Alice Larse is not your typical cookie-baking grandmother. She launched her company, Alice's Stick Cookies, in November 1999 -- when she was 70.
"I should have started it earlier, but I wanted to learn to play the cello," she said. At age 65, she finally crossed cello lessons off her list of things to do in life. She had taken cello lessons for five years, practicing two to three hours daily.
Her buttery stick cookies, which include malted barley flour and cane sugar syrup, have a rich, toffee-like flavor. Even with a shelf-life of five months, "there's no hydrogenated anything or preservatives," Larse said.
In her quest to make the cookies accessible to as many people as possible, she made sure the cookies do not contain eggs, nuts or peanut oil and are made in a kitchen that does not process nuts.
The stick cookies come in two varieties: original vanilla and lemon. Larse has experimented with chocolate, but found that the chocolate overpowered the butter flavor. A friend gave her the cookie recipe 20 years ago, but Larse has modified the recipe so much that the only resemblance to the original now is the shape.
"Every time I took the cookies anyplace, people wanted the recipe," but she demurred because she had an inkling that it would be a marketable product later in her life.
Once a week, Larse and two employees convene at a commercial kitchen in Redwood City and spend a full day making an average of 50 cases of cookies, with a dozen 8 1/2-ounce boxes per case. Using about 120 pounds of butter for the day, they roll the dough into logs, bake them, then cut them by hand. "We talk and laugh when we're doing everything except cutting -- it's intense," she said.
They need to cut cookies while they are just warm enough. If they cut when the cookies are too warm, it's like a cake that falls. If they wait until the cookies have cooled too much, they crumble. Larse and her assistants can't cut fast enough to produce more than 26 trays at a time. The two commercial ovens that she uses cost $100,000 each. "I can sleep because I don't own any equipment," she chuckled.
Larse and her employees spend one day a week packaging the cookies. It takes longer to pack than it does to bake them. The rest of the week, Larse handles marketing and makes deliveries from Santa Cruz to Oakland and Napa.
Larse is no stranger to the food business and takes great pleasure in meeting with grocers. Her father was a small grocer in Washington state. "I remember salesmen coming in and chatting with my dad."
She has been married to George Larse for 53 years and the cookie business is a welcome supplement to their retirement income. "I've done a lot of cooking all our married life and like to entertain," she said.
Having lived in Los Altos for the past 46 years, they have thrown huge parties, such as a Fourth of July bash for 70 people. A self-taught cook, Larse began cooking by reading cookbooks after she got married: "If you can read and follow directions, you can cook."
Larse, who was a homemaker most of her life, picked up some professional culinary experience working in the Menlo Park Allied Arts Guild kitchen for 10 years and had stints in the kitchen at Bullock's in Palo Alto and managing a volunteer restaurant for the Laraby Auxiliary to benefit autistic children.
Yet she has had to take a crash course in running a business, learning about product liability insurance, workers' compensation and payroll. She experienced how difficult it was to take care of details such as getting a bar code number and sourcing effective, yet affordable, packaging. Then there were the surprising expenses, such as paying for a nutritional analysis so she could print it on the box and the thousands of dollars spent to attend the Fancy Food trade show.
Larse's cookies cost between $6.99 and $8.95 a box, which is at the high end of the cookie market, although the price is lower by the case. She is in a quandary because she knows that her cookies are expensive, but they are labor- intensive and she doesn't have the capital to invest in machinery to lower the labor cost. She also refuses to cut corners on the quality of ingredients to lower the cost. At her age, Larse can't afford the risk of mortgaging her home to invest in her business.
Another growing pain is distribution. She has to pay regular price for FedEx and UPS to ship around the country, and she cannot afford to work with a distributor because they charge 25 to 38 percent, which would leave her a profit of 25 cents per box.
Despite the challenges of running a small business, Larse finds it gratifying to have fans as far away as Buffalo, N.Y., as well as locals who buy her cookies because they like the product and are unaware that they know her children or grandchildren. Larse reports that sales grew 25 percent from 2002 to 2003, and she is eager to continue growing her company: "I've always had a high level of energy."
Finding the cookies
Alice's Stick Cookies are available at Bianchini's in Portola Valley, Milk Pail Market in Mountain View, Piazza's, Olson Cherries in Sunnyvale, Lunardi's, Gene's Fine Foods in Saratoga, Andronico's and Draeger's. For details, call (650) 948-5905 or see the Web site at www.alicesstickcookies.com.