The Queen of Cookies

Meet Luane Kohnke, SVP, Managing Director of R/GA’s Analytics practice AND top-selling cookbook author.

Gluten-Free Cookies debuted in March of this year and is already into its second printing. Check out the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Target. It’s beautifully photographed and composed, with 50 delicious cookie recipes that don’t use flour, wheat, barley or rye.

Here’s a recipe for a gluten-free Chocolate Chip & Pecan cookie, just in case you’re doing any holiday baking!

The book has achieved global distribution, and in October Luane was 1 of 7 accepted into Hot Bread Kitchens, a prestigious Harlem-based incubator supporting women & minority-owned small businesses.

I caught up with Luane to learn how she accomplished this in addition to her day job.

JS:       At what moment did you decide to publish a cookbook? Why was an important goal for you?

LK:       Cookies are one thing that I bake really well. I love making them. I love the ingredients. I enjoy baking for friends and family and they’ve always encouraged me to open a bakery.

The thing was, I was resistant to the work of opening a bakery. So about two years ago I began to think about how I could monetize my talent and I decided that maybe I could write a cookbook.

JS:       How did you explore the idea before undertaking it?

LK:       I didn’t know anything about writing a book, so I started networking to find cookbook authors, people and agents involved in culinary marketing. I didn’t know if I could be successful, but I saw this as an opportunity to learn and meet new people; to stretch in a different area. I considered it my intern project in the culinary world.

The first thing I learned was how to write a book proposal. I solicited advice and feedback from the people I met, and sent my proposal to publishers that accepted unsolicited book ideas. The rejection letters started rolling in. In some cases, I didn’t receive a response at all. It’s a black hole if you don’t hear anything in 3 months.

I had started researching my goal in May 2009. By December, an agent at a small publishing house reached out to me: “We don’t think there’s a market for your idea. But I noticed you included some gluten-free recipes and we think there could be a market for that. Are you open to writing a book on gluten-free cookies?”

JS:       Why did you start baking gluten-free cookies?

LK:       I started collecting and writing gluten-free cookie recipes about 15 years ago. I often baked and brought cookies into work and noticed one of my co-workers never took any cookies. When I asked her about it, I discovered her two sons had Celiac disease – an intolerance to wheat products that affects 1 in 100 Americans.

She gave me a recipe for a gluten-free cookie and I started to play with it. The tricky part of baking cookies without all-purpose flour is that flour is what creates elasticity and crumbly texture. I had to figure out how to replicate that without using any gluten products, so I began experimenting with blends of rice flour, almond meal and other ingredients. I drew on my research background to set up controlled tests and tastings until I achieved a winning combination.

JS:       OK, so you had a publisher by January 2010. How long did it take from start to finish to write and produce Gluten-Free Cookies? And when on earth did you find time?

LK:       The deal with the publisher was to have half the manuscript completed by May, and the second half by the end of June. All photography had to be completed by July. They would do the layout and first print-run for a January 2011 publicity/pre-orders and March launch.

Six months was a very short timeframe to develop, test, and bake 50 unique cookie recipes. It was more than one recipe per week. Then the publisher had additional demands: Could you bake for the photo shoot?  So instead of using a stylist, I baked every single cookie, individually wrapped them and Fed Exed them to the photographer in Maine. Everything broke in the first batch I sent out!

JS:       What advice do you have for people looking to turn a passion into a business?

LK:       Don’t lose the fun. I didn’t look at this as a substitute for the way I support my family. I didn’t rely on any income. It’s been an adventure and learning experience – to see how far I could push the limits of my talent/craft. I saw myself as an amateur and I wanted to see if my ideas could be accepted by experts in the field.

Be flexible. You may need to be open to changing the original concept. Publishers said to me: “I don’t like your idea. It’s not sellable… but would you consider this other idea?”

Figure out how to handle adversity. Success is predicated on iterating and luck. It’s hard to create luck, but you can think about the timing and market for products. My first attempt to sell my idea was during a really horrible publishing cycle when everybody was rejecting manuscripts. I returned when the pipeline had dried up and had much better luck.

JS:       How did you previous [research, analytics and marketing] experience help you achieve your goal?

LK:       Being a seasoned business person helped, especially when I had to prepare a business proposal for Hot Bread Kitchens. I knew how to come up with a business framework… to make reasonable hypotheses and assumptions to support my projections. I approached my dream of writing a cookbook from the rational lenses of a marketer: What is the culinary world hungry for? instead of Here’s my idea – now how do I create a market for it?

The agency world of client service also helped prepare me for the partnership with my editor. As advertising professionals, we know we have to deliver meticulous final things to the client. I didn’t want my editor to have to work hard. I learned and nailed her evaluation style early on and put my best work forward, so she could spend her time on fine-tuning.

Finally, I came to terms with the idea that once I pitch my recipes, they cease to be fully mine. I have to let them go and accept that they may morph into something else. If I want to keep a recipe for my own, I can’t release it into the wild.

