Stephanie Sellers, founder of Cookies & Dreams, a woman-run business in Davenport, Iowa, understands the balance between being determined to succeed against the odds and the reality that setbacks happen which are beyond our control. Stuff like a derecho, flooding from the mighty Mississippi River, a global pandemic, and that most predictable affliction of all, punishing Midwest winters.
In 2017 Stephanie Sellers and her husband, Bill, opened Baked Beer & Bread Co in Davenport. The combination bar, restaurant, and bakery was getting by but it was tough. In late 2019 she and Bill were seriously worried the bar might not survive the winter of 2020. Their concerns were well founded. The Sellers didn’t know, of course, that an unheard of disease now known to all as the coronavirus would shut down the global economy, or that Davenport would be hit with a derecho the following summer, or that Davenport would suffer the worst flooding in its long history of periodic flooding.
Stephanie Sellers, in a flash of prescience, took a hard look at what was working best for Baked Beer & Bread. To her surprise, the best selling item was not the Busch Light (it’s an Iowa thing) but the chocolate chip cookies. Stephanie Sellers had learned to bake as a child from her babysitter, Mimi, and had only gotten more interested as she grew to adulthood, Which got her thinking that maybe she should focus more on the cookie business and less on the bar and restaurant business. The result was Cookies & Dreams, where the cookies are the vehicle for the dream of a woman owned, woman managed, woman staffed business that playfully, yet seriously, has as its mission to “smash the pastriarcrhy”.
We asked Stephanie Sellers about baking, launching a business that is meant to do more than just make money, and how to succeed when you don’t know what is going to happen next.
Tell us about Mimi, the person who introduced you to baking when you were a kid. Who was she and what did she teach you?
Mimi was my long-time babysitter. I started baking with her as a kid and she taught me all the baking basics. Mimi was (and still is!) like a member of the family! Together we baked cookies, pies, brownies…everything you could imagine. Some of our creations were even entered into the local 4-H competition at the county fair, where we received blue ribbons for each entry. Mimi definitely sparked my love for baking as she taught me all of the fundamentals as well as a love for working with my hands to create delicious concoctions for others.
As I understand it, you and your husband Bill were running a successful bar/restaurant prior to launching Cookies & Dreams. Where was that business and what caused you to move from that to launch Cookies and Dreams?
My husband Bill and I opened Baked Beer & Bread Co in Davenport, IA, in 2017, and we still own it to this day. We experienced a series of bad luck and unfortunate events that left us worried we weren’t going to survive another Midwest winter. If you have ever experienced a Midwest winter, then you know what we mean! It’s not for the faint of heart! And then of course then the pandemic hit, which threw us all for a loop. With the threat of losing everything we worked so hard for, we dug deep and got creative. We looked at our top selling items at Baked and realized that our made-from-scratch, signature cookies were the most popular items on the menu. This gave us the idea to launch a full menu of decadent, unique and classic cookies and Cookies & Dreams was born. We never imagined the business would take off like it did and we feel incredibly fortunate.
Maybe my coastal chauvinism is showing, but do you think your cookies would sell elsewhere? Or are they an Iowa thing, like Busch Light, or maybe the Krispy Kreme of the heartland?
Absolutely! Our cookies impart a universal language of joy, nostalgia & excitement. Although, there are a few Midwest traits we own & love (Puppychow Cookies, anyone?!) food & dessert in particular brings us all together using that universal love language. Furthermore, we take a lot of pride in our cookies. All of our cookies are made 100% from scratch, 100% by hand. We don’t cut corners and are passionate about our product. We wholeheartedly believe that our cookies are on another level when compared to many popular cookies in the market. We offer a bright, fun, new take on traditional baked goods and take ooey, gooey cookies to another level with our exceptional flavors and unique creations. We promise that once you try our cookies – other cookies just won’t be the same.
Do you eat your cookies daily? Weekly? Those are very large cookies.
They definitely are large cookies! I absolutely eat them! I love all of our cookie flavors but I have to say our classic peanut butter is my favorite. We come up with so many new flavors all the time that I’m always trying bites and pieces of new flavor combinations and ideas so I never get tired of trying them!
Cookies & Dreams is woman owned and seems to be managed and staffed by women. What is the advantage of that? Is an all-woman business a goal in and of itself?
Yes, Cookies & Dreams is women owned and operated. Our mission is to make really good cookies that are not only a joy to eat, but also make a positive impact on the world we live in. We strive to support several charitable organizations with our cookies, and we put a big emphasis on women empowerment. We’re working to “smash the pastriarchy” one cookie at a time and hope that our story helps encourage other women to follow their dreams, never give up, and show up for one another. There are so many advantages to working with other talented, strong & creative women – I am able to see first hand how hard these young ladies work while also balancing their home life and children which instills mental strength, balance, resilience & organizational multi tasking. However, it’s not that we only want to hire or work with other women. We also have some incredible men on our team who have the same amazing qualities and help to support their women coworkers in really important ways.
People in the rest of the country hear a lot about Iowa every four years, then nothing. What would you like people around the US to know about Iowa that they probably don’t?
You’re right. Iowa can be somewhat of a forgotten state which is a shame because it’s truly incredible what our state encompasses and offers to its residents. Firstly, the community aspect that we have here in Iowa is unmatched. Our community supports small businesses like their life depends on it – seriously. When our town experienced historic flooding and a historic derecho, the community showed up to support the small businesses that suffered the most impact. There is a huge movement for shopping small and supporting local businesses and farmers in our state. Additionally, Iowa is growing incredibly rapidly! There are large corporations that are beginning to set their sights on Iowa for warehouses and offices because of the community, residents & business friendly atmosphere here in our state. I think that as Iowa continues to grow the US will begin to hear a lot more about our state & not just every four years – it will become more well known as a great place to live, work, start a family or grow your business.