Create & Cultivate 100: Food: Courtney Cowan

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You’d be hard-pressed to find a C&C team member who doesn’t have a deep love for Milk Jar cookies. In the dessert world, you haven’t lived until you bite into one.

But Courtney Cowan’s journey to the founder of Milk Jar is anything but typical. The cookie aficionado started as just that: an aficionado who perfected her chocolate chip recipe as a teen. She spent her early career working, as many Angelenos do, in entertainment. Baking was just a hobby.

As a TV producer, Cowan became accustomed to long hours, multitasking, and strategic decision making on the job. All of these skills translated to making Milk Jar Cookies a reality and transforming her sweet pastime into a full-fledged business in 2013. Now, the entrepreneur and serial baker wakes up at 3:00am every day and is prepping the bakery by 3:30am. Her business caters to an international fanbase, shipping cookies to eager tastebuds across the world. But if you find yourself with some downtime in Los Angeles, treat yourself to a hand-rolled homemade cookie baked daily at the Milk Jar Cookies HQ. As Courtney says, “Drop by, grab a warm cookie and a jar of cold milk; it’s our happy place, we hope it becomes yours, too.”

What was it like making the shift from the entertainment industry to the food industry? Did you have any challenges along the way?

In some ways, it was a natural transition in that my job as a producer was one of managing timelines, budgets, people, and ultimately quality control of the final product. Also, with as many as 10 episodes in various stages at once, I honed my skill of juggling multiple projects simultaneously and how to strategize, prioritize and delegate.

On the flip side, I literally knew nothing about opening a restaurant in Los Angeles, so everything was a challenge. Navigating the laws & licenses and using the commercial equipment were the things that intimidated me most, so I did a ton of research and asked a lot of questions. I scheduled informational meetings with a few restaurant owners, which helped lift the veil, and from there I was able to put my head down and make it happen.

How many batches of cookies did you make before you landed on the perfect recipe? How did you manage to be patient during the whole process and not give up?

Oh man, so many! It was a process over the course of many years. In my teens, I came up with a new twist on a classic Chocolate Chip cookie recipe. Then, as I learned more about the science of baking and how even the smallest of tweaks could make a big difference, I became fascinated and would experiment more. I finally landed on the final recipe after hundreds of batches. And, it was easy to be patient - at the time, baking was simply my hobby, and I loved every second of it. Not to mention, I got to eat the fruits of my labor, and even an imperfect cookie is a good cookie!

If you could have a meal with someone, living or deceased, who would it be and why? What would you eat?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I would love the opportunity to thank her for championing women, compliment her on her backbone of steel, and ask her how she stays resolute. And, I guess we’d eat whatever it is that superheroes eat.

What do you crave in life?

I crave adventure, more downtime to be with the ones I love, and peace of mind. I get great satisfaction out of working so hard, but I could use a little more play in my life.

What about your job makes you feel the most fulfilled?

I absolutely treasure the role Milk Jar plays in our community and the lives of our customers. From the newlyweds whose first date was at my shop, to the flight attendant who flies from Texas to LA just to get our cookies, and the woman who moved to Italy and pays to ship our cookies overseas; the personal stories of how Milk Jar impacts their lives never get old. To be part of a person’s history is incredibly special and brings me an immense amount of joy and pride, as I never would have imagined this recipe I created in my little apartment kitchen could touch so many people in such a deep way.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

My dad always told me that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, and that has served me very well in my life, and specifically in business ownership.

What’s been the biggest surprise or highlight of your career to date?

The biggest highlight so far has been Milk Jar being featured in the December 2017 issue of Oprah Magazine and on The Today Show within a couple weeks of each other. That was pretty amazing!

Even an imperfect cookie is a good cookie!

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Where does your passion/drive come from?

I truly believe in the product and brand I’ve created and their ability to spread joy & love, which is what I set out to do. It has not been an easy 6 years, but even in the toughest times, I keep believing and know that if I keep showing up every day and doing the work, great things will come.

What keeps you up at night?

The never-ending list of things that need to be done, both immediate and big picture, is always nagging at my brain. The day-to-day responsibilities and problem-solving oftentimes get in the way of inspired thinking about growth. I think this is something that is universal to entrepreneurs—there are 24 hours in a day, and you’re going to use every one.

Whose career really inspires you?

I really admire what Jeni Britton Bauer has done with Jeni’s Ice Creams. She took her time in growing it to what it is now and worked hard to maintain the soul and sense of community she established at the beginning. Plus, that’s some delicious ice cream!

What has been your biggest opportunity or biggest challenge as a woman in the food industry?

My biggest challenge thus far has been securing additional funding, despite being in business over 5 years with millions in revenue and consistent 25% growth year over year. I don’t know if it has anything to do with me being a woman, but perhaps it hasn’t helped.

If a new path isn’t clear, I take out my machete and bushwhack my way.

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When you hit a bump or hurdle in your career, how do you find a new road + switch gears to find success?

I’ve learned that I can’t be too precious with certain aspects of my business. If something isn’t working, I’ve got to let it go, pivot, and keep moving. I let my values and purpose guide me but look for a new path forward. If a new path isn’t clear, I take out my machete and bushwhack my way.

What are you toasting to in 2019? What are you most excited for?

I am toasting to growth and expansion in 2019. I’m most excited about opening a second Milk Jar storefront and working on my cookbook!

Photography by Annie McElwain Photography

Photoshoot skincare provided by Dermalogica

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