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Visit Luane’s Cookies web site too see more recipes

Order Gluten-Free Cookies cookbook

Bake Luane’s gluten-free Chocolate Chip & Pecan cookie

 

November 2013 Addendum:

Catching up with the Cookie Queen

 

Sassy CookiesGuess what? All the plans Luane discussed for her cookie [ad]venture have come true! Luane, in partnership with Urban Horizon Kitchen in the Bronx is now baking her delicious cookies and gluten-free cookies for retailers, corporate functions and gifts! She published a second cookbook this September, Sassy Cookies. And, in case you were wondering how she gets it all done, is now splitting her time between R/GA and her growing business.

 

I love to see people with great ideas, passion and honest effort succeed, don’t you?! Here’s what happened when we chatted with Luane recently. Timely too, since the high season for cookies is right around the corner!

 

JS: Catch us up. When did you start baking as a wholesaler? What’s your current production? What local stores carry your cookies?

 

LK: I started baking around February of 2012 at Hot Bread Kitchen Incubates. HBK Incubates runs a program for women and minority start-ups like my business. HBK runs its own bread bakery production in the same facility as the incubation space. This was not a great environment for gluten-free baking because of the possibility of cross-contamination due to flour in the air and in shared work spaces, so, in August of 2012, I moved to WHEDCo/Urban Horizons Kitchen in the Bronx. Urban Horizons is super-clean and has a much better environment for baking gluten-free cookies. My current production is still relatively small, but I am making progress on expanding my distribution into retail outlets.

 

JS: How did Sassy Cookies come to life? It’s full of eclectic recipes with unusual combinations of ingredients. How did you come up with the idea?

 

LK: Sassy Cookies is a reflection of my constant experimentation with new flavors and flavor combinations. I get inspired by many things – from reading articles about spices and foods to simply enjoying something new at a restaurant, or talking to friends about their food experiences. Although I own hundreds of cookbooks, mostly I am inspired by a single flavor or an ingredient. The next thing you’ll hear me say is “I want to make a cookie with…” and that is how it starts. Next I will be in the kitchen making a cookie with saffron or lavender or green tea, or recreating the flavor of a coconut-curry-chocolate-bar in the form of a cookie.

 

Sassy Cookies is the culmination of at least forty of those quests to bring to life a new sweet, savory, or spicy idea. It contains an in-depth exploration of chocolate, fruits, nuts, herbs, and cheese. It includes inspirations from Latin America, Europe, and Asia. I also created eight gluten-free cookies as well, so that those with gluten sensitivities can enjoy the pleasure of new flavor treats.

 

JS: When did you decide to move to a part-time schedule with R/GA? What considerations (income and otherwise) led to your decision and how did you broker it with the agency?

 

LK: I initially reduced my hours to 40 per week, which at an agency is a feat. I was successful at getting them down to 45 per week, but that still wasn’t giving me enough time for my business. So I basically back-filled my position as Head of Global Analytics, last October, after an extensive search. I did a four-month transition with my replacement, and then I was ready to leave.

 

R/GA is a terrific place to work. As I was preparing to exit, they asked me if I wanted to work part-time, and since I was planning to freelance 20 hours a week anyway, I said yes! It has worked out very well.  I work about 25 hours per week, Monday through Wednesday, and then I spend Thursday and Friday focusing on my business.  If something urgent comes up for R/GA on my off-days, I pitch in to help.

 

I’ve made a lot of progress on my business since I reduced my hours at R/GA, and because I still have an income, I am not as stressed about the cash flow from my business. It has definitely been a win for me and for R/GA.

 

JS: Last time we spoke, a bit of advice you gave to budding entrepreneurs stayed with me: Don’t lose the fun. Are you having more fun than ever? What’s next?

 

LK: Yup, still having fun. Every week I learn something new, meet new people, or take on a new challenge.  It is all fun for me. I like adventures.

 

For my culinary journey, I am pondering ideas for a third book. I am also looking at other culinary pursuits like teaching or consulting. Not sure where I will land, but I want to continue the momentum and build on my accomplishments thus far.

 

JS: Since you are constantly baking, how do you not weigh 600 pounds?

 

LK: That is a great question. First of all, baking often involves long hours of standing and bending and lifting heavy things, so I get a good work out.  Second, I am around cookies all of the time, and as a professional, I never sample my work during production, and since it is for orders, I rarely even grab a treat for myself. Third, I balance the butter fat in my life with large supply of vegetables. I LOVE vegetables!

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Check it out: We, at Nadexa Group, are entering into a partnership with Luane to supply all our corporate gifts, to candidates and clients. Hear that? Lots of yummy cookies in store for you guys that do business with us! Luane has been great to work with, offering personalization on gift tins and shipments. Just like when we worked together a dozen years ago at G2, everything she touches is perfectly and thoughtfully executed.

 

If you’re interested in where to buy Luane’s cookies, or want to order a scrumptious assortment for a catered function or corporate gift, this is her web site: www.luanekohnke.com

 

 

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