A few months ago, I realised my Instagram feed was being surreptitiously filled with a series of hedonistic, sinfully decadent images and videos of ... cookies. Very often, these visual stimuli depicted huge, chunky New York-style cookies broken apart to reveal thick streams of chocolate/marshmallow/peanut butter oozing out of tender, doughy cores.
This powerful virtual sensory experience was so masterful; it was enough to propel an instant purchase (I certainly fell for it hook, line and sinker).
But the more I looked at these images, the more I realised just how many home-based businesses were quite suddenly selling cookies in the online market.
These days, there are at least 30 Klang Valley home businesses (and counting) on Instagram dedicated to selling all sorts of cookies – chewy, ooey-gooey, soft-baked, stuffed, huge – whatever your predilection, there’s a cookie out there for you.
Interestingly, most of these cookie businesses are very, very new – at least 95% of them were launched during the pandemic and are less than a year old. So as crazy as it seems, in one fast, furious pandemic-driven year, cookies seem to have morphed from sideshow attractions in a bakery’s arsenal to huge, huge stars that commandeer entire businesses devoted to it.
So just what is the reason behind the manic, seemingly sudden rise of cookies?
The cookie empires
Basic economic principles dictate that supply and demand must find a meeting point, because one is essentially useless without the other. In the case of cookies, much of its initial popularity can be attributed first to an increase in supply, which then corresponded with a commensurate increase in demand.
The supply incline began like most things in the past year – with the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many young people found themselves with either more time on their hands or down on their luck and out of a job. Both scenarios facilitated and fuelled an interest in home baking. Remember this time last year when you couldn’t find or buy any flour for love or money? Yup, everyone was baking.
While many people eventually went back to their daily lives, some people continued baking and turned their passion into viable cookie businesses.
Samantha Lim for instance, was a make-up artist when the movement control order (MCO) first hit last March. With bookings for weddings and other events virtually non-existent, she had to quickly figure out another means of survival.
“My entire industry was wiped out, so it was pretty devastating. But I told my kids that we had to be strong, and I turned to baking. I wanted to inspire my kids and encourage people not to give up and also I believe cookies make people happy.
“So I developed this cookie recipe after many, many tries and wasted dough. I started experimenting in March 2020 and in May 2020, I started giving the cookies to friends and family and got feedback and changed the recipe according to the feedback. And when I got more positive feedback, I knew I had the right recipe, ” says Lim, who started the cookie brand Schewy last year.
R&D chef Syed Syafie Rasyiq, 34, also turned to cookie-making after losing his job during the pandemic. Having sampled most of his competitors’ cookies, Rasyiq realised that with some trial and error, he could probably make a cookie that was different from everything else he had tasted in the market, and that was how his brand Chonks was born.
“I started making cookies in April 2020 and was only confident in the recipe in September 2020. I think I went through about 70 or 80 variations of recipes.
“To get feedback, I would throw lunches and dinners and have my family and friends test out the cookies too. I made so many cookies that I even gave it to my neighbours and the building manager in my condo to try! So when I got a consensus that people liked the taste, I decided it was a good time to launch, ” he says.
For Krystle Kee, 28, the extra free time afforded by the pandemic and the ensuing MCO offered the perfect opportunity to turn her passion for baking into a side business.
“I’m from the education sector, but I’ve had a strong passion for baking since I was a kid. So last year when I had more free time during the MCO, I started thinking about what kind of dessert was in trend. I had come across a few shops in Hong Kong selling gooey New York-style cookies and when I tried the cookies, I loved it and was like ‘I need to do something like this in Malaysia’.
“So I experimented and did over 100 trials before finally perfecting the recipe, ” says Kee, who launched her home-based cookie business Gookeey in August 2020.
Former banker Catherine Chan, 35, followed the same path tread by Kee when she too turned her passion for baking into a cookie business called The Cookies Bar.
“During the MCO, I had time to think about what I really wanted to do. I am not 100% a cookie lover but one day, I baked some cookies and sent it to friends. Then I started a page on social media and started selling the cookies. This was 10 months ago – and involved a lot of experimentation, time and effort, ” she says.
Why the fascination with cookies?
Since cookie businesses began swarming the online marketplace, demand has been through the roof, because as it turns out, Malaysians really, really love cookies!
“When I first started selling cookies online, I didn’t know the response would be so good. In the first month alone, I sold a few thousand cookies!” says Kee.
Rasyiq agrees and says even though the marketplace is now saturated with cookie businesses, demand still outstrips what individual bakers are capable of producing.
“Even though there are a lot of people selling cookies now, there are not enough people to meet demand. A lot of competitors are often sold out or fully booked, so demand is still very, very high, ” says Rasyiq, who typically sells 700 cookies a week and doubles that during festive seasons.
