A cookie that’s good for you?
If Kim Cohen created a television commercial for her cookies, it’d be a tough sell: Wheat, dairy and egg free! Cholesterol free! No refined sugars and no artificial ingredients! While vegans in the valley might shout hallelujah, the rest of us would probably smirk and head for Johnny McGuire’s Deli, where the motto is “Health Food Sucks.”But one bite into Cohen’s miniature desserts turns many skeptics into believers. They say Idella’s Natural Gourmet, the name of Cohen’s 2-year-old confection company, serves up healthy cookies that, contrary to Johnny McGuire’s slogan, don’t suck.Cookie karmaCohen, 40, fell into the health-food business by necessity. Her daughter Sedona, now 4, was born with severe food allergies. Through trial and error, Cohen realized her crying, rash-ridden bundle of joy couldn’t eat key ingredients found in nearly all supermarket foods. Eleven million Americans suffer from food allergies, according to a 2004 study by the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. One in 25 people simply itch at the idea of peanuts, or whatever food that irritates them. For children under 3, that figure is slightly less: One in 20 suffer food allergies. This mother’s quest for children’s snacks that did not contain wheat, dairy, eggs, soy and nuts led her back to her own kitchen. She experimented with exotic-sounding foods like “spelt flour” (an alternative grain to wheat) and oil of orange. The result? Bite-size organic cookies that her friends raved about while raiding the stash in Sedona’s stroller. In summer 2002, Cohen buckled under her friends’ insistence that she set up shop at the Aspen Farmer’s Market. By the third Saturday, she was selling out of the home-baked goods by noon or 1 p.m.Her clientele ranged from moms of children also grappling with food allergies to 70-year-old men who just liked the tasty morsels.The seed was planted. “I’ve got something here,” Cohen remembers thinking. Born in Flint, Mich., and raised by a single mom and grandparents, Cohen has long depended on her enterprise. She paid for her Central Michigan University education with winnings from the Miss America Pageant system. In 1982, she was named Miss Teen Michigan and later won county pageants. Cohen considers marketing and sales her forte. At Acromed, which initially told her it didn’t hire women, Cohen became a top seller of stainless-steel hardware for spine reconstruction.”Because I literally started with nothing, I wanted to work to have something,” she said. Even so, the Aspenite hesitated starting a cookie business. In her late 20s, Cohen launched her first entrepreneurial venture, inventing a mouse-shaped cat toy rigged with a laser pointer (inspired by the laser pointer used in hospitals during spine surgeries). But after a copyright battle with a large Californian corporation, the company flopped. At 28, she was forced to sell her house to pay the legal fees. A decade later, Cohen faced a crossroads. Was she willing to take a similar risk with her cookie recipe? “I literally said, ‘Great Spirit, do I go for it or not?'” Just then, Sedona tottered by with a doll that carried a tray of cookies. Cohen interpreted that as a sign, loud and clear.Cohen decided to throw everything she had, including the kitchen sink, into making Idella’s come alive. (The company was originally called Kimberly’s Naturals, but a Los Angeles-based Tibetan numerologist with whom she consulted suggested Idella’s as a name that predicts “mass appeal”; for the uninitiated, numerology assigns a numeric value to letters and interprets meaning through a word’s sum.) Within two weeks Cohen placed her Basalt home on the market to help fund the new venture. The house sold in two days.”Everything just happened,” she said. Two years later, the company remains primarily a one-woman show; Cohen is marketer, graphic designer, shipper, spokesperson, and – until just last week – baker.On June 15, Idella’s hit the production line, which means Cohen no longer must hand-scoop every cookie; machines in a mass-production bakery in Illinois do the grunt work (her former kitchen was set up in Aspen’s Mountain Chalet.) And, vegans, worry not: Cohen refused to doctor her cookies’ ingredients, as the Illinois bakery suggested. She claims the cookies have a four-month shelf life without the added preservatives or chemicals.Will the cookie crumble?Despite a health-conscious list of ingredients, Cohen’s cookies aren’t a dieter’s dream: two-and-a-half of her top-selling orange almond cookies have 120 calories (other flavors on the market include cinnamon raisin, chocolate espresso and chocolate chip). But the 8 grams of fat come from organic sunflower oil, which is reputedly healthier than canola oil, and saturated fat is almost nonexistent (0.5 grams).Perhaps the biggest complaint about the cookies is unless you’re Edward Scissorhands, the dainty satin ribbons that tie the individual packets are impossible to remove. Detractors insist the cookies’ only health-food ploy is the consumer’s inability to actually eat them. But Cohen said the nitpicking packaging will soon to be replaced by a snack-size, potato chip-style bag. And then there’s the cost. Currently, seven half-dollar-sized cookies sell for $2.99; a 6-ounce box sells for $6.95. Cohen hopes the cost might be less with the cookies now being mass-produced.While college students whose daily bread is Top Ramen with ketchup sauce probably won’t shell out cash for these cookies, people with food allergies, the ultra health-conscious, or even just well-to-do sweet tooths say they’re a worthwhile investment. Cohen believes the price is fair, explaining that organic ingredients cost twice as much as nonorganic.”It’s pricey, but you’re talking to a guy who owns a coffee shop,” said Craig Witthoeft, regional manager for Zélé Café, which has stocked Idella’s for several months. “Our large mocha costs $5 … I mean, figure it out.” In other words, people pay are willing to pay for what they like. Plus, the organic label helps, and the Aspen name doesn’t hurt, Witthoeft mused. He also believes much of a product’s success depends on how it’s merchandized and marketed. Cohen agrees, and has spent the past months gearing up for a national rollout. She attended a national health-food exposition in California in March and is poised to tackle big names in the health-food industry like Whole Foods Market. Idella’s Natural Gourmet already ships to specialty shops and natural-food stores in New York, New Mexico, San Diego, and less-expected places like Milwaukee, Hong Kong and, as of last week, the Persian Gulf port of Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Locally, the cookies are sold at Zélé, Glenwood Springs’ Good Health Store, and Mountain Naturals.Yvonne Salazar, the grocery buyer for The Marketplace, a natural-food store in Santa Fe, just started carrying the cookies in April. “I can’t keep them on the shelf,” she said. That’s what Cohen is counting on. Katie Clary’s e-mail addess is email@example.com
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