For 25 years since the iconic Levain Bakery opened its first retail shop in New York City, the bakery has offered four cookies on the menu. But these are not just any cookies. Each one is 6 ounces of pure deliciousness — their signature chocolate chip walnut, along with classic oatmeal raisin, dark chocolate peanut butter chip, and dark chocolate chocolate chip.
Now with expansion plans forging ahead and a bustling ecommerce business, Levain is poised to go where it’s never ventured before. Will there be a new cookie flavor on the horizon?
“It’s a potential,” says Rachel Porges, chief marketing officer for Levain Bakery. “We’ve gone 20-plus years with four amazing cookies. Like anything else we do, we will make sure it’s the best darn cookie you’ve ever tasted. There will definitely be some experiments, and we will see where it lands.”
Levain Bakery got its start in New York City, where the bakery is best known for its decadent, 6-ounce cookies. The bakery was founded in 1994 by friends Pam Weekes and Connie McDonald, who began baking chocolate chip cookies to fuel their triathlon training.
“We both knew we wanted to own a business. We wanted to do something that we enjoyed every day and have a business that is part of the community and makes people happy,” Weekes says. “Both of us love to bake.”
Over the years, the company has expanded to five bakery locations across New York and a growing national ecommerce business. Levain Bakery has become a beloved “must-visit” New York institution, and its cookies are commonly cited as the best in New York.
Levain Bakery operates five retail stores in New York, including one in the Hamptons (in Wainscott, New York). Their newest location is set to open in October in NoHo, the company’s first foray into downtown, at Lafayette Street and Bleeker. The founders are beyond excited.
Fueling expansion is a 2018 investment in Levain Bakery by Stripes Group, “enabling us to expand our vision at a faster pace,” Weekes says. “We are so excited about the amazing opportunities. They are an amazing group of people.” McDonald calls it a “match made in heaven.”
Stripes Group is a leading growth equity firm that makes $10-150 million investments in internet, software, healthcare IT and branded consumer products businesses, according to the company. The firm has followed the Levain story for more than three years, first as loyal customers ordering cookies on birthdays and special occasions.
“They have a passionate interest in brands, and they don’t want to see us do anything that would damage the Levain Bakery brand,” Porges says.
The equity firm learned of Levain Bakery as customers, and now as partners. “As we got to know Pam and Connie, we were consistently impressed by the authenticity of the brand and their dedication to product excellence and customer service,” Stripes reports on its website. “After bootstrapping the business for 24 years, the founders wanted a partner to help scale the business and chose Stripes for our operational expertise in brand-building and track record of supporting entrepreneurs with premium consumer products. We are thrilled to be working with the Levain team to help scale the business and get what we believe are the world’s best cookies to even more consumers across the country.”
Why cookies are climbing
A closer look at what’s happening in the sweet bakery universe sheds light on why American consumers, especially younger ones, are going so crazy for cookies. Gourmet donuts and, before that, decadent cupcakes have grabbed many of the headlines on the food pages of national media.
But now it is clear that cookies are climbing the charts — and fast. Late-night delivery specialist Insomnia Cookies — the Jimmy John’s of cookies — has exploded to more than 150 locations nationwide. Crumbl, based in Logan, Utah, has grown to 35 locations in three years.
Bake’s own research reveals that cookies are offered by 89% of retail bakeries in America, so perhaps cookies are simply overlooked at times. Everyone knows them. Everyone loves them. Everyone buys them. And with a growing number of bakery ecommerce engines, along with popular digital marketplaces such as Goldbelly chugging along, consumers have many more avenues to buy cookies instantly — to satisfy their sweet cravings.
Private equity firms are certainly monitoring the situation. Milk Bar, for instance, has accelerated expansion after a multimillion-dollar investment from RSE Ventures, which has built an impressive stable of cutting-edge food brands. Milk Bar founder Christina Tosi says that “our demographic is nationwide, and cookies are the conduit to our community.”
Cookies are, indeed, the classic American sweet that everyone has grown up with, and so cookies are as comforting as they are delicious, says Weekes. Cookies are freshly made, and they have very good shelf life without using preservatives.
“What makes Levain unique and special is that we try not to chase trends,” Porges says. “At the end of the day, people take comfort in the fact that Levain Bakery will always be Levain — classic, delicious baked goods that stand the test of time.”
Looking back on the early years, “We started to realize how much people enjoyed coming to the bakery, and we were excited about what we were doing,” Weekes recalls. “We bake our cookies all day long. Physical bakeries will always be relevant.”
On the digital side, Levain proved to be among the first in the retail bakery world to have a website — at www.levainbakery.com. Their mail-order business began in 1999, and the early results were highly encouraging.
“People loved being able to get freshly baked, delicious made-to-order cookies within a short time,” Weekes says. “They really liked them, and we were able to grow our business in a beautiful, organic way.”
McDonald recalls the two recognized they were on to something truly special when customers began ordering Levain’s decadent cookies for friends or family, and then those friends and family would turn around and order Levain cookies for others. This domino effect kept building and building. There was a buzz about the brand that was spreading rapidly.
“It was mind boggling,” Connie says, “all this energy and excitement.”
The owners enjoyed taking cookie orders from people across the country who were only a phone call away — at 877- 4Levain. “We hand-wrote gift notes,” Weekes says, “and we are still very hands-on and available to customers as needed.”
The personal touch to business
Porges says the secret to success lies in the way Levain Bakery takes care of customers.
“They’ve always had their finger on the pulse of what neighborhoods want to eat, and they created something very special,” she points out about the founders. “The channels have changed, but the underlying fact of what the customer wants hasn’t changed. It still has to taste great. It still has to have the Levain seal of approval. As we grew the business online, we stayed true to the idea that we would operate like a local bakery around the corner.”
Ecommerce is definitely expanding the business, she adds, with delivery in New York City using Caviar (part of Square’s full suite of business tools) and nationwide shipping, getting Levain cookies into more people’s hands.
“It’s about making sure we make things easier and better for the customer,” Porges says. “There are different methods for how to get our cookies, but the onus is on people like us to move with the times.”
And just as important is delivering the ultimate customer experience when shoppers are in the Levain stores. Says Weekes, “I feel ecommerce and our physical stores offer things that you can’t get from one of them alone.”
Nestled in New York City’s Upper West Side, Levain headquarters is a cozy neighborhood bakery where locals are greeted by name. A steady stream of loyal regulars stands side by side with tourists, eager to sample the legendary baked goods.
From an inventive array of rustic breads to the world-famous six-ounce chocolate chip walnut cookie, everything is baked on-site, fresh every day from the finest natural ingredients. What doesn’t sell that day goes to help feed the hungry — a mission that has been solidly in place since the beginning.
At the time it was founded in 1994, McDonald was in banking and Weekes in fashion. The two, both competitive swimmers, trained together for the Ironman and—not surprisingly, as their tireless workouts left them feeling starved for great food— they began a passionate dialog about creating the world’s greatest chocolate chip cookie.
Within just a few years, Levain Bakery had become a neighborhood institution and a destination for epicurious travelers from around the world. Demand continued to grow. In 2000, to satisfy their regular clientele summering in the Hamptons, the two opened a second bakery in the village of Wainscott on Long Island’s East End. And today, through their website, they now ship their world-famous cookies to happy fans around the globe.
“Specialty retail is not dying,” Porges says. “There will always be a reason to come into Levain Bakery because it’s an amazing experience. Ecommerce is just one more way to experience the brand.”