A few years ago, Akiva Resnikoff was in the original Peet’s Coffee on Walnut and Vine in Berkeley, when he had his “aha moment.”
He noticed that between the hours of 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. – the afternoon slump — 30-40% of people buying coffee also bought a cookie to go with it.
Like that old commercial in which “You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!” and a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup was born, Resnikoff thought “Why not combine the two?” With his mother’s help – an expert home baker – he developed his first recipe for the Awaken Baked, a chocolate cookie with the equivalent of a full shot of espresso in it.
While Resnikoff was in the R&D phase, he traded cookies for coffee. But then, one day, a customer asked him whether they could buy some cookies from him for a party, and The Cookie Department was born.
Fast-forward to today and this Berkeley-based food entrepreneur with minimal culinary training, recently signed up Google as his biggest client to date for his “cookies with a difference.”
The Cookie Department bills itself as a “Fully Functional Cookie,” in that all types – there are six on the market – have some kind of added ingredients, not usually found in cookies.
“We take classic cookie formulations and fortify them with unique and innovative ingredients, giving our customers an extra benefit,” said Resnikoff.
Maca, a so-called super food in that it’s believed to boost vitality, is added to your basic chocolate chip cookie. The vegan sweet potato cookie has cranberries in it, offering anti-oxidants. The gluten-free chocolate cherry cookie has probiotics. Based on some ingredients in a cleanse, the ginger cookie has blackstrap molasses and cayenne. And the peanut butter cookie has 10 grams of whey protein, comparable to many energy bars on the market.
Which leads to the obvious question, why not just do a bar?
Resnikoff had spent two years working for a natural energy drink company, and had seen how that market, as well as the one for energy bars, had literally exploded.
“Starting an energy bar company costs thousands of dollars,” he said. “Plus, there are whole aisles dedicated to bars now, there wasn’t any originality or creativity in that, so I decided to do cookies,” said Resnikoff.
A Berkeley native, Resnikoff, 32, didn’t always know he’d end up in the food industry.
“I actually fought with weight for a lot of my life,” he said. “I was a chubby child so running away from food was more of a goal of mine than making it.”
While he took some baking classes at Laney College, he mostly did it as a hobby, while he tried his hand in a number of businesses and made jewelry. It was only after working for the natural drink company that he thought he’d like to develop his own product.
In 2008, he enlisted his mother’s help to collaborate on that first recipe, trying 30 or 40 formulas before they hit upon the right one. Fortunately, Resnikoff had even more family help, as his cousin owned the Metropolis Baking Company, and allowed him to use his facility in the off hours.
“I baked at night and delivered to cafés in the morning,” said Resnikoff, at first selling to a handful of Berkeley cafés. As his business blossomed, he outgrew the bakery, and moved to a commercial kitchen in Emeryville. An avid gym rat and climber, he also began selling to gyms, both regular and climbing.
“In the beginning, I did every single thing myself, demo-ing, selling, baking, and packaging,” he said, “with the exception of my brother and his wife doing my branding and marketing.”
The company has grown dramatically, with a Kickstarter campaign helping to buy a packaging machine. Production has now moved to South San Francisco, where another company is doing the actual baking. “It’s still our recipes and our cookies, but we didn’t have the money to build our own facility,” he said.
He still can be seen driving around town in his company car that he deems critical to his success, a white Chevy HHR with his brown logo on the side. In fact, some people have taken to calling him “The Cookie Guy.”
While the Cookie Department’s cookies can be found at all the major grocery stores in the Bay Area — including Berkeley Bowl West, Andronico’s, and the Pasta Shop — they recently got their largest account yet: Google. They are also sold at LA Fitness gyms.
Resnikoff thinks his product is succeeding because it’s not trying to be something it’s not, unlike some protein bars, which try to pass themselves off as a health food.
“Our smaller cookies match up with protein bars in terms of their caloric intake and nutritional value,” he said, adding that “a lot of bars use artificial ingredients, while we use all natural ingredients. It’s a decadent treat, but with added benefits.”
Tasting notes: The cookies are soft enough to rival freshly-baked and not overly sweet. The Awaken Baked was this taster’s favorite, with the Snap Back (ginger detox) a close second.
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