the organic epicure | Berkeley cookie company’s secret ingredient: a Jewish motherby alix wall
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Let’s say you want to start a cookie company. You have an idea for your first product, but you need to develop a recipe. To whom do you turn for help?
If you’re Akiva Resnikoff, that’s easy: You go to your mom, who has a reputation as being perhaps the best baker in Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. Denise Resnikoff is also a former president of the congregation and is assistant director of a vocational school called the iLearn Institute.
“My mother is not just like a mother that bakes and cooks,” Akiva said. “She makes the most amazing granola, and she’s famous for her challah.”
Actually, Denise Resnikoff is known for a lot more than that. Her lemon bars, fruit pies and kuchens and brownies also make the list, she said. Her passion for baking began because she had a major sweet tooth, and when she became observant in the 1970s there were few kosher dessert options, and none were very good.
“A friend and I thought about starting a bakery, but that didn’t happen,” she said. “So I started catering desserts. I like to eat quality desserts, and I enjoy learning how to make them, and over time I became known for them.”
Even so, she never imagined her son would become the founder of a cookie company. Akiva Resnikoff, 32, who grew up in the Beth Israel community and is a Berkeley Midrasha alum, is the successful entrepreneur behind the Cookie Department. His “fully functional” cookies are loaded with beneficial ingredients, meaning that while they have the same calorie count as any dessert product, they also have added value, like coffee, for a midafternoon boost; maca, a superfood that promotes vitality; or probiotics. The most recent addition to the lineup is the Cherry Bomb, a gluten-free chocolate cherry cookie.
Resnikoff came up with the idea a few years ago, sitting in the original Peet’s Coffee on Walnut and Vine.
He noticed that during the afternoon slump hours, many people buying coffee also bought a cookie to go with it.
“Why not combine the two?” he thought. With his mother’s help, he developed his first recipe for the Awaken Baked, a chocolate cookie with the equivalent of a full shot of espresso in it.
“We had a basic recipe to start with that was a real winner, but the biggest problem was getting the coffee in there and reducing the grit factor,” Denise Resnikoff said. “I don’t like coffee so I wasn’t a great taster, but we had plenty of tasters around, and we kept tinkering. There was a lot of trial and error.”
Akiva Resnikoff had worked for a natural drink company, and had taken some baking courses at Laney College. Now looking to put out his own product, he found additional family help: His cousin Robin Alexander owns the Metropolis Baking Company, and he allowed Resnikoff to use his kosher facility in the off-hours.
So the Cookie Department began as a kosher company by default, though that’s not the case anymore. Still Resnikoff, who is no longer Orthodox himself, doesn’t rule out seeking kosher supervision in the future.
When he went from selling to a few small outfits to relaunching and repackaging, Resnikoff borrowed money from Hebrew Free Loan.
Fast-forward to today. He’s selling his cookies to Google and other tech companies, gyms and many local grocery stores. Even he couldn’t have predicted this. “I actually fought with weight for a lot of my life,” Resnikoff said. “I was a chubby child, so running away from food was more of a goal of mine than making it.”
The cookies are baked in a facility in South San Francisco and packaged with the help of a packaging machine, purchased with a Kickstarter campaign to which Beth Israel congregants contributed at least 50 percent of the funds, Resnikoff said.
“In the beginning, I did every single thing myself, demo-ing, selling, baking and packaging,” he said, “with the exception of my brother and his wife [Isaac Resnikoff and Lizz Wasserman, who live in Los Angeles] doing my branding and marketing.”
His mother still serves as an adviser, though to say she was fearful at first is an understatement. “Hearing your son wants to be an entrepreneur can strike fear into the heart of a mother,” Denise Resnikoff said. But eventually, her son’s enthusiasm took over and convinced her. “At some point, I got on board and got really excited about it, especially because his ideas were so original. He was really thinking outside the box.”
She now says that whenever she warned her son to do something on a smaller scale, he ignored her advice and proved her wrong. One example: getting a company car with the Cookie Department logo on the side when the business was still relatively small. That landed him a spread in Entrepreneur Magazine.
“He comes to me to help him brainstorm, and it’s something that has brought us closer together,” she said. “I get a lot of nachas from it.”
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