Nestled in Makawao Town, a rural community located on the northeast slope of Haleakala on East Maui known as the hub of Upcountry Maui, The Maui Cookie Lady offers some of Hawaii’s most delicious exports. The company’s motto is “to make the world a smaller place one cookie at a time,” and it has achieved that over the course of eight years.

It all began in 2012, when founder and long-time cookie enthusiast Mitzi Toro began baking cookies as a fundraiser to thank the nurses at Maui Memorial Hospital for taking great care of her terminally ill father. After raising funds for the nurses for a few months at a local farmers market, Toro was encouraged to transform her cookie fundraiser into a full business by her regular customers who loved her treats.

Toro’s love of baking began when she received a fresh-baked cookie on the first day of high school. Since then, she has been baking for classmates, neighbors, coworkers, friends and just about anyone who was willing to accept her crazy cookie concoctions over the years.

“I remember how comforting it was to receive the freshly baked chocolate chip cookie and it gave me a moment of comfort from the first day jitters starting at a new high school,” says Toro. “I asked the teacher for her recipe and that started my lifelong passion for baking. I learned early on that it does not matter who you are, where you come from, what culture or language you speak, good food unites everyone.”

Sweets fans across the globe (and especially throughout the United States) have certainly been united over their love of Toro’s six-ounce cookie creations. After building her own commercial kitchen and officially beginning the Made in Maui cookie production line, the company quickly garnered fans from as far away as the United Kingdom, Japan and even Dubai.

The little island boutique bakery continues to gain loyal customers due to its creative, decadent flavor combinations and high-quality, locally sourced ingredients. It’s these local inclusions that make the cookies truly special.

“Hawaii has an array of beautiful agriculture, it's good for our economy and it’s just good to support fellow businesses,” Toro says about using local ingredients. “It is good for the soul of our community. We try to use locally sourced ingredients when possible; mango, Lilikoi (passion fruit); coffee, coconut, macadamia nuts, pineapple, Hawaiian sea salt, rum, Haleakala Cream Caramel and beer brewed on our island by Maui Brewing Company.”

Regarding the bakery’s unique flavors, Toro says that there is comfort in the classics; however, what the bakery is truly known for is making cookie combinations that are unlike what will be found at an average store or bakery.

Best sellers are the White Chunk Mac Nut (made with Maui-grown roasted macadamia nuts, Bavarian cream, white chocolate chunks, raw sugar and Hawaiian sea salt) and the original ButterRum Triple Chunker (stuffed with three types of chocolate and featuring the creamy smooth buttery richness of buttered rum flavor). Other popular offerings include Grown-Up Samoas (made with Maui Brewing Co.'s Coconut Hiwa Porter Craft Beer), Butterscotch Kisses (made with Sammy Hagar’s Maui Distilled Macadamia Nut Rum) and Pineapple Lychee Passion with Hibiscus Flowers.

The Maui Cookie Lady changes up it flavors constantly, over 150 to date, and that keeps regulars coming back for more wondering what is going to be next. Counted among The Maui Cookie Lady’s fans are some household names, including rapper/actor Ludacris and actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Johnson’s personal favorite cookie is Da Half Baked, which is stuffed with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers and Oreo cookies. Over the years Toro has been invited to provide concert green room and filming production gift amenities for Bruno Mars, Snoop Dogg, Cardi B, Lauren Lapkus, Nick Swardson, Rob Schnieder, Chris Titone, Adam Sandler, Diana Ross, Bonnie Riat, Bob Saget, Journey, David Spade and Bill Maher to name a few.

“My personal favorites... well that is hard to say and like asking a mom to pick her favorite kid,” Toro says. “They are all my favorites, but the holiday flavors are especially nostalgic for me. I love the "Oh My Pumpkin Pie" that we release pretty early in the fall because I am craving it. I also love our cookies like the Peanut Butter Perfection as I just love pretty much anything made with peanut butter.

Not only does The Maui Cookie Lady deliver on taste, but it also gives back through community initiatives. One of the biggest has been Maui School Slippah Solace, in which the company has been able to provide over 2,000 pairs of brand-new flip flops to students in Maui County schools on their three island county of Maui, Lanai and Molokai.

“There is a lot of need and working as a public school teacher and counselor, I saw firsthand the need for flip flops for our students,” says Toro. “The island lifestyle is more casual than the mainland. Our schools do not require closed-toed shoes and most kids wear slippers to school. Many times they break and I saw firsthand the shortage the schools had but there is no state budget to provide them. My goal was to get a case of flip flops to each school in our three-island county. We met the goal early and now we are on our third round of donated flip flops. We have had customers send them from the mainland and lots of donations near and far.”

The company has donated to a wide variety of organizations over the years, including the American Cancer Society, Boys & Girls Club of Maui, Teach for America and many more.

Pandemic Pivot

Like most businesses, The Maui Cookie Lady was forced to make changes during the lockdown portion of the coronavirus pandemic. In March of this year, with restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the virus, the company had to reassess its business strategy in order to stay afloat. With the island’s main economic driver, tourism, being shut down for seven months resulting in the highest unemployment rate in the country, pivoting the strategy was absolutely critical to survival.

For Toro’s business, this meant pivoting to online. Before the pandemic, it had been focused on walk-in traffic and select wholesale accounts. The goal of one day being fully operational online was years away, but with the shutdown, Toro moved up her plans and made the transition. She pivoted, and pivoted quickly.

“I went into the start-up grind again the day we shut down,” she says. “I went back to square one and redesigned a plan of action to compete with social media space in a very competitive market. I was not the only company focusing on the online pivot when the pandemic struck.”

The first order of business was to focus on its existing, loyal customers. The bakery sent emails offering preview boxes of holiday flavors only to those who previously purchased items, offered a local discount code to residents in the area that it needed to ship to as its kitchen was only zoned for wholesale (the kiosk storefront closed down and remains closed) and publicly thanked each person with honoring their name, city, and the state they are from in a weekly post that read like credits at the end of a movie – "cookie credits" as they’re called.

The Maui Cookie Lady also stayed away from Amazon and big online box retailers to create the allure of exclusivity. Shipping was opened up internationally, which many local businesses were not set up for. The company focused heavily on presales for holidays, adding a calendar app to its website that allows customers to purchase gifts months in advance assuring them they will get an order in despite limited production. The strategy worked, as it sold out more than a week before both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

One of the biggest ways The Maui Cookie Lady found success during the pandemic was through the QVC network. This allowed the company to potentially reach millions of viewers, keep the quantity limited and sell out easier. With the products not available on the mainland, this motivated customers, especially with the free shipping QVC offered.

The strategies put in place early on during the pandemic helped Toro and company to maintain business during tough economic times. As people order and gift through the website and QVC, they have gained new customers, who post on social media to reach more people. As The Maui Cookie Lady’s followers have increased, so have potential sales.

From the end of last year to the middle of this year, the bakery’s online sales have risen dramatically. During the month of December 2019, it had $6,859 in online sales, with a returning customer rate of 10.61% and total website visitors of 5,242. In May of 2020, it saw those numbers jump to $61,906 in online sales, a returning customer rate of 25.44% and total website visitors of 23,856.

Hawaii reopened to tourism in mid-October, and as the state recovers from being hit hard with business closures, The Maui Cookie Lady’s quick-thinking strategy has been a valuable asset in its quest to reach more customers.