The Cookie Corner: Business Spreads Aloha Through Premium Products
In the spirit of the holiday season, Neon Tommy catches up with The Cookie Corner—a Hawaii-based business with USC connections—and gets the dough on the company’s humble beginnings, booming business, best sellers and what customers can expect for Christmas.
Nothing beats the cozy, comforting, homey aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies straight out of your mother’s oven.
And that’s the sensory experience Angus McKibbin intends for every customer who tries products from The Cookie Corner to have.
“My favorite flavor is ‘Chocolate Chip,’ and I’m still eating them too, even after 32 years of being in business!” laughs McKibbin, whose two sons—Riley and Maddison—are part of the University of Southern California Trojan family as students and members of the men’s volleyball team. Riley graduated from USC in 2011, while Maddison is a fifth-year student playing on the volleyball team for the last time.
Described as a Honolulu-based, “half-baked concoction” between McKibbin and his close friend and fellow ‘Iolani School alum James McArthur, The Cookie Corner was born in 1981 during the “cookie business boom” that started in the late ‘70s, according to McKibbin.
“We were 23 years old, right out of college,” he remembers. “I had a background in food from Cornell and Jim had a background in accounting. The ‘cookie boom’ was starting when we got into college, and when we got out, it was a fad. Mrs. Field’s, Famous Amos … they had been in existence for about four years. But we saw the cookie business on the mainland take off, so we decided to get into it in 1981.”
Cookie businesses were experiencing tremendous popularity on the mainland, and there were six local cookie companies in Hawaii at the time, McKibbin recalls. Business on O‘ahu was competitive, which sparked the recent college grads to start their cookie store in an unconventional location.
“We opened our store in downtown Honolulu in the business district, where none of the competition was,” McKibbin says. “They were all in the malls and we opened up our 200 sq. ft. store in a quiet building.”
“We chose the name ‘Cookie Corner’ because we had hoped that our stores would be in corner locations in the malls,” he adds. “The corners [spots] are usually better than being in line [locations]. It was hard to come up with a name, but we wanted something fun and simple … a ‘feel-good’ sort of thing.”
McKibbin pauses, almost blissfully, remembering.
“It just took off, knock on wood,” he says, chuckling. “It just took off.”
During his years at Cornell University, McKibbin recalls loving the food side of the hospitality industry. Yet, he knew he didn’t want to work at a restaurant or in a hotel.
“I took food chemistry and at least half a dozen food prep classes,” he says. “They flew in chefs who teach you how to make puff pastries, bakery items and all kinds of breads.”
Those techniques and experiences came in handy when brainstorming potential cookie flavors and recipes with McArthur. The two came up with all the current Cookie Corner flavors, which range from the traditional “Chocolate Chip” and chewy “Oatmeal Raisin” to more unique combinations like the fudgy “Double Chocolate Chip With Walnuts” and cinnamon sugar-laden “Snickerdoodle.”
Soft and chewy cookies are not the only treats The Cookie Corner offers. Since its opening, the business has expanded to include brownies, “Tropical Fruit Bars," “Shortbread Cookies” made with macadamia nuts and dipped in chocolate, and biscotti, as well as “Traditional Bite Size” and “Island Style Bite Size”—which are crispier and lighter than their traditional counterparts—cookies.
McKibbin thinks it’s essential to be innovative and creative when debuting new products for customers to try.
“Bringing out new products is important,” he says. “It keeps you fresh and gives customers something different.”
Though The Cookie Corner’s newer products are appealing and tasty, the original, fresh-baked, regular-sized cookies remain a hot commodity.
“Our ‘Chocolate Chip’ and ‘Shortbread’ are some of the most popular products,” says McKibbin. “People love them and don’t seem to get tired of them!”
When it comes to The Cookie Corner’s “uniqueness” factor, McKibbin cites the premium ingredients used to create quality products.
“We use fruit puree to make our fruit bars instead of an additive because it gives it better flavor,” McKibbin says. “We formulated these recipes and we use the fruit puree to make these products. Of course, it’s more expensive and it takes more time, but putting our effort into the quality of something has built our business and brand to what it is today.”
The same high quality of product can be found in the cookies’ various ingredients.
“All of our shortbread cookies have macadamia nuts in them,” McKibbin says proudly. “These Mauna Loa macadamia nuts are expensive, but you can’t find a better nut. Before, they used to be $3.50 but now they’re anywhere from $6.50-10 per pound. These quality ingredients—like macadamia nuts, walnuts and Ghirardelli chocolate chips—are expensive, but they make our products so flavorful. We also use pure butter—there’s no substitute for butter—and our aloha make us unique.”
Quality ingredients are not the only factors that come into play when creating a masterpiece of a cookie. McKibbin constantly relies on the five senses when testing recipes … and determining when he has a “winner.”
“You have to test recipes — their flavors, textures and mouth feel,” he explains. “[Our cookies] have a great mouth feel when you bite them. They just kind of melt in your mouth and the way they break up … there’s just nothing like it.”
With the holidays rapidly approaching, McKibbin and his team already have delicious goodies in store for customers looking for gifts.
“For Christmas, we bring out the Christmas packaging,” he says. “Our cookies are so well received and popular; if we bring out some Christmas decorations and repackage the products [into gift baskets], it works really well.”
Some of the cookies even get a Christmas facelift.
“Our ‘Snickerdoodle’ cookie has cinnamon sugar on top, so we color the sugar — red and green,” McKibbin says.
Reflecting on his business thus far, McKibbin acknowledges that, although some aspects of The Cookie Corner have changed—for instance, there are now multiple locations on O‘ahu—other defining characteristics have stayed the same.
“We’re a lot bigger than we were when we first started—we now have 14 stores—but we still mix the dough in one central location then send it to be baked freshly at each store location,” McKibbin says. “That hasn’t changed. We still incorporate the same values in our company — great customer service and creating quality products. We never changed the recipes or the quality with which they are produced.”
Though The Cookie Corner is still expanding and churning out thousands of melt-in-your mouth treats today, McKibbin constantly goes back to basics and keeps the company’s goal—“putting out a quality product at a reasonable price that would make people happy”—as the business’ driving force.
“When you own a business, it’s not like you can put in a two-week notice, change directions and do something else,” he says. “You’re committed to it. It’s challenging out there, but you have to persevere. It’s a never-ending challenge to constantly strengthen your brand, but I think that [the longevity] of our brand has proved that it’s not only possible, but it’s fun.”