If one takes a peek into the kitchen of Susan Schmitt’s Wilton-based bakery The Painted Cookie, a sign reading “Home is Where the Cookies Are” can be seen on prominent display. A sense of hominess permeates this bakery, now in its fifth year in business.
“It was grandma’s recipe,” said Schmitt about the foundation of her baking business, adding that she “enhanced it with two other spices” without betraying a hint of her proprietary ingredient list. Schmitt also acknowledged that the idea for the bakery emerged during her years as a stay-at-home mother: her two sons had friends with nut allergies, thus requiring her to create their favorite treats in her kitchen to ensure that no trace of nuts would be found in the cookies.
Over time, Schmitt added, she began consulting cookie blogs and became a bit more adventurous in her baking. “I was doing it as a hobby out of the house and donating to our church and some local places in town,” she recalled. “People started asking for cookies and Connecticut didn’t have a cottage law then, so the next step was to come here.”
Schmitt opened The Painted Cookie in a 625-square-foot retail space at 196 Danbury Road in Wilton in January 2013. Since the recipes from her home kitchen were all without nuts, she opted to keep that formula for her business.
“And that opened a lot of doors for us,” she said, noting the scarcity of nut-free bakeries. “All of your ingredients have to be produced in a nut-free environment. We have sugar cookie, gingerbread and just branched out into biscotti — another item that people with nut allergies don’t get the opportunity to have. We also do gluten-free cookies to order.”
Over time, The Painted Cookie doubled its retail space to 1,250 square feet within the same building and branched out from an old-school neighborhood bakery to a wholesaler with corporate accounts in Westchester and Fairfield counties. “We’re doing Pepsico’s holiday party for the fourth year,” Schmitt said, noting that her corporate orders now take up 80 percent of her business. “We have a lot of pharmaceutical companies as clients. For most of November, we’re booked with custom corporate orders. Corporate seemed to have switched their buying from December to November.”
Schmitt creates seasonal cookies with whimsical symbolism. Autumn has a range of crimson-colored cookie leaves for the New England fall foliage, bright orange cookie jack-o’-lanterns and stark white cookie ghosts for Halloween and cartoonish cookie turkeys for Thanksgiving. December’s holidays will find cookie menorahs for Hanukkah and cookie Santa Clauses and brightly decorated trees for Christmas.
“There is a cookie for any occasion,” she said. “Now in the world of 3-D printers, you can get a cookie cutter made of any shape. I have up to 1,200 cookie cutters.”
On the retail side, Schmitt identified May as her busiest month for consumer interest. “We have first communions, which are huge, and all of the school stuff that is going on,” she stated. “You have Mother’s Day, you have Cinco de Mayo, you have Memorial Day — we call it ‘May Madness.’ ”
Schmitt also finds time to connect with her community via children’s workshops. Prior to Thanksgiving, she offered her young students what she dubbed “our coloring turkeys” — her turkey-shaped cookies covered in white icing, which the children colored in using food coloring markers. Children have also provided expert opinions on several of the recipes that she tests, most notably her chocolate-covered Oreos that put a new spin on an old favorite.
“The chocolate-covered Oreos have become very, very popular,” she said. “We use a nut-free French chocolate. We had a dark chocolate and a milk chocolate and the kids picked the dark chocolate. It is a nice coating chocolate that doesn’t break off when you bite into it. We refer to it as our ‘cookie crack.’ ”
And while Schmitt’s work might seem as much fun as — dare we say it? — a plateful of fresh-baked cookies, she has to contend with ingredient pricing, which somehow never seems to decline. A particular thorn in her budget is the price of vanilla, which has seen price spikes due to product shortages.
“We still use our Penzeys double-strength vanilla and we are paying over eight dollars an ounce,” she said.
For the immediate future, Schmitt is seeking to perfect a peppermint bark recipe for a new Christmas cookie, noting that she likes to “try something new every year.” And while admitted that running a nut-free bakery helps to pique the interest of many potential customers, it’s her variations on her grandmother’s still-secret recipe that keep them coming back.
“We have a good tasting product,” she said.