When Courtney Cowan got her start in retail baking with the opening of Milk Jar Cookies in spring 2013, she not only opened a storefront in Los Angeles, but also an online delivery service. Milk Jar Cookies bakes handmade cookies throughout the day, delivering fresh cookies to customers across the nation. Some cookie favorites include best-selling Banana Split, Chocolate Chip, and Rocky Road, with a 15th flavor being introduced monthly. As a twist, her bakery offers gourmet Fosselman’s ice cream, as well as Broguiere's Farm Fresh Dairy milk from Montebello, Calif., Sightglass coffee from San Francisco, and Harney & Son's Tea from New York.
“Cookies have long been overlooked as a gourmet treat,” Cowan says wisely, “and I knew that was a missed opportunity. I carefully developed a product that tastes amazing and looks beautiful. One of my mantras is ‘take a few seconds,’ so every aspect of my business was built on the approach of taking a few extra seconds to go above and beyond, and there is magic in that.”
With a star-studded following including Margot Robbie, Seth Rogan, Wanda Sykes and more, Milk Jar has become a Hollywood go-to. These cookies have been praised in O: The Oprah Magazine, The Today Show, and many others.
“My initial aspirations for Milk Jar were quite modest,” explains Cowan, who sought to create a neighborhood place where people could enjoy an elevated cookie experience. “It was going to be my way of spreading a little joy around Los Angeles.”
Milk Jar Cookies began as the dream of long-time cookie baker, Cowan, who left her job as a television post producer to pursue her dream of opening a cookie shop. With the support of her husband and designer Adam Tiller, she left the entertainment industry behind to open her first brick and mortar store.
“Knowing that my cookies shipped beautifully, I also intended to do a little shipping, if requests came in,” she recalls. “The skill sets I was armed with were customer service experience, strategic thinking and problem solving.”
In addition, Cowan possesses a deep understanding of product applications and the baking process, as well as an intense passion for her craft and a whole lot of grit.
Baking a difference
What separates her cookies from the competition are the intangibles.
“There are a few things that set us apart,” she says. “The taste and experience of eating one of our cookies is undeniably satisfying. The crisp, outer edge leads to a doughy center that is just sweet enough, Aside from the wide variety of flavors, both classic and inventive, the fact that each and every cookie is a handcrafted work of art resonates with our customers. Pretty things taste better, right?”
Eating a Milk Jar cookies makes you feel special, and that is not something people forget.
Cookies have always been her favorite treat to bake. While a sit-down bakery focused on cookies was a relatively novel idea in the dessert landscape, it was always her dream.
“There were definitely skeptics, but I was confident that I had created a product that could change people’s idea of enjoying a cookie and provide enough choices that they wouldn’t feel confined,” Cowan says.
She developed a base menu of 14 original recipes that would be available daily, plus a 15th flavor that would rotate monthly. Milk, ice cream, and coffee are the perfect complements to cookies, so she sought out the best that Los Angeles had to offer and added them to the menu.
“Everything about the experience of starting a business, building a storefront, baking in bulk, and running a company was new to me, so suffice to say the learning curve was steep and involved a lot of trial and error,” she says. “I always let my gut and mission be the driving forces in my approach to each challenge, so that the result in service to the experience I wanted to ultimately create.”
Over the years, what she has come to find that when your company is dynamic and growing steadily, the logistics need to be evaluated regularly. There is no time to be indecisive, she says. Research is key, but “paralysis by analysis” can be detrimental. Staying focused, but fluid, has been the name of the game for Cowan.
Identifying the magic
There is a point for any successful retail bakery when you understand that you have created something truly special, or original, in the marketplace you serve.
“The clues have truly been there since the first day of our soft open, when we sold out by 2 p.m.,” she recalls. “It was day that supposed to be for our friends to stop by and help us work through the kinks, but somehow word spread, and there was a line out the door. The same was true the next day. And the next.”
With each passing day and month, the bakery realized they were building up hundreds of 5-star reviews on Yelp, as well as so much organic engagement on customers’ social channels, saying these were the best cookies they ever had.
“I was blown away,” Cowan says. “I also remember one Friday night in the first several months, a couple who drove all the way from Long Beach to try my cookies, and I was in disbelief; people in Los Angeles don’t drive long distances if they don’t have to! Their job and excitement were incredibly gratifying and exactly why I wanted to start the company.”
Cowan waited until year 2 (in 2014) to introduce an e-commerce platform to their website, milkjarcookies.com. She wanted to have a solid handle on internal operations prior to expanding the business. By the end of the first year, they were taking so many orders over the phone that it was clear the demand was there and, operationally, online ordering would be simpler.
“The early results were good and have grown steadily,” she says. “The habits of consumers have changed so much in the last seven years since we opened. Having a solid website with an easy user experience is imperative.”