So just who are the people buying these cookies? According to all the cookie-makers, their core demographic is made up of people aged between 18 to 45, with at least 75% of customers composed of women.
“Yes, it’s mostly women – I would say that for my brand, my customers are 80% women and 20% men but most of the men are buying the cookies for their girlfriends as gifts – I think only 10% of my male customers consume the cookies themselves, ” says Chan, laughing.
The reasons why Malaysian women have fallen in love with these cookies are manifold but seem to primarily stem from the fact that the sort of large, soft-baked, chewy, gooey cookies now widely available online were actually a rare commodity just a wee year ago.
“My wife likes soft-baked cookies a lot and it’s not easy to find it in Malaysia. So we searched online and found one that we liked. I think more and more people like us are looking for these sort of soft-baked cookies but don’t know where to find it, so once people find it online, the customer base just grows from there, ” says Nicholas Ow, 29, a cookie fan.
Other cookie lovers attest to the fact that home-based cookie businesses use better quality ingredients and are able to diversify their flavour range, leading to more unusual pairings.
“The pandemic has exposed our tastebuds to high-quality home baked cookies and one thing that I have noticed is as more home bakers produce good cookies, we have better choices. Even in terms of taste, the cookies are more refined so you know you are paying for good ingredients.
“And I also think cookies have to be unique, because for me, cookies are an indulgence and I wouldn’t waste an indulgent moment on typical cookies. So I like brands like Gookeey, because they are always introducing new flavours. I think this is very important, because if you eat the same thing all the time, you tend to get bored, so I think it’s smart that they constantly reinvent.
“That’s why I now tend to order these home baked cookies instead of café cookies. I think once consumers know this option exists – their preferences will definitely shift, ” says MJ Joseph, 45, a banker and cookie aficionado.
Perhaps the most powerful appeal of these cookies – and the one that keeps reeling in both regular purchasers and newbies – is the visual imagery used in Instagram posts. A single picture depicting a cookie bursting with gooey chocolate sells a story far better than any words ever could. And these pictures and videos continue to generate renewed interest in cookie products.
Just ask film producer Cheong Wai Leng, 35, who had an insatiable craving for soft-baked cookies after she gave birth to her child last year. After developing an addiction to the cookies sold online, Cheong was determined to have some degree of self-control and started limiting herself to monthly cookie purchases. But when she sees alluring new posts and images of cookies, Cheong admits to becoming so utterly seduced and bewitched, that resistance simply proves futile.
“Oh, it’s so tempting! The pictures keep attracting me – all that chocolate overflowing from cookies until I am like ‘Wah, I cannot stop myself, ” she admits guiltily.
Even the cookie providers say this marketing tactic is an immediate sales-booster, one that is guaranteed to enhance new orders or simply entice existing customers to order yet again.
“Yes, every time I post an image of a cookie being broken in half, showing off gooey, chewy insides, I will definitely get a lot of messages and orders that day. When people see that, it triggers impulse buys. So I will get people looking at the image at 3am in the morning and messaging me to ask if they can order cookies for the next day – they just want it when they see it!” says Rasyiq.
What’s in store?
Business has undoubtedly been good for cookie-makers this past year but with more and more purveyors flooding the market, is there really room for growth now that the industry is hitting saturation point? Many existing players seem to think so.
“Yes, the market is quite saturated now but I’m not really worried because when there are too many choices, people will go back to what they know. And our customers are loyal, out of 10 customers, eight people will re-order with us.
“So it’s a good market for people who are in it already, but not really for people just starting out, unless they are doing something very different, ” says Rasyiq.
Cookie-makers like Lim meanwhile are so convinced of the potential of their products that they are already in the process of expanding.
“We are in the midst of setting up a central kitchen in a different area at the side of my house to cater to existing demand as well as retail and corporate clients. Because right now, I don’t have a commercial oven so it takes like half a day to bake 30 boxes of cookies, so I want to cut short this time by using commercial ovens in my new kitchen, so I can create more volume, ” says Lim.
Another major issue to consider is whether cookies are destined to go the distance in the Malaysian market. They might be a hit in the online sphere now, but can this pandemic-driven trend survive the pandemic itself?
Many cookie-makers are positive about the outlook for their products and point out that cookies are likely to be around for the long haul for one simple reason: Malaysians can’t seem to get enough of them.
“I think it will be everlasting, because I’ve discovered that Malaysians really, really love cookies. They seem to love it even more than cakes, so I think cookies might even surpass cakes in popularity, ” says Chan.
Kee is also certain that niche cookies will definitely outlast the pandemic. In fact, her conviction is so strong that she even plans to launch a physical dessert shop in the next two years.
“I believe cookies are here to stay, because historically cookies have been around for quite awhile. Of course because of the pandemic, online businesses are doing better than normal, but I think a physical cookie store will also work because once the pandemic ends, people will want to go out, so this is another way to expand, ” she says.