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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Rutland Cookie Cutter Business Grows Along With Global Cookie Decorating Trend

For many people the holidays wouldn’t be the holidays without baking and decorating cookies. But a growing number of creative bakers, known as cookiers, are taking their art to a whole new level.

Mary Thode of Chittenden is one of those cookiers. This time of year, she bakes all sorts  – some of the recipes were her mother's, she says, which bring back nice memories. 

"But I do like a painted cookie,” she says, nodding toward the nine coffee cups on her dining room table that are each is filled with different colored frosting.

“That’s meringue icing,” Thode says, picking up a spoon. “Made with meringue powder and it hardens up really nice."

"I just stir them … because the color tends to go to the bottom a little bit,” she adds.

The cup of red frosting becomes much brighter and creamier as she stirs. If it’s too thick, she thins it with water until the consistency is just right.

Once the frosting is ready, Thode reaches into a nearby Tupperware container and selects a plain, heart-shaped cookie. Using a fine-tipped paintbrush, she picks up a dollop of frosting and with a few careful strokes, covers the shape with a shiny red glaze.

“I don’t go to the very end of the cookie – I like to have a little edge so that it sort of frames it. I just think it makes it look nicer,” she explains.

Then she takes a toothpick, adds a tiny dab of blue frosting and creates an intricate design.

Mary Thode decorates cookies at a table. Mugs of different colored frosting are on the table.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Mary Thode, of Chittenden, hand decorates hundreds of cookies every year for Christmas. It's a hobby she's enjoyed for years. And while it's a lot of work, and very precise, she says "I'm one of those people who like things a certain way. And when it comes out the way I want, I get a lot of satisfaction out of that."

Thode makes cookies all year – baby-bottle-shaped ones for shower gifts and pumpkins at Halloween. But during the holidays, she’ll bake about 700 cookies, half of which she’ll paint, often with many layers of different colored frosting.

“I know my husband says I'm like obsessed with this,” she laughs. "But those little details I think make it ... nicer. It makes it, like, my cookie."

Thode is among a growing number of people, who’ve changed bite-sized treats into an art form.

Many, like Thode, are hobbyists, who give their cookies away as gifts.

But it's also big business. Some of the most elaborate designs by top artists sell for $150 per dozen, or even more.  

"It's kind of beautiful to think, you know, someone's eating a piece of art." — Professional cookie decorator Elizabeth Adams, a.k.a. Arty McGoo

Ben Clark makes cookie cutters for a living, and he says some of the cookies he's seen are unbelieveable.

"Literally, they're like art gallery quality. And it's a cookie," he says, shaking his head.

A cookie depicting a window pane looking out on a snowy scene with trees and blue sky
Credit Arty McGoo (Elizabeth Adams), courtesy
This window pane cookie is one of Arty McGoo's designs.

Clark works with a number of elite decorators — people like Elizabeth Adams, who's known in the cookie world as Arty McGoo.

McGoo has made a career out of cookies. The California residenthas more than 80,000 followers on Facebook and now devotes most of her time to teaching others her craft.

“I was kind of a hobby hopper until cookies, because I think it satisfies so many different areas of art for me," she says. "From the design process and the colors that you choose, and then even photographing the cookies later."

Elaborate row of cookies depicting Santa Claus' face.
Credit Arty McGoo (Elizabeth Adams), courtesy
These Santa cookies are another example of Arty McGoo's work.

“And it doesn't matter to me that it's going to be eaten, or you know, basically destroyed,” adds McGoo, laughing. “It's kind of beautiful to think, you know, someone's eating a piece of art.”  

McGoo will be the keynote speaker at the upcoming CookieCon in Reno, Nevada. The three-day conference in March will bring together 800 avid cookiers and accessory manufacturers from all over the world.

Event organizer Karen Summers says interest in cookie decorating has exploded in recent years.

“It's really big in Australia and Spain and South America,” she says, adding, “We've been contacted by a few people in Japan who want to start a CookieCon-type thing there.”

"It's really big in Australia and Spain and South America. We've been contacted by a few people in Japan who want to start a CookieCon-type thing there." — Karen Summers, CookieCon organizer

Summers says the 500 tickets they had for last year’s CookieCon in Indianapolis sold out in 20 minutes, which she says completely crashed the event’s website.

“After the fact, the software guy said, ‘Well you didn't tell me it was going to be this popular,’" Summers says. "He said they were getting 1,800 hits per second when the tickets went on sale.”

The popularity of decorating cookies has been great for companies like CK Products, which manufactures and distributes things like edible glitter, sprinkles, meringue powder and piping gel.

Kelly Pineda, CK's vice president of sales, says they can't make enough ready-made frosting.

"As soon as we produce it and put it on our website the business, we're literally chasing it," Pineda says. "We can't keep up with the demand."  

An Ann Clark employee makes a cookie cutter shaped like the letter "M."
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
An Ann Clark employee makes a cookie cutter shaped like the letter "M." It's one of more than 2,000 different shapes the Rutland-based company makes.

Ann Clark Cookie Cutters, a family-owned business in Rutland that began in 1989, has also ramped up production. CEO Ben Clark says 52 employees work two shifts and their assembly line churns out 22,000 cookie cutters a day.

“Here Arlene’s doing the letter "M." And then from forming, the cookie cutter will either be barcoded or it will go to the conveyor belt which will take it down to the assembly department,” Clark says, pointing to another cluster of workers. “Rosanne is tying on recipe cards. Down there, in the blue rack, we’re doing sets for Amazon, and over there we’re boxing cookie cutters."

Clark explains that "five years ago, the dominant force in cookie cutters was China."

"We've roughly quadrupled our business where we're now the largest cookie cutter maker in the world." — Ben Clark, CEO of Ann Clark Cookie Cutters

“We worked really hard and got it so our cost to manufacture is the same as the cost to import cookie cutters from China,” says Clark. “So then it became a marketing game. Since then we've roughly quadrupled our business where we're now the largest cookie cutter maker in the world.”

“And how do we know that?” Clark asks. “Well, we've looked at all of our competition and where they're made. And they're all made in various factories, and we know we're doing more volume than any single player so we're pretty confident we're the biggest in the world.”

Part of their marketing strategy is to better harness direct sales through Amazon. But Clark says they’ve also worked hard to satisfy the growing number of cookiers, who want new and different shapes.

He says their plant currently makes about 2,300 different ones, and adds three new shapes each week.

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Ben Clark is CEO of Ann Clark Cookie Cutters, a company his mom started in 1989. Today, Clark says they're the largest cookie cutter manufacturer in the world and he expects their plant will make 4,500,000 cookie cutters this year.

For instance, Clark says llamas are big this year: “We immediately said ‘let's do a llama.’ And are our creative director said we're going to do two; we're going to do one that looks like a llama and we're gonna have one that's more of a cartoony llama."

“Ten days later," Clark continues, "both of those products were dominating Amazon as the llama cookie cutter. So by the time our Chinese competitors' product got to the United States, we already owned the market for llamas.”

Clark says his company’s relationship with cookiers is vital, so they too will be at the cookie convention in March ready to hear about what new shapes they need to make next.

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