, you’re worrying all the time-- this is my baby."
Her life mantra is "if you want it make it happen." (See the chalkboard in her kitchen nook.)
Next steps for making it happen for MJC is preparing for growth beyond 5466 Wilshire. They've surpassed $2million in sales in less than three years. They are focussing on shipping and delivery "which," she notes "is in high demand and requires the least amount of additional overhead." They are also currently overhauling their website to make it more user-friendly and streamline the process on their end.
And Courtney says, "I’ve begun laying the ground work for an additional baking space, which is very exciting and a new challenge to tackle."
Upcoming challenges will include the month of December. Not surprisingly the holidays are their busiest time and they joke that "Winter is coming..." Last December was Milk Jar Cookies' biggest month to date. In one day they "baked, packaged, and delivered over 3,500 cookies. It’s intense," she says, "but truly so much fun." They've also shown 20% growth in sales every month, compared to that same month the year before.
Despite growth it's vital to Courtney that "Milk Jar magic is in each cookie and every interaction."
She seems to have nailed that recipe.
Milk Jar Cookies is located at 5466 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036
More from our blog: