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Growing popularity: That's the way the cookie crumbles

From a quiet corner of River Falls' industrial park, Best Maid Cookie Company cranks out yummy confections that rival Grandma's best efforts.

While the company's grown since coming to River Falls in 1996, its focus stays the same, according to co-owner and Vice President of Sales and Marketing Deb Dartsch: Produce high-quality, great-tasting cookies.

Dartsche said Best Maid Cookie Company not only had a great 2005 but also has the mix just right for an exciting 2006.

Most locals call it "the cookie factory." They know they can walk in during business hours and buy various fresh cookies.

There's a lot about Best Maid that folks may not know.

Recent award

The company earned a distinctive award in November.

Sysco, a national food distributor, honored Best Maid with a 2005 Outstanding Supplier Top 100 Company award. The cookie company competed with the likes of Tyson Foods and other big food manufacturers.

Sysco does business with many thousands of companies, so Best Maid takes the award as a high compliment. Sysco selected Best Maid as one of the winners, basing its decision on quality, service and marketing.

Sysco ranks as the nation's largest food distributor, dispatching food and food products to restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, hotels, cruise ships and (according to Sysco) "anywhere a meal is prepared away from home."

The two companies have a 20-year history doing business together. For the last 4-5 years, Best Maid's been making cookies for packaging under a Sysco name brand, BakerSource.

Dartsch said the company received the award at a special dinner during a big conference in Houston, Texas, where Sysco has its headquarters. She also said the award earned Best Maid a spot at Sysco's national conference this month.

"Only a select group gets invited to the national conference," said Dartsch.

She'll travel back to Texas soon, set up an exhibit and bake and serve fresh cookies right there. It's likely that the exposure will drum up more business for Best Maid.

Recent expansion, steady growth

Within the next month, Best Maid begins using the 20,000-square foot building expansion completed late last summer.

The added space holds another baking line that's a total of 1,200 feet long and enables the company to crank out twice as many cookies as it does now.

Dartsch said the new line is finished except for a few final components. Once the components arrive from England, Best Maid must test and fine tune the new oven.

It takes a while to do tests on all 50 cookie varieties. Quality must be consistent on them all.

Once the new line gets cooking, Dartsch said Best Maid will need about 10 more employees.

Imagine using 45,000 pounds of cookie dough every day. Picture several dozen textures and flavors in 12 different sizes. Best Maid fills 14 trucks a day that transport cookies to 32 states.

Imagine a company on the verge of outgrowing a freezer that's about 8,000-square feet!

Dartsch said that following expansion, there's often a need for more freezer and warehouse space. Although Best Maid has no plans for more expansion yet, it recently bought about two acres right next to its current facility - just in case.

"We've grown quite a bit," she said. "Each year our growth percentage is in the double digits. Most food companies are lucky to hit 10%, and ours was 26% last year."

Dartsch won't talk profit numbers, but history and statistics tell more of the story. Best Maid had 21 employees when it broke ground here 10 years ago. Today it employs 73 people.

There used to be three people in the office, including Dartsch. Now she manages an office staff and six salespeople around the country.

The "cookie factory" started with 30,000-square feet and now has 66,000.

Recipes for success

Dartsch's father started Best Maid in 1943 in Minneapolis. Back then he sold cookies to mom-and-pop grocery stores and a few small retail outlets.

Best Maid still sells locally through its outlet store. The company also sells to novelty ice cream companies making ice cream sandwiches.

It purposely hasn't branched out to other foods like muffins so that it can focus on cookies. It offers many versions of just about everything that qualifies as a cookie: Homestyle, low-fat, no trans fat, sugar free, rich and sinful, cookie dough, thaw-n-eat and a few brownies and bars - 30 flavors that all come in different diameters and weights. Some weigh in lightly at .04 ounces, others make a thud with a hefty five ounces.

The factory has what Dartsch calls a dough side and a bake side. Three crews keep everything running 16 hours a day. They do constant on-site quality inspection and about four hours of cleaning every night.

Dartsch said the factory uses a sophisticated tracking system that analyzes and stores details about each batch. Best Maid can find out anything about its shipments within about 20 minutes.

"We've never had to use it, but it's good to have, said Dartsch. "We continue to put money back into the business."

Best Maid is located at 1147 Benson St. The public can buy cookies from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.