Sweet Success

 

Almost 20 years in, Tiff’s Treats is taking cookie delivery nationwide.

If you’ve ever had the monotony of a boring workday broken by an assorted box of still-warm cookies, you can thank Tiffany Taylor Chen, BS ’01, for standing up Leon Chen, BBA ’01, Life Members, on a date.

It was the winter break of 1999, during their sophomore year of college, when Tiffany skipped out on their plans one evening. To make up for it, she showed up on Leon’s front doorstep with a plate of warm cookies in hand—planting the seed for what would become Tiff’s Treats.

Armed with a homemade cookie recipe and an entrepreneurial spirit, the two headed back to UT with a clear vision in mind: They would only serve a select few kinds of cookies, deliver them straight to your door, and above all else, get them to you while they’re still warm. “We took it seriously from the beginning despite how little money we were making,” Leon says.

Today, customers can order from 10 regular flavors of warm cookies by the half dozen, including chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, and M&M’s. What started as a way to cure the late-night munchies has evolved over 18 years into a Texas cookie takeover. In the last two years, the company has secured $25 million in investments and, with the help of almost 500 employees, opened over 29 store locations in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Atlanta. The now-husband-and-wife duo behind the burgeoning enterprise is even moving into enemy territory this summer with a new location in College Station, Texas—one of 12 Tiff’s locations scheduled to open this year.

But Tiff’s Treats was hardly an overnight success. In its first year of business—back then the company was called Tiffany’s Treats—Leon says the two spent most of their time skipping class to bake out of his apartment and still lost $15,000 of the money they had pieced together from personal savings and family loans. “We had nothing to go on but sheer excitement,” Leon says. “The only thing we had was people stopping us saying, ‘Wow this is incredible.’ That kept us going during those first five years.”

They laugh about how uneven that initial period was. There was the time they needed a larger kitchen and found refuge in a now-shuttered restaurant on The Drag called Spudnik that graciously let them use its oven space. There was a period of time when cookies arrived melted into a gooey lump because they hadn’t yet learned to separate them with parchment paper. And then there was the time that they received the cease-and-desist letter from the high-end jeweler Tiffany & Co. accusing them of brand dilution. Shortly after, they shortened the company name to Tiff’s  Treats.

Tiffany says that despite being a constant work-in-progress, orders were coming in, first from students and then from businesses. As their corporate clientele grew, the two made the decision to skip class for work only if a company ordered more than four-dozen cookies. It led to an increasing number of absences for the two. It also meant making extra cookies for the students they worked on group projects with, sent as an apology for missing afternoon meetings. Leon jokes that with today’s college class attendance policies they probably wouldn’t have graduated. But they did—Tiffany with a degree in advertising and Leon with one in marketing.

From their humble roots baking out of Leon’s apartment to the opening of Tiff’s Treats’ first standalone location on the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Nueces Street in 2003, Tiffany says the Austin and UT communities were supportive. “It was really homegrown,” Tiffany says. “Austinites were accepting of our flaws and they gave us a lot of time to work out our kinks.”

Tiff’s Treats caught an unexpected break when the economy tanked in 2008. The recession caused businesses to ditch champagne lunches and steak dinners for cheaper delights, like hand-delivered boxes of warm snickerdoodles.

“There was nothing novel about warm cookies,” says Mike Rawlings, Mayor of Dallas, a former CEO of Pizza Hut, and a leading Tiff’s Treats investor. “What was novel is that I could have them in my office at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.”

To streamline their growing business, the company opened an official Austin headquarters in 2011 where they now produce all their cookie dough and take every delivery call. The couple say that luck was the secret ingredient; Rawlings says otherwise. He points to the couple’s commitment to technological innovation—Tiff’s Treats has used its own custom-built software aptly called the “Cookie Management System” since 2005—and unwavering love of the brand.

“This is not a get-rich-quick scheme for them—it’s a life calling,” Rawlings says. “It’s a great Texas entrepreneurs story.”

Tiff’s Treats is looking to redefine cookie delivery again with the release of a mobile app that lets customers track the arrival of their cookies like they would an Uber. But their ultimate goal is to open more than 1,000 locations, on par with a chain the size of the fruit basket delivery service Edible Arrangements. If the Chens realize their dream, ordering a box of Tiff’s will become a national tradition.

“What we realized at the end of the day is that we’re helping deliver moments,” Leon says. “And we want to be the best in the world at what we do.”

Photos by Anna Donlan 

 

 

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