Los Altos entrepreneur hands over recipe for enterprising cookie company
At age 81, Alice Larse of Los Altos remains one of those high-energy people who can't resist a challenge.
Though she'd never played a stringed instrument, she began taking cello lessons at age 60.
At 69, she launched her own business, Alice's Stick Cookies, which she built up and ran for 12 years before selling it last fall to fellow Los Altos residents Kelly and Curt Flaig.
"Oh, it was just a challenge," she said of her decision to commercialize a cookie recipe she'd been baking for years. "I should have started it when I was younger."
But when she was younger she was busy raising four children, helping her engineer husband establish a technology business, arranging flowers for her church, volunteering in the community and managing restaurant kitchens as both a volunteer and employee.
Starting a cookie company — with products now available in specialty shops from coast to coast — was competing with many other things on her list.
Larse had been baking the vanilla shortbread-like cookies for decades after tweaking the recipe given to her by a friend.
"I had this cookie where every time I took it anyplace, somebody wanted the recipe," Larse said.
"I always thought it would be something that was marketable and I started experimenting around with packaging."
One holiday season she ordered red boxes with windows, filled them with cookies and sold them to friends and friends of friends to test whether there was a market.
"They sold. The next year, I was on a trip in November and my son took them in a box into Draeger's in Los Altos. They tasted them and they wanted them — so that was the first store we went into."
Next, they approached Andronico's, also with success.
"Then I just started making cold calls on stores up in the wine country," Larse recalled.
Big breaks came in 2004 and 2006, when Larse's cookies were named "cookies of the year" at the show of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, which propelled her to inclusion in the widely circulated Dean & Deluca catalog. Besides selling them online, her cookies are carried at the Milk Pail Market in Mountain View, Draeger's in Los Altos and Menlo Park, and Piazza's Fine Foods in Palo Alto.
It didn't hurt that Larse personally enjoys the process of peddling her product, giving out free samples in shops all over California.
"It's fun, because I like talking to people — most people," she said.
"There was a lady at Andronico's at Stanford — she was a sourpuss of a lady. She took a bite and said, 'These are too sweet; I don't like them at all.'"
"I did another demo at the same store six months later and she came up to the table and I remembered her. And I said, 'You don't like these cookies — but most people do.' She was surprised that I remembered her."
Until handing supervision over to one of her sons in 2010, Larse personally participated in the weekly baking, packaging and shipping of 176 trays of cookies.
"Fedex would be picking up 100 cases of cookies from my garage," she said.
The distinctively textured cookies are now offered in four flavors: original vanilla, lemon, orange-chocolate chip and cinnamon-ginger.
Larse, whose husband died in 2006, enjoys contemplating the nationwide "empire" of specialty shops where her cookies are sold.
But now she has more time to spend with her family — including a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren who now share her spacious Los Altos home.
Larse's great-grandson goes to the same school as the Flaigs' four children, Curt Flaig said.
With their youngest daughter in first grade, "We were searching for a business that would still allow Kelly to be close to home for the kids," he said.
His wife always loved to bake for family and friends, but never baked formally, he said.
"We met Alice about a year and a half ago. After working closely with her for about nine months and learning about her business, we realized that this was the perfect fit for us," Flaig said.
—Chris Kenrick is a staff writer for the Voice's sister paper, the Palo Alto Weekly.