By Ryan Jones Photos Courtesy Stacy Hilton Vanzant
Evva Foltz Hanes’ passion for making cookies ignited long before she could envision the booming business it would eventually drive her to create. It was during naps next to her mother’s wood-burning stove that the smell of warm sugar and the sounds of dough being rolled by hand would take hold, she says, and set the course for her and her family for generations to come.
“The cooler it is, the better your cookies roll,” remembers Hanes, who was allowed to take finished cookies off the pan and stack them for her mother, Bertha Crouch Foltz, only after she became a little too old for stove-side naps.
That stove, a blue porcelain wood range, is a highlight for thousands of sweet-seeking visitors who tour the Mrs. Hanes Cookie Factory on Friedberg Church Road in Clemmons each year. “It doesn’t even have a thermometer,” says Hanes, who eventually graduated to baking but didn’t learn the secret to rolling until after she finished high school. “You had to be very careful of how much wood you used. That was the real art of making cookies on a wood stove.”
Gradually, Hanes began to take a leading role in the cookie making operation her mother had started to help out financially where the family dairy farm fell short. The cookies, made in the traditional Moravian style – exceptionally thin, crispy, and spicy – were locally famous and sold to several shops and stores near the family homestead.
“She would do the baking and I would do the rolling,” says Hanes of the years she would help her mother in the evenings and on weekends when she wasn’t working at Hanes Hosiery. Eventually she retired from the company not only to expand her family with another child, but to become a fulltime cookie chef once her mother was ready to hang up her apron for good.
Using only her own kitchen and the methods she learned by doing – hand-rolled dough baked to perfection in a regular old oven, though by the late 1930s it had become an electric one – Hanes grew her reputation, and with it, grew her business.
The speed of growth in terms of scale and sales figures for Mrs. Hanes Cookie Factory wouldn’t impress some modern moguls. It happened little by little as the need arose, explains Hanes. This was by design.
“We didn’t care to invest a big amount of money into building a great big building and adding so many people on and it maybe not working,” Hanes explains. “We added on as we needed more cookies. We hired more people.”
Though her first expansion involved building a state and federally inspected kitchen in the basement of her home (“I got tired of having the kitchen messed up all the time,” laughs Hanes), she considers the true birth of the business to be around 1968 when three people were hired to help out with baking while she was pregnant with her last child. “After that, we enlarged the kitchen in the basement to take over the den.”
Soon after, Hanes had a small building erected between her house and her parents’ house to hold the steadily-growing operation. “We kept hiring maybe one, two people at a time and gradually grew. When it really took off though was when we started going to shows. I would make cookies at the shows and we would sell them,” remembers Hanes. “That’s what started our mail order business.”
Hanes estimates the Cookie Factory kitchen was enlarged around seven times as secondhand mixers, ovens, and other baking equipment came to their attention. “We found an antique mixer in Texas that could mix up to 700 pounds of dough at a time. Before that, we were using a mixer that made 100 pounds at a time. Before that, we mixed it by hand. Everything we’ve done has been slow. It’s been very satisfying,” says Hanes.
Today, around 100,000 people in all 50 states and 30-plus countries receive regular shipments of the extra-thin cookies, which are still rolled, cut, baked, and packed by hand. Among the company’s many mail order customers are several celebrities, including Oprah. “We send her cookies every year,” says Hanes.
In addition to mail order customers, more than 6,000 people visit the factory each year to purchase cookies in person and to take tours. Over 10 million cookies are baked and sold annually, which, according to the company website, equates to 65,000 pounds of flour, 40,000 pounds of molasses, 35,000 pounds of sugar, and 450 pounds of ginger. Current cookie flavor offerings include ginger, sugar, lemon, chocolate, butterscotch, and black walnut.
“I feel a great sense of pride in being part of a family business, especially because we are upholding the handmade tradition of making these cookies. That is not an easy thing to do in today’s business world. It is a time-consuming and expensive process,” says Ramona Hanes Templin, the current president of Mrs. Hanes Cookie Factory and daughter of Hanes.
Rather than give in to the modern demand for faster, cheaper production, both women agree that a continued dedication to doing things the old fashioned way will set the business apart and strengthen its staying power. “What do you know in the United States that is still made by hand and when you call, you talk to a person, not a machine? It’s a personal business and not like most things today. It’s just customer satisfaction,” says Hanes, who, even in her mid-80s, still plans to help out filling orders during the holiday rush this year.
“There is a lot of competition out there,” says Templin, considering the future of the Cookie Factory. “There is a company that makes a Moravian cookie by machine and those cookies are much cheaper. But hopefully our customers will continue to appreciate the quality of our cookie.”
The extra effort is worth it, she adds, because of the people behind the operation. “We employ approximately 36 fulltime employees and we care about each one of them. I hope to keep them employed for as long as they want a job,” says Templin. “We actually have three generations of one family working here. So not only is this a family business, we are a business of families. I guess you could say I am highly motivated to make this business successful.”
Hanes has no doubt that it will be pure customer retention that will carry her company forward to lasting success. “We have the nicest customers in the world. They like us and we like them,” she says. “The people who come in around here know the whole family and everyone that works down there [at the bakery]. Our customers stay with us forever.”