We recently connected with Yvonne Conti-O’Brien and have shared our conversation below.
Alright, Yvonne thanks for taking the time to share your stories and insights with us today. How has Covid changed your business model?
Before Covid we were at the Brownwood Farmer’s Market and being very successful. We would sell out almost every Saturday morning within 2-3 hours! It was very exciting! We loved seeing our loyal customers and meeting new people. We would also be in the town square holiday festivals. We have three town squares; and we had been in festivals at two of them. We were finally going to be in the square closest to our neighborhood. We prepared for a week baking and packaging. It was thrilling to know we would be close to home, near our neighbors with one of our most popular cookies, Irish Cookie Bomb! we had two carloads filled with cookies and our set up, but as we were driving into the square, we were told to turn around because the Governor shut everything down. It was March 13th, 2020, and we were supposed to be at the St. Patrick’s Day Festival. I was absolutely heart broken. Well, some friends from the farmer’s market, Bountiful Farms, opened their land to the market vendors because of our perishables. It was very successful and people from all over were happy to abide by the Governor’s rules about social distancing, masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. Business slowed down significantly for the remainder of March and into April. I was delivering our Chocolate Coconut Clusters to my friend, Dawn, and at the same time Suzanne Gilbert from Brown’s Country Market was delivering produce and more to Dawn. Suzanne and I had not met in person yet; my crew and I were supposed to be at their Springtime Festival that had to be postponed. Dawn told Suzanne that she had to try the cookie. After eating it she came over to my car and said, “We have to have you in our store!” From that moment on, our focus changed! Not only do we continue to sell and deliver larger orders, but we also ship to all 48 contiguous states, all of our products are still sold at Brown’s Country Market, our cookies are sold in Alkimia Coffee House & Roaster in Ocala, our cookies and breads are sold at MawMaw’s Market in Kernersville, NC, and our cookies are sold at To The Moon and Back Frozen Treats in Oakridge, NC.
As always, we appreciate you sharing your insights and we’ve got a few more questions for you, but before we get to all of that can you take a minute to introduce yourself and give our readers some of your background and context?
One day about 6 months after retiring from teaching and losing 161lbs, I decided to rearrange our kitchen. As I was moving my husband’s recipe books (I didn’t cook for 25 yrs), one lone chocolate chip cookie recipe fell out of the cabinet. I hadn’t baked them in 15 yrs. I did when my boys were little, but I wasn’t very good at it. I guess I wasn’t ready to accept my gift yet. I baked these cookies, which I have since altered the recipe to make it my own, and they came out amazing. My husband asked me “what did you do?” I said, “I don’t know, but I don’t think I can do it again.” I did and continued to do so. We went on a 19 golf cart caravan ride to see the Christmas lights. I decided to make cookies for everyone. I was having fun. I originally decided to hand stir the cookies because I didn’t want to clean the mixer, but more importantly I didn’t feel pain when I stirred the cookies. I was concentrating on the measurements and stirring and didn’t feel the pain in my legs and just kept standing. A few yrs. ago I couldn’t stand on my own for more than 15 seconds. Now I stand for hours! Everyone on the caravan ride loved the cookies, but I thought they were being nice. We then decided to go to CT to see our children for Christmas. We stopped into NJ to see my sister-in-law, we were there 24 hrs. and I had to bake another batch. We then proceeded to CT where I watched my boys (in their 20s) devour a dozen like they hadn’t eaten in months. I had to bake 2 more batches! When we returned, I gave some cookies to the FEDEX man with whom I had become friendly. He said, “You really should sell these!” My wheels were turning. I asked my son what he thought, and he told me to go for it. He was in marketing and designed my logo, business cards, Facebook and Instagram. I didn’t really like any of the names that we were thinking about and then one night as I rose from the kitchen table, I saw my red rooster cookie jar on the counter and decided that was it. I have red hair and I love roosters! After I perfected my chocolate chip recipe, I needed another cookie. I was chatting with someone about Oatmeal Raisin cookies, and she said that she liked hers with chocolate chips. I said why do all that when you could just add chocolate covered raisins! That was the inspiration for my Oatmeal Raisinettes! I then was in Winn-Dixie and felt someone tell me to turn around; mind you no one was near me, but I felt this pull to turn around. I did, and there was a recipe for Double Cinnamon Sugar. I tried it and failed. I hated the way they looked. I tried altering the recipe and found exactly what I wanted. That is my Snickerdoodle. Those were my first three flavors. That was in January.
Now we were coming to February; a month I dread more than anything. I am an only child and I was close to my father. He died on February 9, 2005. I always hated Feb. 6th – Feb. 14th. Super Bowl Sunday we got the call that it was time to turn off the machines. I sat with him and held his hand until he passed on Feb. 9. He was then buried on February 14th. The week has always been emotionally painful. I ordered all of my marketing materials and they arrived on February 8th. I officially opened on February 9, 2018! I have always felt that my father helped me to realize my gift so that I would no longer be so sad that week, and so that I could move on. He was telling me to take a good look at what I had accomplished: I retired from teaching, moved halfway across the country, and lost 161lbs. I have come so very far, and I have nothing to be sad about. Do I still have my ailments? Sure! Do I still have pain and trouble walking? Absolutely! Do I let it drag me down and keep me down? DEFINITELY NOT!
I am so proud of the fact that I didn’t even know I could bake, yet I can create recipes and unique flavors of cookies that you can’t find anywhere else! I have over 100 recipes and I just love creating new ones. We also pride ourselves on outstanding customer service and helping our customers with unique gifts for whatever they need.
We want to be able to taste the love layered amongst the flavors from that very first bite! We bake cookies and sweet breads with love, from scratch and all hand stirred.
Have you ever had to pivot?
I retired from teaching middle school Spanish in 2017 to move here from Connecticut so that my husband, Dennis and I could be here for my mom because her husband’s health was failing. I was turning 50 and I was too young to stop working. I knew that I didn’t want to work for someone else and I knew I needed to be creative and have a purpose. I truly believe that I was given a gift.
Any advice for growing your clientele? What’s been most effective for you?
Word of mouth! Living in the largest retirement community in the world leaves a lot of people who love their sweets. When we started at the farmer’s markets and town festivals, word spread quickly. When someone has a treat that reminds them of their childhood sitting in grandma’s kitchen, they are going to tell all of their friends. When someone from out of state orders treats for their loved ones, and they say how much they loved them; the recipient then becomes a loyal customer. When that loyal customer orders for friends that have just had surgery, lost a loved one, or to say thank you, those friends now ship to people across the country and word spreads quickly!
- Website: rrcookiejar.com
- Instagram: instagram.com/RRcookiejar
- Facebook: facebook.com/RRcookiejar
Yvonne Conti-O’Brien Alec R. O’Brien