Celeste Lee, Co-Founder
I recently chatted with Eleni Gianopulos, a successful entrepreneur who built a gourmet cookie empire, literally starting from scratch! Her dream to have a room of her own (to quote the inimitable Virginia Woolf) is an important one and is representative of what makes American capitalism and entrepreneurship so valuable. Pre-pandemic there were 1.1 million women-owned businesses with employees in the U.S. and close to 10 million if you include women-owned businesses that are sole proprietorships. We’re looking at you, all you fabulous Beautycounter and Herbalife sellers. Typically, a woman-owned business has 8 employees and achieves $1.3 million in annual sales.
Interestingly, between 2014 and 2016, the number of women-owned companies grew by 6%, doubling the growth seen in men-owned businesses. Also, minority and BIPOC women owned businesses accelerated at a 14% growth pace. This is fantastic news, right? Yes but at the same time the ratio of women-owned business to total businesses remained status quo at 21% and as a whole represented only 12% of total sales. So ‘you’ve come a long way baby’ but there are still many mountains to climb. We all need to think bigger ladies! That’s why Caire was so delighted to hear Eleni Gianopulos’ growth story.
CAIRE: How did you start your gourmet cookie business? Did you have a family recipe that inspired you or was it more the idea of having your own business altogether?
Eleni: I grew up in an entrepreneurial family, and I really wanted a job, an interesting job. My husband was very supportive of my goals and at the same time, I saw that friends were starting their own companies. And perhaps above all, I was inspired by my own mother, Jeanie. She just passed away last year at 90, but back in the day, she taught Greek cooking on a local TV network. So for me, it was natural to start with what I was comfortable with. Initially I thought about a baklava business but quickly realized that it was sticky, messy and the layers made it problematic. More importantly I realized it would not be a popular everyday gourmet pantry item, outside of the Easter season. So then I thought about cookies!
CAIRE: How did you know which cookie to start with or did you start with several kinds?
Eleni: I started with my mother’s oatmeal raisin cookie which I tweaked to perfection. And that was what was important, I could explain then and now why the Eleni oatmeal raisin was superior:
All natural, perfectly round, soft center, crisp edges.
CAIRE: Eight words to cookie perfection! That is so on point. And it’s so interesting that you pivoted before you even turned on the oven. When did you know you had something special?
Eleni: I went from oatmeal raisin to snickerdoodles and other cookies like cut out cookies. In 1996, Martha Stewart Living did a story about me that mentioned my cut out rabbit cookies, and we got 200 calls the next day about ‘decorative cookies’! I quickly became known for custom created iced decorative cookies. Then they went from one-offs to themed sets. That idea came to me because people would ask for Santa Claus cookies as well as Christmas tree cookies and so the idea of “themed” cookie sets arose naturally. We sensed the demand for highly decorative cookies and started creating gift sets for every holiday and occasion. Some of our most popular sets are for weddings and birthdays, but we’re always creating new ones. Anyway, back then, Bergdorf’s called, and it was very exciting to be recognized.
CAIRE: For those of you outside of NYC, Bergdorf Goodman (corner of 57th and 5th Avenue) is considered one of the world’s great department stores in New York City, full of the best, the most luxurious, and the most desirable. Bergdorf’s continues to be an important trend spotter and tastemaker. I myself remember seeing your (Eleni’s) gorgeous cookies there in the late 90s and of course at your shop in Chelsea Market, which I understand recently closed.
Eleni: Yes, we had a great time with it. Chelsea Market was one of the first great modern food halls and is now a New York City institution. But back in 1997, that part of Chelsea was unknown and out of the way, and for all of us that started in Chelsea Market, we built a community and really grew up together … Amy’s Bread, Lobster Place, Buon Italia, Ronnybrook Dairy and so many others. At the time, I got a $60K loan with the Bank of New York. My loan officer, Ruth Finn, was supportive and worked with us for many years until Bank of New York merged with Chase Bank. The important thing is that our business broke even within our first year of being in Chelsea Market.
Chelsea Market made so much sense for Eleni’s, officially Eleni’s New York, as it was the original Nabisco biscuit factory, which itself was a combination of several biscuit and cracker companies that joined up in the late 1890s. Nabisco invented the Oreo cookie there. There were even trains that went through the building, picking up crackers and cookies direct from the factory. But after Nabisco left in the 50’s, the building fell into disrepair.
