By Hanna Neier, Hungry's Senior Content Editor
Dawn Casale was working retail at Barney’s when she realized there was a hole in the market for gift-appropriate cookies. Fast forward 16 years, three storefronts, and one pastry-chef husband/co-owner later, and One Girl Cookies is now a thriving business with many lessons learned along the way. Recently, Casale sat down with Hungry to share her home-baked story.
HM: So how did you come up with the idea for One Girl Cookies?
DC: When I started out, I wanted to do something culinary. I liked to cook and bake, so I went out into the city and looked around. I was inspired by the idea of a box of chocolates—how you feel when you open the box, the aesthetics of it, being overwhelmed by all the flavor options, then savoring each one. I thought no one was doing that with cookies. You could buy them in a cellophane bag but there was a real void if you wanted something gift-able and beautifully packaged, something that would make the recipient feel special. That was the jumping-off point.
Where You Can Find One Girl Cookies:
68 Dean Street, Cobble Hill
33 Main Street, Dumbo
Industry City Food Hall, 254 36th Street, Suites 106 & 107
HM: How did you come up with the name?
DC: It was actually my roommate’s idea at the time. When I first started the business, I was just one girl working out of my apartment and I did everything. I baked the cookies, wrapped them, tied the bows, hopped on the subway, and delivered them myself.
HM: So, no actual storefront at first?
DC: Exactly, at first there was no brick and mortar. I just worked doing individual gifts. After about a year I got a few wholesale accounts. I was renting kitchen space from a caterer in order to fill my orders, and that caterer became one of my first wholesale accounts. I had worked at Barney’s and the sister of a sales associate was a caterer, and she became an account. After that it was really word of mouth.
HM: What pushed you from your apartment kitchen to a commercial one?
DC: For one, you need a licensed kitchen. But mostly it was for space and sanity. It was nice at first to wake up and just start baking, but after a while it became stifling. After my first Christmas season it became too unruly trying to manage it out of my home. Plus, I missed working with people.
HM: Did you ever attend culinary school?
DC: No. I grew up in a really culinary household, and I know my way around the kitchen. I knew I could make a product that could taste great. I just went by the seat of my pants, there was no master plan. Neither my first employee nor I had a culinary degree and we were doing just fine.
But, when I started to grow, I began to feel the pressure of not having gone to school. I realized I could be so much bigger if I knew how to scale my recipes, and I was at a crossroads. I could either go to pastry school and learn the science of baking, or I could hire someone who had that expertise. So I hired Dave, who’s now my husband and business partner.
I never had any intention of getting out of the kitchen though, so I baked side by side with Dave for the first few years. It was only when we opened our first brick and mortar location that I got out of the kitchen and onto the business side—it was too much to manage otherwise.
HM: Why move from wholesale to a storefront?
DC: It was always the ultimate goal. I love retail, it’s what I know. Also, to really experience the brand we needed a physical store. We don’t just sell cookies. You come to any of our spaces and it’s an experience: from the way everything’s displayed, served, the customer service, music, the design of the spaces, and the packaging. Everything is thought out and I would never be able to achieve that with just a wholesale business.
That being said, going to a brick and mortar is a game changer. Your business changes. Before, we worked long days but usually had our weekends free. Once you have a retail location, you have a bigger staff, more responsibility. For a while we were working 7 days a week.
HM: Did you do any market research before opening your first store?
DC: We didn’t really do market research when we went for the brick and mortar. We moved to Cobble Hill when it was on the cusp of major change. People were so hungry for a business like ours. Cobble Hill is a tightknit community. We’re close to the bistros and to the school and word of mouth just came naturally. It’s not always like that, but for us it was. We were the only place at the time that did cupcakes and birthday cakes. We had built-in customers.
HM: How did you know you were ready to expand?
DC: We were at Dean Street five years before we signed the lease in Dumbo. It was a gut feeling. We had a stable staff and product offering. We believe in slow, mindful growth. Going too fast is the kiss of death. But to make more money, you need to grow. Plus, we love being part of the Cobble Hill community and were were excited at the opportunity to become part of a different community.
Then, a year ago, we opened up in Industry City. That gave us huge kitchen space, offices, a packaging center, and the opportunity for even more growth. A business of our age to grow that much is not that common, but we want to build up our wholesale business. The wholesale landscape has changed, and we’re approaching it differently. Before, we were selling to caterers who always wanted one-offs which hurt our ability to develop a stable product line and grow our business. What’s worse they would often sell outdated product. Now, we work closely with our wholesale customers who are mainly coffee shops who care about local artisanal businesses like ours. It’s a different world.
HM: Were there any major hiccups that made you pivot?
DC: Building the Industry City kitchen was another game changer. It’s great and exciting but it’s hard on the staff, and there was a bit of turnover which happens when businesses grow—sometimes staff members are nostalgic for the way things were and don’t understand the changes despite our best efforts. That’s been hard.
And then of course, on the financial side of things, in hindsight we should have had more reserve in the bank so we wouldn’t have the financial pressure to start making money right away. There’s a long lag between buildout and preparation and when actual growth happens.
HM: How has it been managing a consistent brand among your three locations?
DC: We try to get to each location every week. It’s all about proper management. We try to have really great people who understand our vision, and we try to lead by example.
That’s why we’re conservative about growth. We could open additional locations and they could be successful, but at this point we couldn’t maintain the same consistency of quality and level of experience.
HM: Any advice to someone opening up a bakery now?
DC: I think a lot of people think, I really love to bake so I’m going to open up a business. That’s the wrong reason to open a bakery. To anyone opening up any kind of business, you have to like running a business because that’s really what you will be doing no matter the industry. People think, I’m just going to bake all day, and that’s not what happens.
HM: How about working with Dave? Would you recommend spouses or close friends going into business together?
DC: There’s definitely some tension. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar! The plus side is that you’re building something together, which is awesome. But you need to be hyper aware of how you are working together. If you’re not careful, it can seep into your personal life. It’s not something to go into lightly.
HM: Last question—favorite cookie?
DC: I really like Sadie, that’s a coconut orange… and Cecilia, that’s a chocolate mocha... or Penelope which is an apricot jam. It changes all the time!