Leslie Habjan’s husband Bruce had developed a reputation.
A golf product sales rep, Bruce would routinely present his items at regional tradeshows, mostly in hotels. There, he would unpack his wares in one of dozens of rooms. To differentiate himself from the pack, Bruce began to bring a big basket filled with his wife’s cookies. Word of mouth spread: It wasn’t long before he was known as the chocolate chip cookie guy. Always a large basket. Always chocolate chip.
Bruce’s room tended to be the busiest, with the most lingerers, thanks in no small part to the nostalgic aroma of a warm plate of cookies emanating from the big basket, which seemed to take center stage. Middle-aged sales reps were reduced to little children, caught with their hands in the cookie jar. It was good for business.
Leslie had always loved to bake, but it was hard to see a potential business opportunity arising in the midst of these tradeshows. She was also known for giving baked goods, mostly cookies, and every once in a while carrot cake, to her sons’ grade school teachers. But the idea of turning her passion into a full-blown business was solidified after bringing a batch of her famous cookies to her oldest son’s fifth grade teacher.
“She said, ‘you really need to sell these,’” recalls Leslie. So she called on the then-owners of the Village Market, in Lake Bluff, bringing them “this big ol’ basket of cookies” right up to their doorstep.
“Would you be interested in selling these in your store?” asked Leslie. Their reply: a resounding yes. From there, she went to Don’s and Lake Forest Food & Wine with a similar pitch (and basket). All agreed to sell her confectionary treats. The doughy groundwork for Aunt Winnie’s Kitchen had been laid.
Now, Aunt Winnie’s Handmade Frozen Cookie Dough can be purchased at all five Sunset Foods (Highland Park, Lake Forest, Libertyville, Long Grove, and Northbrook). She makes three varieties: Snickerdoos, Oatmeal Raisin, and All-American Chocolate Chip. Each box makes one dozen cookies; a variation of a family member’s recipe she redesigned for volume.
Aunt Winnie’s Handmade Cookie Dough is just that—handmade, with the freshest of ingredients. “There are absolutely no artificial preservatives, colors, or additives and we scoop them by hand,” explains Leslie. “It’s something that moms are going to feel good about putting in their children’s lunchboxes. It’s awesome helping moms who are really busy. Many moms and dads don’t have the time to pull out the butter, eggs, and flour to make homemade cookies. I wanted to make a cookie they can pull out of the freezer and know, as it’s baking in the oven, it’s exactly what they would have made if they had the time.”
Leslie, who has two boys, ages 16 and 20, says she wouldn’t have even been able to launch her business—officially this past February—if it wasn’t for the love and support of her boys and husband. “Their support is outstanding.”
In February, Leslie delivered 18 boxes of her product to each Sunset Foods store location. (Two of them took an additional delivery because they sold out in the first weekend.) Since then, Leslie says she’s sold 420 total boxes to Sunset Foods, who has a soft spot for the small manufacturer. On the horizon, she is interested in exploring gluten-free alternatives, but for now, she is busy perfecting her business model: delicious cookies you can bake at home.
As for the name of her company, the name Winnie comes from Leslie’s childhood. Her father gave her the nickname in reference to every child’s favorite bear with the tender heart and an incomparable sweet tooth. But he also passed on to his daughter the necessary grit and fortitude to start her own business. Leslie says the other half, the entrepreneurial spirit, comes from her mother. The name has since stuck.
Leslie also says she has received a lot of encouragement and support from family and friends, which, unsurprisingly, seems to be the recipe to success. “Lots of love makes a good cookie.”
To learn more, visit auntwinnieskitchen.com.
By Simon Murray // Photography by Jim Prisching