“That is the way the cookie crumbles” is an idiom often used when something bad happens and one must accept the outcome. But for Loren Brill Castle, founder and CEO of better-for-you cookie company Sweet Loren’s, that is a phrase she cannot accept. After beating a cancer diagnosis in her 20s, she embarked on a new healthy lifestyle. As a result, she created Sweet Loren’s, an all-natural, non-GMO, plant-based and gluten-free cookie dough company.
According to Grand View Research’s market analysis report, in 2018 the global cookie market was valued at more than $30 billion and is projected to increase more than five percent from 2019 to 2025. Today, Sweet Loren’s is sold in more than 13,000 stores and redefining what it means to be both delicious and healthy.
GHJ Partner and Food and Beverage Practice Leader Donald Snyder sat down with the “Cookie Queen” to discuss her journey and what makes her sweet treats so magical.
THE ORIGIN STORY
Donald Snyder: Let us start with talking about your origin story; it really is an inspiration. What led you to start Sweet Loren’s in 2011?
Loren Brill Castle: At 22, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is a type of cancer. Thankfully, I was cured, but it changed my life. It greatly impacted the way I looked at life and how precious it is. I learned that health is the most important thing, and I was frustrated at the lack of guidance I received from my medical professionals about food.
I took classes and studied nutrition, but I did not want to give up desserts. So, I tried recreating my favorite thing: a warm, chocolate-chip cookie with clean ingredients. This experience helped me realize there were not enough options on the market. After testing a few hundred batches, I had the opportunity to meet with Whole Foods and present my cookie dough. I have been tweaking and improving the recipes ever since.
FILLING A GAP IN THE MARKET
DS: You spent hundreds of hours researching and tasting. Have you always come up with delicious ideas easily? With your cookies now in thousands of retail locations, how do you continue to meet your customers’ expectations?
LBC: It was hard in the beginning. I am not a baker by trade, but I like to create things. I have always felt that baking can be very therapeutic. I fell in love with baking during the hardest times in my life. It was like magic to me to put something together, put it in the oven and watch it transform.
No matter someone’s age or background, their eyes light up when a delicious baked good is placed in front of them. As a result, I was determined to find a way to make cookies healthier without compromising taste.
Part of that was also my passion for natural ingredients such as healthier oils, dark chocolate, oat flour or vegan chocolate. Today, we are free of the top 14 allergens, actually.
I realized early on it is not about me. I wanted to create a business that solved a problem for other people, too. Cookie dough brings so much joy and is incredibly humanizing and fun. It gave me the energy to get through the difficult first few years of starting the business. The feedback has motivated me to continue to get better and reach more people.
DS: I also have a sweet tooth, and I am definitely a fan. It has been amazing to see your company grow. You are no longer a startup, but you mentioned the early days were difficult. Did you have a plan for seeking investors, or did they seek you out?
LBC: In the beginning, I did not have a plan for getting the business off the ground. I wanted to get traction before raising money, but I also needed money to afford the packaging and our margins. Once I got into Whole Foods, I knew that I needed to start raising money, and it was hard.
I found an angel investor and some friends and family who believed in me and the product. That angel investor also asked to be my mentor, but that investment was the only money we raised. We have been profitable and self-sustainable for a few years, but raising money and proving that we could be successful was difficult. Now, we are the No. 1 natural cookie-dough brand and have the data we need as proof for potential investors.
DS: You certainly have the numbers now for proof of concept. In fact, congratulations are in order. You are named one of America’s Fastest-Growing Companies in 2021 by Financial Times, received Startup Weekly’s 2021 Women in Business to Watch Award and have ranked on Inc’s 5,000 list for two consecutive years. What is on the horizon for you?
LBC: The recognition is very exciting. I hope to continue growing. We are hiring great talent and working on a three-year plan with some incredibly exciting innovation. This is the first time we have a significant marketing budget, so I am excited for the future.
THE NEXT COOKIE INNOVATION
DS: Without giving away any trade secrets, what do you think is next for you in terms of innovation? All your products are currently in the refrigerated section — do you have intentions to go to shelf stable?
LBC: Obviously, cookie dough is great if you are home. Our product is safe to eat raw, or you can bake it, but we do get requests all the time for options that are shelf stable. We are looking into that as well as more options in our selection, but that is about all I can say. We always listen to what our customers want and look for the space to fulfill their needs.
ADVICE TO FUTURE LEADERS
DS: I have had many conversations around the theme of women’s empowerment. As we wrap things up, what advice would you give to other women who are trying to start their own food and beverage business?
LBC: When I first started out, I think many people thought it was “cute” to sell cookie dough and did not take it seriously. I really wanted to build a challenger brand because I was sick of larger brands not caring about my health and well-being.
My advice to other women would be to use this as fuel: women are equal to men. We make great investments; we keep our word; we build great businesses; and we have this Mama Bear mentality of protecting and fighting for what we believe in. The more women succeed, the more it inspires the new generation of women entrepreneurs. If there is something holding you back, use it as fuel instead to empower yourself and fulfill your dreams.
ABOUT LOREN BRILL CASTLE — After beating cancer in her early 20s, Founder and CEO Loren Brill Castle made it her mission to eliminate processed foods from her diet. Unable to find great-tasting cookies made from clean ingredients, she developed her own. In 2011, she began making cookie dough without ingredients, such as refined sugar and flour, and consumers’ growing appetites for healthier alternatives helped Sweet Loren’s take off. Sweet Loren’s, which is on the shelves in more than 13,000 supermarkets, is now a multimillion-dollar company and changing the cookie market. Loren believes everyone deserves to live a life filled with yum.