When you’re known as “the cookie lady,” you think of cookies as sugar hugs. That’s the attitude of Susan Schmitt, who is enjoying runaway success as the owner of the Wilton-based local business, the Painted Cookie.
Schmitt opened her own commercial kitchen two years ago after launching her rapidly-growing home-based business in 2009, creating custom-designed cookies, She is now putting the finishing touches on the expansion into the space next door to her current location at 196 Danbury Rd.. Her new space will allow her to offer cookie making and decorating classes starting in January, and she’ll be able to grow her retail sales there as well. It will also help her increase production–something that makes a lot of children of all ages very happy.
Just ask a certain 8-year-old whose mother publishes a daily online news website about Wilton. “They’re better than the best cookies in the world!”
Schmitt hears multiple times a day how she makes people happy, and it’s something she never gets tired of hearing.
“They bring everyone such joy,” she says of why she loves what she does. “It’s the kids, especially for children who have nut allergies. Their faces light up, they can eat this. And they like it!”
Not only does she make her cookies nut-free, she specializes in custom cookie designs, and the possible variety is almost endless.
“You can make a cookie for anything,” Susan says excitedly. “There was a customer for a 60th birthday, who wanted an orange convertible, a Corvette. It was pretty spectacular.” Take a look at her website or her Facebook page you’ll see things like military dog tags, the Ambler Farm sheep, airplanes, pregnant ladies, kangaroos, a violin, a logo’d medallion, and so many more. The special feature is how cleverly they can be customized by color and design. Of course she is careful not to infringe on any trademark, like the recently popular Frozen, which is a Disney property.
Many of her yummy designs are Painted Cookie originals, and are made with a cookie cutter custom-designed just for Schmitt by Copper Gifts, a copper cookie-cutter company she works with exclusively. Their partnership began over social media when the owner spotted one of Schmitt’s cookies online. “She saw my Ambler Farm scarecrow on Facebook back in 2009, and that’s how our friendship began. They send me cutters, I design cookies for them to put on their website, and when I think of a design that isn’t out there–the Halloween werewolf and the trick-or-treater, also the Grim Reaper–those are all my designs.”
Schmitt credits social media with many of her professional friendships of fellow cookie artists that she’s bonded with over Facebook. She’s got a solid following–more than 6,600 Facebook fans–and a core group of 40 other cookie professionals with whom she’s close.
“At the last Cookie Conference, I was a rock star!” she laughs, still amazed at how well known she is in the cookie community. “People were coming up and asking for an autograph! It was wild. I was presenting about doing brick-and-mortar, and it was very well-received.”
That reflects the success she’s had not just at creating intricate, beautiful and delectably delicious cookies, but also growing her business. She opened her store two years ago, and is now expanding into the space next door. The fact that Schmitt is bucking a trend of businesses moving online by showing good old-fashioned brick-and-mortar growth isn’t lost on her.
How Did Cookies become ‘Her Thing’?
Schmitt’s entree into the world of creative baking and cookie making wasn’t something she had always dreamed of doing; in fact she never thought of herself as an artist.
“I was a doodler. I didn’t draw. But I like art. And I can draw with an icing bag.”
She originally started working at home, just as a hobby, making cookies for church. To help overcome a bout with vertigo, she spent therapeutic time baking. She eventually rented commercial kitchen space and formed an LLC in 2009. Finding the right space of her own to rent took more than three years.
“It’s just so expensive in this town. It’s ironic that the Hastings, who own this building and are so nice, they divided this space in half for me. And now we’re moving the retail over to that side,” she says.
Schmitt is excited about expanding and taking over the space next door that used to be occupied by Dave’s Appliance. “We’ll have a classroom for cookie classes for all ages, drop-in to color cookies around the holidays, including teacher gifts and dreidels for Hanukkah. So many people are coming in, and people are finding me, even without the signage.”
A lot of the credit for that is most definitely word of mouth. Even the kids–mine included–know and talk about the famous Painted Cookie cookies. Schmitt laughs about one example from last year that shows how fast word spreads: “One customer ordered turkeys with yarmulkes when Hanukkah fell on Thanksgiving. We wound up doing over 600 turkeys with yarmulkes when people heard about it. It was crazy!”
Her nut-free recipe is also something that has helped push the word-of-mouth effect, both for party favors and with families navigating food allergies. She’s also become a favorite for corporate gifts, whether at the holiday or during the rest of the year. While she’s of course very busy during the December holidays, her busiest time is actually when people celebrate their children’s first communions. “The first two weeks of May are my biggest.”
Her online business has stayed steady; Schmitt is awed by how people far away come to learn about her. The furthest she ever sent a mail order? “Bahrain.” She’s worked with some famous and fun clients–“The Real Housewives,” Spanx, and more.
All of that has helped spur the growth. She’s now hired Tricia DeAngelis to help year-round and will be hiring even more employees for seasonal help as well.
“I wanted to build a business, it’s a lot of hard work, but it’s been so worth it. When it’s your own baby, and I’m thankful my family has been so supportive. It’s how I’ve been able to get to this point.”
Schmitt’s two sons are in Wilton High School, and her husband, Matt, is a builder and contractor. That has come in handy recently with the renovations they’re doing on the shop’s expansion.
She’s also big on giving back. She has a sweet spot for Ambler Farm, where her son, Sam, has been an apprentice for a long time–“He’s well over 2,000 hours. Ambler has given us so much, we will always give back to them.”–and she’s very involved with WEPCO, her family’s church.
That wider Wilton community is special for so many reasons, Schmitt says, not least of which is the recent emergence of a strong, loyal network of small, women-owned businesses in town. “It’s become such a supportive place. We’re supportive of each other’s businesses.” She even says with all the small brick-and-mortar businesses in this network, it’s the year of the woman business owner in Wilton.