Over the course of the past five years, online ordering has increased from 20% of the bakery’s revenue to 50%. And navigating the current COVID-19 crisis would be nearly impossible without e-commerce.
“While we haven’t had the resources to expand our technologies in all the way we’d like, we have done our best to maintain a website that allows our customers to have an easy, enjoyable experience of ordering.”
The potential is immense, and Cowan looks forward to continuing to grow that side of the business They regularly ship to all 50 states, and it’s a mix of gifting and people buying themselves a treat. Customers are willing to pay shipping for a quality product, she points out.
They are constantly looking for ways to decrease the shipping rates to make it even more accessible, and they confident that will continue facilitating their growth.
Another aspect of e-commerce that is changing, she says, involves the surge of third-party delivery service such as Postmates and GrubHub.
“Their fees are hefty, so I held off on adding them to our operations for a while,” she says. “However, in 2017, I realized there was a growing customer base looking to these services for what the city had to offer them, and ordering cookies from the comfort of their couch is quite appealing. We are still working on making it a profitable relationship with these services, but the exposure to these new customers allows me to view the fees as a worthwhile marketing expense, of sorts.”
The bakery’s website allows customers to order cookies for instore pickup, local Los Angeles delivery or nationwide shipping. There is a good deal of coding involved in the site itself.
To process orders, they have connected to ShipStation, which allows them to easily create shipping labels and send order update emails to customers.
“As with everything, our system has evolved over time,” Cowan says. “We used to hand type each shipping label into the UPS website. As that side of the business grew, we could invest more resources into streamlining the process. We are currently doing a full rebuild of our website to improve the user experience and efficiency on our end.”
As for the art of shipping, the owner has witnessed enough videos of how packages are handled to know that it would be imperative to package the cookies in a way that protects them well.
The packaging she developed lends itself very easily to this, so it was a matter of finding the right shipping containers and carriers that would make the process as smooth as possible for both Milk Jar and the consumers. Understanding the carrier’s fees and policies are very important to ensure it stays a profitable experience.
“I’ve learned a great deal in this area over the last few years, which has increased our profitability,” Cowan says. “One of the things I’m currently working on is a custom shipping box that will eliminate the use of packing peanuts, cutting down our footprint, and reducing the labor involved in packing a shipment. It also promises to be an even more fun unboxing experience for the recipients.”
By 2015, the bakery owner started hearing more frequent stories from friends would overhear people talking about Milk Jar and how much they loved it. That pleased Cowan to great lengths.
One of her favorite stories originated from her aunt who – while attending a dinner party in Fort Worth, Texas – shared the story from a woman she overheard talking about ordering cookies from Los Angeles and calling them “the best cookies she’d ever eaten.” The cookies came from Milk Jar.
The owner also started noticing they were now shipping regularly to all 50 states, and the messages from people who were ordering their cookies were calling them amazing.
“I have always been so proud and amazed by the way our customers evangelize for us,” she says. “For a company with a marketing budget of roughly $0, their support has meant everything.”
From the beginning, it was incredibly important to Cowan that customers were made to feel special and that they could count on Milk Jar as a company of excellence. With every cookie that left the store and every people that came in, they made sure the experience was consistent and memorable, which kept customers coming back.
That has been the lifeblood of the bakery’s approach throughout its history, and customers have organically shared that message for them.
“For the first two years, it was word of mouth that had us growing at a rate of 30% a year,” she says. “A few years in, I hired a public relations company to help increase brand awareness and share our mission to a wider audience.”
Looking ahead, Cowan sees a different future than she did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My answer to this question is very different now than it would have been before the pandemic, when I was focused on laying the groundwork for expansion,” she says. “Given the operational challenges and dip in revenue we are now dealing with, I am focusing on adapting our operations to the new reality. The safety of my employees and our customers is paramount. While that means we can’t currently do as much business as before, I’m looking at growth through innovation instead.”
For instance, Milk Jar is preparing launch a vegan cookie “that is a near-match to my regular chocolate chip cookie, and cookie cakes are right behind that,” she says.
Additionally, the bakery is now selling baking kits, which contain pre-measured containers of all the ingredients needed to produce their popular chocolate chip cookies.
“What started as a way of getting rid of our perishable goods at the start of the quarantine turned into a much-requested product line, which doesn’t surprise me,” Cowan says. “There is great comfort in baking, and in times like this, people crave the process almost as much as the final product.”
And serving as the icing on the cake, the noted baker is preparing to launch a cookbook later this year, which will allow her business even more growth potential.
“I’m thrilled to bring the joy that comes from baking into people’s homes,” she says. “There are many unknowns about the coming months and what the health crisis will mean for business, but I continuing to work on a plan for the long game, while assessing the current situation to keep us safe and moving forward. My goals for the company remain expanding our operations to other markets across the country and spreading as much joy as possible in the process.”