When all is said and done, it was great to be part of Chelsea Market for so long but our business has grown in such a way that one free-standing store doesn’t make sense for us financially or operationally. And when it’s raining or snowing, I am so relieved that I don't have to go down to the shop. By the end of this year, Eleni’s cookies will be in about 3,000 gourmet, mom & mom specialty groceries, department stores and other gift retailers. We’re selling all over now, not just New York, and are doing really well in California, Colorado and the South especially. We have several successful lines including the Hex box cookies, Color Me! Line, the Twins and of course we continue to grow our custom-made decorative cookies – all in all, we expect to sell 30 million cookies this year.
CAIRE: I’m not surprised you’re doing well in those markets. The Caire Theorem Serum for perimenopausal and midlife women does well there too. These women are obviously thinking hard about how to live their best lives now! Anyway, how do you go about developing a new concept? What about Color Me! for example?
Eleni: When my daughter Sophia was born (now 13), we started having cookie frosting playdates at our house. Color Me came from wanting the kids to be able to color and decorate without all the frosting ending up everywhere. This ‘problem’ drove a whole new product! The Two’s Group as we called ourselves got together every other Monday – including the parents – for years. Figuring out how to combine crayons and frosting has turned Color Me Into a must-have for parents and children everywhere.
But Color Me is hugely popular for employee and corporate team building events too! Samsung had an event where they drew their teammates’ faces on the cookies. Everyone had a blast. The truth is that adults love coloring too, and it really does build collaboration.
CAIRE: I’m coming to the most “important” question of the day. Can you share about your collab with Tiffany & Co?
Eleni: I love doing custom work for fashion brands, some of my favorite recent collabs have been with Tiffany's, Gucci and Hermès. For Tiffany, we created custom tins with Tiffany blue sleeves. Inside were our signature iced cookies including ones shaped like the classic Tiffany blue box and a Tiffany handbag. You might like that the industry that has made the most custom cookies with us over the years is beauty. Estee Lauder, MAC, Trish McEvoy, Bobbi Brown, Allure Magazine. Maybe Caire Beauty is next? It’s popular to do custom cookies for the launch of a new product or fragrance. And fashion too! We did cookies inspired by Carolina Herrera’s wedding dress line.
CAIRE: Caire would love to make a custom cookie some day. Maybe when our long awaited hyaluronic lipid hormone defying moisturizer launches. But for now, I want to say that I am such a forever Hermès fan. What did the Hermès ones look like? And I know you’re famous for the life-size gingerbread house you made for Elton John himself. Please tell all!
Eleni: The Hermès project was recent. In November, we made custom Hermès cookies that were true to the history of Hermès, recreating iconic horse and horseshoe shapes... so fun.
Eleni: And yes, one of my most creative jobs was for Elton John’s collaboration with Slatkin & Slatkin, the luxury candle company that was huge in Bergdorf’s for a long time. They asked us to make a 6 foot wide gingerbread house that would look just like Elton’s own country home. We achieved every detail including stained glass, which was made out of hard candy.
That was a feat, hard candy has to be boiled, so it’s boiled and of course hot, but the effect was truly glass like. And then Elton’s entire gingerbread house was shipped to the UK. I would say it was a crazy project, but it was like creating artwork. I love my work because every day is different.
CAIRE: So coming back to reality, at Caire, we are fans of your Twins cookies. Especially the Pink Sugar, which actually looks like our signature Caire color. Are these new? They are such a perfect midlife mid-day treat!
Eleni: Yes, we launched the Twins’ just last year. They are in fact an easy and women-positive way to manage midlife weight gain. Our motto is “Eat dessert first.” Each pack has a twin set of cookies and is just 100 calories and offers true satisfaction rather than some dry tasting bar. You can have something truly yummy and not kill your Weight Watchers points. My favorite one is pink sugar too! You can throw it in your purse before going on a plane or pop them into a lunchbox.
CAIRE: What business advice can you share with other entrepreneurs?
Eleni: It’s all about you. You have to be the driver yourself, and you can control the destiny. I would say you need to make the most of every day. When you wake up, you have to make progress against whatever goals you have set. You’re ultimately responsible for everything, but the reward is that you get to make the decisions! I would also say that women owners are very supportive of each other. Look at us! We met through Katie Couric’s Shops and we found out that women who like Caire like Eleni’s and vice versa.
CAIRE: Before we say goodbye, I wanted to ask about your daughter Sophia. She’s now 13. Do you think she or your son or both will follow in your footsteps, or is it too early to say?
Eleni: I’m in a great place with two teenagers in high school. Our daughter is an incredible baker, but I don’t know what they’ll do in the future. For now, my daughter and I enjoy baking together. She likes to attack very complicated recipes, and she’s highly critical, so it’s like having an in-house reviewer!
CAIRE: I’m sure they’ll both be great entrepreneurs like you. Thank you so much Eleni for sharing and caring with us today. We look forward to enjoying coffee & cookies with you another time.
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