Maybe it was your mom’s oatmeal raisin cookies. Or it might have been a candy that you craved all the time. For Sara Leand, the nostalgic flavors of childhood are what inspired her to start Sara Snacker, a cool confectionary business that is anything but your basic chocolate chip cookies. The former L.A. agent spoke to Celebrity Parents about the business of baking, the unique flavors that she favors (read: a lemonade cookie — swoon), and why being an entrepreneur mom can be even tougher than her Hollywood career.
Your cookie career is actually a second act of sorts.
Yes, I started my career in L.A. in TV. I was a studio executive for many years when I was a Hollywood agent. I started my own production company and for the last five years before I moved over to the cookie industry, I was creating TV shows. When I was an agent, I created Surreal Life which was on VH1. I did some series on Lifetime, E!, Oxygen, and Court TV.
So how did you make the segue from Surreal Life to Sara Snacker?
When I was in college at the University of Arizona, I had a business called Sara Snacker. I started it for fun because all of my friends were telling me I should have a business since I made cookies all the time for them. I sold it all over campus and a bunch of local stores as well. It went really well; I would do it out of my dorm. I’d bake all day Sunday and then deliver on Monday. I was using Saran Wrap and printed labels for packaging! My roommate was eating all the inventory out of the freezer, too. So I did it for two years until I moved to L.A. and I always wanted to come back to it but never knew when I would.
When I got pregnant, I was living in New York. I knew that I wanted to continue working but cutting down on the travel and doing something that I loved. Everybody said, “You should do this; this is the time.” I took it as a sign, and it made sense to me. I knew I couldn’t open a brick-and-mortar store so the first steps that I took was to find a co-packager. In my previous life I had no idea what that was, but I saw it on a Food Network special!
We worked on the recipes for almost a year while I was doing my other job and while I was pregnant. I knew that I wanted to do this, but I knew that I couldn’t start with a chocolate chip cookie. I wanted to wait until I found the right recipe that made sense that could stand apart from all the other cookies already out there. When I was experimenting with the Chipn’etzel recipe, the reception that I got was that it was really unique and the most requested recipe. Everyone always asked me to make it so I thought there was something special about it. So this was the one we decided to go with first.
How did you think to create the Chipn’etzel?
I always do recipes that aren’t 100% traditional. The Sara Snacker brand is nostalgic flavors that bring you back to childhood. I do a lemonade cookie and a milkshake cookie. I do homemade Tootsie Rolls. I do things that I loved as a kid, and I loved potato chips and pretzels, plus I love salty and sweet, so it made sense for me to try it. White chocolate pretzels are my favorite thing and I heard that pretzels can taste like nuts in cookies.
I was trying to make a nut-free cookie because we have a lot of friends with allergies. So the pretzels would give it a nutty taste but have no nuts in it. At first, it didn’t have potato chips in it, and I thought that would add something special to the cookie. It worked really well in the dough; it adds to the texture, but you can’t really tell that it’s potato chips. And the chocolate on top just made sense.
Last year I was slowly working on building the brand, making the logo, doing a website, and perfecting a recipe while I was pregnant and working my other job; I was producing a show for TLC at the time. Around the same time, the facility I was working out of told me about the Fancy Food Show that was taking place at the Jacob Javits Center in NYC. They asked me if I wanted to share a table with them. I had never been to the show, but I said, “Yes, of course!” As it turns out, we had missed the deadline for exhibitors on the floor, but when I called, a woman told me that I should be in new brands on the shelf which was for companies less than a year old. I had to send samples in packaging because there was a vetting process to allow you into the program and they only allow about 25 people into this program. Somehow, I got into the program, and everything fast-forwarded. I had to have my website ready before the show. This literally happened in June, and I was in stores by October 1. In NYC, I’m in all the Gourmet Garages, Zabars, and then I’m in specialty stores, too.
Currently we have four flavors of the Chipn’etzels, and then we’re going to be growing the line to three more flavors which will be a vanilla milkshake cookie which tastes like a vanilla milkshake, a lemonade cookie that is made with real lemonade inside, and the Twookie, which stands for The World’s Best Cookie which is salted white chocolate chunk oatmeal. The creation of the recipes gets done here and then once I feel that I’m close to something, I go to the contract baker that I work with and we perfect it there.
So who’s eating all the test cookies?
Well, now that my daughter is a little older, she likes being the tester and my husband, fortunately is a wonderful tester. I really don’t have a shortage of testers. I like getting honest feedback. I’m always trying to incorporate something else into the cookies. There’s a food that’s popular in the UK called Millionaire’s Shortbread. It’s something that I’m working on and it’s like a Twix. It has shortbread on the bottom; they do it with dulce de leche but I’ll do it with toffee and chocolate on top. I’m developing a recipe for homemade Whoppers; I like Whoppers! [laughs]
I never want to do things that you can find easily so I’m always experimenting. Like instead of doing an Oreo, I do a hot chocolate Linzer tart which looks like a Linzer tart but has marshmallow in the middle.
So what has the response been?
The response has been tremendous. One of my favorite things is doing demos, so I can meet people in the stores and get their honest opinions. Everybody loves the concept and across the board it’s been so positive. I couldn’t be happier. If I’m going to be taking my valuable time doing something, I want it to be something that makes people happy. I don’t take it too seriously; it’s cookies!
Now, you started Sara Snacker when you were pregnant with your first child and now you’re 6-months-pregnant with your second child. So how has that been like balancing a business through two pregnancies?
The first time was much easier! But there are systems in place that are making it easier. I wouldn’t change anything because I feel like I’m very fortunate in terms of the success rate in which it’s going. I have no desire to take over the world overnight but the way that it’s going right now is perfect. With that, we’re definitely going to expand and bring in more help. It will be interesting to see when Number 2 is here how it will go because I give credit to every mother who has children running around and is working. It’s definitely been a very good test of will. I thought Hollywood was tough, but this is tougher!