How Sweet It Is
Austin-based bakery and cookie delivery service Tiff's Treats is planning to put its chips on the table in Houston. The company's warm cookies and chilled milk will debut in the city with a planned expansion of five Houston-area stores in 2012.
The cookie company was founded in 1999 by College of Communication alumna Tiffany Taylor, B.S. '01, and McCombs alumnus Leon Chen, B.B.A. '01, and will open the doors to its first Houston location at 3800 Southwest Freeway in the Greenway Plaza area on April 14.
The new store will offer more of what's made the business a success – immediate delivery of warm cookies that arrive directly from the oven.
Tiff's Treats currently operates eight locations with three in Austin, five in Dallas, and plans to open four additional stores in the Houston area later this year.
Taylor and Chen knew each other long before stepping foot on the Forty Acres. The couple met in junior high, briefly dated in high school, rekindled their romance while at UT, and were married in 2010.
While only sophomores, Taylor's special family cookie recipe intrigued Chen and he convinced her to launch a business with him that would prove successful. The first cookies were sold and delivered from Chen's apartment in 1999.
Taylor, a graduate of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations, said the idea of launching a business was done as a whim, without much thought and only two weeks of planning and research.
"I think when you are young, you can just sort of take leaps without really thinking over every angle," said Taylor. "If I had done that, we wouldn't have started the business or we would have quit early on because that would have been overwhelming."
The startup moved out of the apartment, shared a kitchen space with another eatery on Guadalupe Street in 2000, and ultimately found its first independent storefront soon after at 1806 Nueces Street.
The company has used the Web to handle online orders since its inception in 1999, helping to grow a presence in Austin and an expansion to Dallas in 2006. Since the pair registered a website early in the Internet boom, they were able to land an attractive domain name in cookiedelivery.com. The owners estimate that around 65 percent of the hundreds of orders made daily are placed via the Web.
Communication and marketing methods have evolved through the years, making the company active in social media with more than 13,000 current "likes" on Facebook. Tiff's Treats also opened a Twitter account in 2009 to solicit customer suggestions and draw attention to coupon codes, promos, and contests. The company currently boasts more than 6,000 followers.
"It gives us a more personal face and it's great to be able to answer questions or suggestions right there," said Taylor. "It's also a great tool for spreading news. We have an email coupon/newsletter that has always been great for this, but social media is quickly becoming just as valuable."
While the venture started as a small business, each location now employs between 15 and 30 people with the recent expansion to Houston funded by $2.2 million in growth capital.
A typical Tiff's Treats store costs around $250,000 to build out and requires a little more than two months to complete and launch. The company doesn't reveal revenue, but recently acknowledged that its top-performing store takes in more than $1 million in sales annually.
Micah Hirschfield, vice-president of communications for the Greater Houston Partnership and graduate of the School of Journalism at UT, B.S. '99, said that Tiff's Treats selected a fine city for expansion. Hirschfield said one benchmark that shows businesses are flocking to Houston is that the Kauffman Foundation, a leading organization that promotes new business ventures, ranks the city top in the nation for entrepreneurship.
"Houston was the last city to enter the recession and the first one out," said Hirschfield. "That's a statement no other major metropolitan city has accomplished. We are happy to welcome Tiff's Treats to Houston!"
While the food trailer phenomenon is also sweeping Texas, the owners expressed little interest in opening a mobile unit since walk-up business is only a small portion of sales for Tiff's Treats, which has a much greater focus on pick-up and delivery.
Taylor said that students interested in launching a small business should lay some groundwork and planning but not get bogged down in scrutinizing every detail.
"At some point you just have to get started and learn along the way," said Taylor. "You will never prepare for or even imagine every scenario you will encounter, so just jump in there and get ready to learn from your mistakes."
The company has plans for more growth in Texas after the Houston build-out but no immediate plans to expand out of the state or explore franchise opportunities. When asked what advice to give current students in the College of Communication, Taylor replied that having a good time while in school is important.
"College is so much fun and you learn so many new life skills more than anything," said Taylor. "Enjoy your time there and you will look back fondly on it – except maybe for the group projects!"