You still have to wait in line to snag a Levain cookie. It’ll just be at a grocery store.
The New York City bakery is the latest cult-favorite to get into retail: Levain announced today it has started rolling out a ready-to-bake version of its iconic colossal cookies at Whole Foods stores nationwide this month after a pilot in the fall. The frozen line includes Levain’s signature chocolate-walnut, as well as variations of its two-chip and dark chocolate chip. Some stores will also sell oatmeal raisin cookies.
“We listened to our customers. That’s something that they’ve been asking for, for a really long time. We decided that we would give it a try and we came up with a cookie that we thought was as good as the original four,” says cofounder and board member Pam Weekes. “We didn’t use any different ingredients than we use in the bakery. It’s butter, flour, sugar, eggs.”
“As long as we’re involved,” adds cofounder and board member Connie McDonald, “You can bet it will be very true to the experience you have when you step into the bakery.”
Weekes and McDonald started Levain in 1997 after they began baking huge cookies to sustain themselves during triathlon training. For years, they ran a small Upper West Side location as famous for its crowds as its cookies — and expect to sell 15 million cookies this year. But now an at-home version won’t be farther than your freezer.
The line has been sold at locations of Whole Foods along the East Coast since September—later than initially planned due to the pandemic. But what was once a setback is now thought of as “serendipitous,” says Weekes: “We launched it through supermarkets at a time when people are spending more and more time there.”
Particularly in the frozen aisle.
Long ignored, frozen food couldn’t be stocked on shelves fast enough in 2020 as consumers flocked to the sub-zero aisle, which typically comes with less preservatives and fresher food. It was the second-highest in terms of overall sales growth in 2020, growing 21% according to NielsenIQ data. But in the past 12 months, frozen cookies were actually one of the few categories in frozen desserts which contracted, with sales dropping 14%.
Competition getting onto grocery shelves is fierce, especially for frozen which drove profits for supermarkets in 2020. Popular brands, like Levain’s with some 295,000 Instagram followers, have been getting tapped to drive customers to stores, joining crowded shelves filled with branded retail products from Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar as well as restaurants like Momofuku and Carbone.
Levain’s online sales grew 400% in 2020, and while the brand won’t share more specific financials about just how well its cookie line has been doing, CEO Andy Taylor says the frozen cookie line hit the team’s entire 12-month sales projection in under three months. Since launching, the line added distribution in 11 more chains, including Harris Teeter on the East Coast and Gelson’s on the West Coast. “Velocities were higher than we anticipated,” says Taylor, “and higher than the grocers’ anticipated.”
Levain’s grocery-ready line has been in development for three years—fueled by funding from private equity firm Stripes Group, which became Levain’s first-ever investor in 2018.
Taylor, previously the CEO of fast-casual chain Hale and Hearty, came to Levain shortly after the investment. In addition to expanding with four new stores — Levain is currently building its first location in Boston and second in D.C., while it’s eyeing locations in new markets like Chicago and Florida — a top priority was developing a retail cookie.
First Levain’s team tried a shelf-stable option, to compete with Tate’s or Milano’s, but the cookie developed wasn’t true to Levain’s heritage. “It wasn’t the warm, ooey gooey experience,” says Taylor. “That’s what we try to mimic as closely as possible. Frozen allows us to translate the bakery experience.”
Transforming Levain’s original four cookie flavors for grocery shoppers is just the start. Expect the brand to develop more flavors, as well as other pastries and bakery products like the ones it sells in its stores.
“We think it could translate to CPG in the future,” says Taylor. “But right now, we’re focused on getting cookies on shelf.”