Photo credit (right): Rolland and Jessica Photography.
Before she was the Maui Cookie Lady, an emerging star among Hawai‘i startups and a favorite of celebrities, Mitzi Toro was a schoolteacher. Cookie-baking was a lifelong passion, but it remained a hobby until her father’s sudden illness, during which Mitzi developed a deep respect for his hospital nurses. As a gesture of appreciation, Mitzi sold cookies at a Maui farmers’ market to raise funds for the compassionate nurses who cared for her father.
Patrons fell in love with Mitzi’s small-batch, hand-rolled cookies with Maui-made ingredients, and a few Saturdays turned into a full-time calling. Along the way, she took courses in UH Maui College’s Food Innovation Center, a startup incubator providing technological expertise, innovative training, and consultation for new and established food entrepreneurs.
Now her cookies are adored by the likes of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Ludacris, who’ve shared on Instagram their admiration for such Maui Cookie Lady creations as Da Half Baked, a chocolate chip cookie containing Oreo cookies, Snickers bars, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
How was your transition from teaching to business owner?
The first few years of my cookie business, I did it part time because I was dragging my feet; I was so invested in the school, the students and the teaching community. It was my family. They fund-raised and bought me my first mixer, surprising me with it at a staff meeting.
How has UH Maui College helped you along this journey?
I attended UH Maui College as a traditional student before finishing my bachelor’s degree at another school. Then I came back when I was starting my second career as the Maui Cookie Lady, participating in the Food Innovation Center’s X-celerator for “foodpreneurs.”
When you’re starting, it’s difficult to work on developing your business because you’re very busy inside your business. In the midst of the craziness, you don’t really have time for research, resources, and workshops. What I learned in that short amount of time in the incubator was invaluable, considering how long it would take to go out and learn it on my own. The program brings you everything you need to know about building a business in the food industry specifically for you.
As my business grows, I’ve stayed in touch with Chris Speare, the Food Innovation Center’s site coordinator and food specialist, and once the Pilina manufacturing facility’s renovation is complete, we’ll look at using the space for production.
What are some of the unexpected rewards for your new visibility?
The biggest thing is the unbelievable human connection, the opportunity to meet such incredible people! When you make a product and someone likes it, and people post it and share your story, others connect to the brand. The Rock was unexpected, and he has referred me to so many people inside his circle, inside his industry.
As the word spreads, a reach I normally wouldn’t have has developed by word of mouth, and it’s been incredible, the relationships I’m making with people.
What kind of challenges do you face as your business grows?
The biggest challenge is understanding what the word “scale” means. Businesses grow, but we’re trying to scale, to meet demand with a small production and limited supplies. When you run out of a key ingredient, there’s nowhere to drive and buy it.
Balancing all that and meeting demands can be difficult. We’re sold out until January 2019 – that’s three months away! Every time we get this wonderful media exposure, the effect is more people want to order the product, but we can only make so much a day.
We’ve doubled our staff and gotten more equipment, and opened up more availability, but it never seems to be enough.
I don’t want to be a big factory; I don’t want to be machine-made. I’ve had advice to get big equipment and big machines, but this isn’t true to what we’re doing. I don’t want to move to the continental U.S., which a lot of companies here start to do, outsourcing and co-packing.
It’s special that our cookies are hand-rolled in small batches, like Grandma made in the kitchen, and I’m so committed to this island.
For more on the Maui Cookie Lady, visit www.mauicookielady.com