The year was 2006 and 22-year-old Loren Brill had just graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in communications. She was ready to start her new life and career, when all was suddenly halted in its tracks — a swelling on her neck had been diagnosed as Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Instead of moving on with her life, Brill headed to her family home in New York to undergo treatment. The cancer, though cured, took a year of Brill’s life; but it gave the world Sweet Loren’s — the first retail safe-for-all, baked or raw, portioned cookie dough — now recognized as the #1 natural refrigerated cookie dough brand in the U.S.
“That year off of my life completely changed the way I looked at the world and how I felt about food,” Brill said. Food became the most important thing she did each day to give her energy. “I needed the best, highest-quality energy to fight the disease and make my body stronger.”
Mentally and physically, she wanted to feel as strong as possible, but found that when she ate highly refined foods, she didn’t feel well or have much energy. It made her appreciate, at a young age, the importance of eating clean and the huge effect of food on our health and well-being, she said.
Since Brill wasn’t working that year, she took cooking classes and studied nutrition on the days she didn’t have treatment, with a goal of making healthy and tasty food. “So my meals became very delicious,” she said. “But I have a huge sweet tooth” — and she was frustrated with what was available in grocery stores and bakeries. So out of that hunger and need to satisfy her sweet tooth came the desire to create treats that both made her feel good and were made with good ingredients.
The Beginning. And that, Brill said, is why she began baking, perfecting, then commercializing her dough. “There’s nothing better than a cookie right out of the oven, and I personally love eating cookie dough raw.”
It wasn’t an immediate decision, however. Once she was cured of the Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she tried getting a “real job,” then realized she is an entrepreneur at heart. Although she had developed her cookie recipes for her personal use, Brill said, “I was egged on by the reactions of family and friends. I would see people’s eyes light up — every age group, every demographic. Cookie dough really unites us.”
She also decided to focus on cookie dough after studying the industry. At about $10 billion, the cookie market is saturated and there is a lot of competition, she said. Cookie dough, on the other hand, is about a half-billion-dollar market with two key players, so she saw more “white space” there. Because she wanted to use only natural ingredients, dough also would have a longer shelf life than would fresh-made cookies.
Brill had previously worked at a bakery, where she “fell in love with the happiness that sweets gave people,” so she knew what she was getting into. But even more than that, she wanted to impact the food industry; to bring to consumers a convenient and easy food that is delicious and healthy. “I realized how short and precious life is, and I felt I had a gift to give the world,” she said.
Safe-To-Eat-Raw. But a top-selling point of what was to become Sweet Loren’s (both for Brill herself and its consumers) was its safe-to-eat-raw properties. “Half of our customers love to eat cookie dough raw,” she said. “They will eat it even if it’s not safe, so let’s make it safe.”
What makes Sweet Loren’s safe are the same properties that make it healthy. It is vegan, so no eggs or other dairy products are used, and the primary ingredient is oat flour, which is naturally steam-heat treated. Though the dough is safe to eat raw, this does not mean there are no food safety challenges, with the greatest of these being water content. Because of the dough’s moist properties, it has a lower shelf life, and more chances of being a breeding ground for bacteria. So Brill has always worked with food scientists in developing the commercial product, and all is third-party tested.
It was only in March of this year, however, that Brill focused the company’s marketing on the safe-to-eat-raw aspects — packaging an “extra creamy, smooth, and scoopable” edible cookie dough in a jar, that is “made to enjoy raw, not for baking,” and adding no-bake recipes to Sweet Loren’s website.
Although Brill was the first safe-to-eat-raw, pre-portioned cookie dough brand on the market, other companies are also now developing edible cookie doughs labeled as “eat or bake” and “safe to eat raw.” So it is becoming a category that retailers are starting to take more seriously, Brill said, adding, “It’s always hard, but exciting, to build a new category.”
Safe For All. Even before the focus on raw food safety, it was Sweet Loren’s “all-free” ingredients that built the business, which was recognized twice by Inc. Magazine, most recently for its 655% year-over-year growth.
The cookie dough was launched as natural and had relative success, picked up by Whole Foods eight years ago, and gradually gaining entry into other national retailers over the last four years. As the brand became recognized, Brill got requests for even more special characteristics, such as gluten-free, plant-based, and dairy-free.
So, three years ago, Brill upped the ante, deciding to “launch a universal cookie that everyone can eat.” They reformulated and got certified to become a virtually “all-free” product: non-GMO verified, gluten-free certified, dairy-free, vegan, peanut/tree nut-free, 100% whole grain, and Kosher Pareve. The dough is now safe for those with nearly any dietary restriction or food allergy, as well as those who just want to eat clean, she said. “Being really safe for all those people has helped us grow.”
“I think I was early to market,” Brill added. “The industry is so different today than it was eight years ago — it has caught up to us.”
Some aspects of the changing industry are not quite as advantageous for refrigerated products, however, i.e., e-commerce. “Everyone with a perishable product like ours that has to be kept cold is dealing with the same challenges: it is expensive to ship and e-commerce is a challenge.”
So, she said, “We’re not there yet. We’re watching to see if that will be drastically different soon.” Because the product is vegan, it could be shelf stable, she said. But since it has chocolate chunks and is portioned as small discs, it needs to be shipped with dry ice to ensure quality.
A Growing Firm. Having grown from a one-woman business to the #1 company in its category (while still creating and testing recipes in her home kitchen), Brill had six key pieces of advice for others wanting to do the same:
- Be clear in your goal; it will direct you. It’s so important to be clear about why you’re starting a business, as this will help you answer a lot of choices you’re faced with, she said. Brill’s goal was, and is, to “have a huge impact on the food industry”; to make clean food delicious especially in the treats and bakery category. One of her key drivers was: “If I don’t do this, who will?”
- Throw your ego out the window. Know what problem you’re working to solve, but be open to feedback. When you test your products on real people, you will always learn a lot. Then you can decide, Brill said, “Either I’ll do what I think is right, or I’ll listen to my customer.”
- Constantly iterate and improve your product. Brill sees the food industry as evolving similarly to the way Sweet Loren’s has evolved. “I’m really excited that the food industry is going this way; that people want safer and cleaner options, and they want to support a brand, like ours, that they didn’t grow up on — because we offer something different and refreshing.”
- It’s all about your team. Having founded the company herself, Brill did everything she could for as long as she could. “Then,” she said, “I hired the best team possible.”
- If you feel you are a minority in some way, don’t let that hold you back. Brill believes her success to be, at least in part, because she is a female. Diversity also can lead to innovation. “When you haven’t grown up in an industry, you look at it with a fresh face. It’s empowering,” she said.
- Enjoy it. “It’s been cool to be one of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S. for the last couple years, making it to the Inc. list with a team of 10 people or less and without a big marketing budget — and trying to create a new category with safe-to-eat-raw dough,” Brill said.
Above all, Brill is excited about being instrumental in bringing the new category to market, and meeting the challenge of redefining treats in a healthier way. “I do believe that treats are part of a healthy lifestyle when they’re part of a balanced diet,” she said.
“I don’t want people to feel guilty about eating desserts or raw cookie dough. So, let’s do it in a safe way with healthier ingredients so they feel good about it.”
More About Hodgkin's Lymphoma
Hodgkin's lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. It may affect people of any age but it is most common in those between 20 and 40 years old and people older than 55. Cells in the lymphatic system grow abnormally and may spread beyond it, but advances in diagnosis and treatment have helped give those with this disease the chance for a full recovery, and the prognosis continues to improve.
Source: Mayo Clinic