There is something comforting about cookies, homemade cookies that is. Meet Mitzi Toro, a long-time cookie enthusiast and founder of The Maui Cookie Lady. Her giant sized cookies are hand rolled using the highest-quality ingredients. The unique flavor combinations and use of locally made alcohol have made her product popular. Initially sold at a farmer’s market, you can now find her gourmet cookies at Maui hotel and resorts such as the Grand Wailea and St. Regis as well as Maui Brewing Company (flagship location) and Kahului Airport. As a foodie, it’s no surprise that I follow her on social media and I’ve been watching her and the business grow exponentially. That’s the great thing about Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – you’re able to connect with a person through their shared experiences. When Mitzi achieves milestones, I can’t help but be a cheerleader for her!
Mitzi grew up in a small beach town in California. She described herself as a shy and nervous kid but that changed when her high school English teacher, Mrs. Marick, baked cookies for her freshman students on the first day of school. Mitzi remembered how eating that cookie provided her comfort. “It was a peaceful moment,” she said. She asked for the recipe that same week and since then, Mitzi has been baking cookies for more than 20 years connecting with people all over the world. Mrs. Marick’s picture and recipe hang on Mitzi’s office wall, renewing her inspiration every day. After more than a decade of trying to re-connect with her, they found each other again (thanks to social media!) and reunited this past July. Mitzi finally got to genuinely thank her for influencing her in such a positive way.
Her father was another important person that impacted her love for baking. After Mitzi graduated from high school, her parents retired in Maui and she relocated soon after to be with them. Maui has been home ever since. In 2012, her father became terminally ill. “He was one of my best friends. We hiked, had coffee dates and talked daily. Loosing him was difficult. I think of him everyday, ” says Mitzi. As a way to celebrate his life, she raised funds by selling her homemade cookies at a Maui farmers market to thank the nurses who cared for him. He has been Mitzi’s guardian angel, leading her to opportunities and meaningful relationships. Her side passion and hobby soon became a business.
Mitzi spent the first year interviewing successful persons in the food and manufacturing business. “It was important for me to connect with people that survived and thrived,” says the Hawai’i Business Magazine 2016 Start-Up Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist. Her interview with Neil Arakaki, President of candy manufacturer, Menehune Mac, played a pivotal role in her development as a business owner. Her biggest takeaways included understanding the three types of bakers and how thay fit into the market along with the challenges of retail marketing, packaging and managing a store front. The design of her gift box is an example of his influence with Mitzi.
She spent 15 years with the Department of Education as a school counselor before taking a “leap of faith” into entrepreneurship full-time. It was a difficult decision but she knew it was the direction she needed to take. “I wanted to give it my all with this business. I’m a hard worker so might as well work for myself,” said the wife and mom cookiepreneur. Major business opportunities presented themselves but through this process, Mitzi realized that her cookies were not meant to be a mass market item. She was finding herself moving away from the very reason why she started baking – to connect with people. Mitzi turned down opportunities with Costco and other mainland companies to focus on learning her customer and to grow responsibly, one account at a time.
Mitzi contributes her start-up success to the many small business resources on Maui County: Maui Economic Development Board (MEDB), Maui Economic Opportunity (MEO), Hawai’i Small Business Development Center (SBDC), University of Hawai’i (UH) and the Department of Health (DOH). Mitzi regularly connects with these organizations for assistance and they have been guiding her every step of the way. “Maui is very supportive, nurturing, protective, and kind,” said Mitzi, a graduate of the Maui Food Industry X-celarator Program at UH Maui College. “They want you to succeed here.” She also supports other cookie companies by promoting them and sharing her business tips.
It’s the continued support from her customers and the Maui community that motivates Mitzi, especially during times of uncertainties. “I continue to be blown away by my community’s support and kindness and the display of love from my customers.”
So what can Maui Cookie Lady fans expect in the near future? Mitzi is working with a retailer to sell her cookies on Oahu. They’ve been in negotiations since November and she will be revealing this “dream” partnership very soon! In addition, Mitzi has been tirelessly perfecting a cookie butter recipe, smooth without the grit and with no artificial preservatives. For nearly a year, she’s been working with an award winning team of food scientists at Rutgers University in New Jersey (my alma mater!) to research and develop in getting the product to shelf and approved by the FDA. When complete, her cookie butter will be the first from Hawai’i and the only tropical cookie butter nationwide.
“With hard work and a story to tell, you can make it happen.”