Erica King is the queen of cookies.
Erica King was walking around Chicago, soaking in its summertime splendor and eating some Garrett popcorn, when she realized just how much she was going to miss her adopted city.
Preparing for a move back home to St. Louis, King began taking stock of everything she'd miss: the gorgeous months of June, July and August, the scenery, and the sweet and salty taste of that popcorn. She was trying to think of any other food that perfectly captured that flavor when it hit her, and then it struck her: Why not create one herself?
"I was walking around with my friend thinking, 'Oh man, what else is there that has this magical cheddar caramel flavor I can indulge in when I leave?'" King recalls. "I couldn't think of anything. Popcorn has this mix of crazy different flavors, but then I thought, 'What if it was in a cookie?' My friend looked at me like I was crazy. I'm always that one in the friend group who has those crazy ideas, but sometimes, those crazy ideas actually work."
When she looks back, King now sees that the path to starting Shorty Mix Gourmet Cookies (www.smgcookies.com)
started way before that revelation in Chicago in 2014. Growing up, she was incredibly close to her grandmother, and has fond memories of being at her house, smelling the incredible aromas coming out of her kitchen as she tried to snatch Danish butter shortbread cookies out of their characteristic blue tins — though, she says, they were usually filled with spare change or sewing materials and not the sweet treats she was hoping for.
Those memories stuck with her even as she went off to college and began her career in marketing. Baking was always a source of stress relief for her, and she found herself coming back to the kitchen when she needed to decompress. Those culinary skills were especially useful once she moved back to St. Louis and found herself without a job and living back home with her mother. Unsure of what the next step was, she found an old cookbook her grandmother gave her and took it as a sign that she should put her energy into baking. Using her mom, brother and neighbors as taste-testers, she began doing research and development on what would become her cookie brand.
"At the time, baking was my saving grace," King says. "I figured that I had this idea, so now I needed to do the actual science of it. I began doing testing and research and was a perfectionist about the products. My mom and brother were tasters, but I also went around my neighborhood, knocking on people's doors — I was this strange person asking them if they wanted to try my cookies, but they loved it."
Though King was passionate about baking, she still was not quite ready to go all in, so she put her cookie business on the back burner. She went back into the marketing field, where she worked for a couple of years in a job that she enjoyed, even as she could not shake the feeling that something was missing. About two years in, that feeling became too strong for her to ignore.
"I felt so unhappy and felt that there had to be something more," King says. "I started traveling again — I used every work vacation to go somewhere. Looking back, I see that I was in search of something and wanted something better in life. About a year later, I found my grandma's cookbook again, and that's when I said, 'OK, Grandma. I hear you. I'm going to do it.'"
King quit her marketing job and dedicated herself fully to setting up Shorty Mix Gourmet Cookies. Drawing upon both her grandma's influence and her own experiences acquired through traveling the world, King concocted several shortbread-based recipes and began building her brand. With the help of local startup incubator Square One's business bootcamp and local commissary and food incubator STL Foodworks, King got the entrepreneurial know-how and guidance to get her business up and running. Now, with several farmers' markets and pop-ups under her belt, she is confident she's living out her life's calling: bringing others joy through delicious food and, in turn, bringing herself joy by doing what she loves.
"I am the kind of person that just likes so many different things — the word 'cosmopolitan' hits home because I just like so many different things," King says. "For a long time it was hard, because people would say that I had to pick one thing to do with my life, and I struggled with that for the longest time. With these cookies, no one is going to make me pick just one thing. I'm going to create 500 different flavors — OK, not really, but I like having that as a goal because it gives me a place to start."
King took a break from making her signature shortbreads to share her thoughts on the state of the St. Louis food and beverage community, her passion for travel and why her grandmother remains a part of everything she does.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
When I go out and sell my cookies, I feel the pride of my grandmother and ancestors. My grandmother, Earlie B. King, retired from Lambert St. Louis International Airport as a flight food cook and was celebrated for her extraordinary talent. She also often gave her last to help me travel to new places that sparked my cookie business concept. Her passion, skill and love for food lives in me. I feel empowered by our country’s greatest Black cooks and bakers to do what I do.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Morning meditation with essential oils and burning sage. My day just doesn’t feel as focused or pleasurable without it.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
So many! Oceano, Southern and Sauce on the Side.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Spice, because there are so many varieties and they add such bold flavor.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I would be a singer, touring the world with a band.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
Right now is tough, but it feels optimum. I’m used to tough conditions. I was a college graduate during the recession. I’m the older millennial that seems to meet life as everything shifts and changes so fast. As a hospitality startup looking to grow, I’m not allowing myself to move as fast as the rest of the world in order to be trendy. It’s satisfying to move at my own pace, because my goal is to learn from today for the future. I’m looking to bring my business to people in a way that’s here to stay. People need to know that not all of us are riding a wave; we are serious about what we do and want to be a part of the community.
What do you miss most about the way you did your job before COVID-19?
I miss people! I miss being able to freely talk to them without a mask, shake their hands and hug them. I’m a touchy-feely person. Doing pop ups was great for me when I first started, because I got to watch people take that first bite of my cookies. I was never left disappointed as I got to experience that with them, and neither were they.
What do you miss least?
Meetings! I do not miss getting invited to tons of in-person meetings. Meeting from home suits me just fine.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
My stress-eating includes anything fast and drinking all the sugary drinks that come with the combos. Most times I cook my own meals, but when I’m stressed I just want to eat something quick. I don’t have to think about it or plan for it, I just go and get it. The only problem is, I always feel bad afterwards ... but it seems I forget that feeling the very next time!
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
I believe the biggest changes will be the regulation around what it looks like to operate, and in turn the costs and trade-offs with being compliant. Limiting contact levels and touch points with people will still be a part of the experience. Options for how we exchange money for products is one aspect of the new process that shows how technology continues to shape our future. We all have to be tech savvy and provide multiple service structures for people to engage with us in the ways they are most comfortable and safe with. It will require constant decision-making considering many factors.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
Conversations around supporting small, local, Black and minority businesses give me hope. Slowly but surely these conversations are leading to changed behaviors and identities. It’s refreshing to see people feel like they have options on where they can buy, and to see more people like myself feel empowered to join the enterprise. The cherry on top is seeing big business partner with us.
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