Go inside Whimsy Cookie’s celebrity cred
Whimsy Cookie founder Laurie Suriff, left, and Collins Tuohy turned initial orders from the Baltimore Ravens, where Tuohy’s brother played, into widespread endorsements from a variety of celebrities. “They believed in our product,” Tuohy says.
Laurie Suriff, owner and founder of Whimsy Cookie Co. in Memphis, had been baking and decorating sugar cookies using her mother’s recipe since 2007, mostly custom cookies for creative Christmas gifts.
Then came an email in 2011 from Leigh Anne Tuohy, the matriarch of the Memphis family made famous by the movie “The Blind Side,” starring Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne and chronicling their adoption of Michael Oher when he was a down-and-out teenager.
By 2011 Michael was playing for the Baltimore Ravens, and Leigh Anne wanted team-themed custom cookies for a tailgate event. Collins Tuohy, Michael’s sister, soon joined forces with Suriff at Whimsy and Michael kept buying cookies to support the fledgling business. Then the Ravens kept winning.
“When he was ordering on a regular basis, they were going undefeated. They became the good luck charm,” she recalls, referring to the cookies. “The players would say, ‘We can’t leave to get on the plane’ without their favorite.”
Since then celebrity endorsements have spread, but not through concerted effort by Laurie and Collins, they say. Rather, one customer will spread the word to another, including the likes of actors Hilary Swank, Emma Thompson and Reese Witherspoon.
Witherspoon, for example, became a fan after Laurie’s sister-in-law, in the film business, served the treats on opening day of filming in the cast’s trailer. “Yeah, we love her. She’s a Southern gal,” Laurie says.
Adds Collins about the celebrities who post Whimsy products on Instagram: “We didn’t create it. It created itself. There’s no amount of money people can pay for that to happen,” she said. “We just got lucky that we had a few connections, and we weren’t even trying to use and abuse those connections.” People passed the word because “they believed in our product.”
Enter franchising, which Aaron Suriff, Laurie’s husband, heads up. Beginning in January 2018 he began selling franchises. “I’m the one who sold the first franchise, with no data. That’s how good I am,” he said with a laugh.
Whimsy has seven stores under construction and by this October will have 10 opened and operating. Twenty-two more are signed, he said.
Initial investment is between $280,000 and $420,000, but because no franchised stores have been operating long enough, no financial data is included in the franchise disclosure document.
Their Little Rock, Arkansas, test store is doing about half a million in sales, he said. “To be highly profitable, they have to do $300,000 a year.”
That Little Rock store was also where the three “did the trial and error,” for example, learning that details matter, right down to the exactly correct shade of pink on the walls. “That’s where we learned that highly tinted windows could kill your business by $10,000” because people thought the store was closed. “We bled a lot, but I do feel now, especially since the franchises are selling like hotcakes, that we do know how to support the franchisees going forward.”
Asked if he worries about a cookie franchise going the way of the cupcake business, with its faddish highs and then subsequent crashes, Aaron denies any comparison. “A good example is the Great American Cookie Company. It’s been around since the late 1970s” and has never faltered, he said. “Cookies are always in vogue. Cupcakes are a completely different animal.”
One major difference between the original store and the franchised model is customization, meaning franchise stores will not do that time-consuming and labor-intensive work.
Laurie, who signs her emails “Hugs & Cookies,” still recalls some of her most detailed orders, in the early days, especially one from the mother of a West Point graduate who wanted the entire uniform on a cookie. “It was all these little buttons, sashes, it was very detailed,” she said, and she charged $18 a cookie, thinking “there’s no way she’s going to pay this.” But she came back and ordered 200 cookies. “We said, we should have charged her $40!”
Asked to predict what Whimsy looks like in five years, and Laurie foresees 50 stores. Collins chimes in with a bigger vision: “Laurie and I have a famous cookie TV show on whatever network loves us most.”