Suzanne Garcia: Chocolate Star Bakery

Today we present Suzanne Garcia, president and chief cookie controller at Chocolate Star Bakery. Many people find Chocolate Star after receiving a tin of their cookies or while surfing the internet for a great cookie gift. Don't let the small store front location fool you,walk in and you will find Suzanne behind the cookie-laden counter or her 20 gallon Hobart mixer.

Have cookies always been your thing?
My Dad had the biggest sweet tooth. He was a fire fighter. I always baked with my Mom, and often the baked goods went with my dad to the firehouse. When I was a kid, my friend and I always ate the raw cookie dough!

I studied at the Fashion Institute in San Francisco and worked for Nordstrom for eighteen years in women's apparel. I was a regional merchandise manager responsible for 27 stores and a $220 million budget. Marketing, merchandising and design are elements of my background from Nordstrom that I bring to my cookie business.

Suzanne's first cookie order and baking in the desert after the jump

Did you have any formal culinary training?
I am pretty much self- taught. I did take a 12- week class with Home Chef in San Francisco. I am not your typical baker. I tend to be very generous with extracts and flavorings. I add my creativity to a recipe. Its important to have precision but I am not stuck on being absolutely perfect.

How did you transition from working for Nordstrom to having your own business?
I traveled quite a bit for business. I was in NYC one day walking through the meatpacking district and passed The Little Pie Company. Inhaling the aroma of the cinnamon I began to think I needed to do something with my baking.

I was dabbling in fancy decorated cookies. My first order was for Valentine's Day. I learned a lot doing that first order for 25,000 cookies! I made oversized decorated heart cookies. I had 2 people helping me; the 3 of us packaged and delivered the entire order.

In the beginning I rented a restaurant kitchen during off hours. We moved into our Scottsdale location in July of 2002. Stupid me, what was I thinking-baking in the desert in the summer? It actually worked to my benefit to work out all the kinks before the busy season.

I changed production from fancy decorated cookies to dropped cookie varieties. Each cookie I develop has its own personality profile. Now, holidays are the busiest season. We do have a retail presence but our biggest market is the corporate gift market. Our business grew from our inter-net site and word of mouth referrals from business clients. Customers who receive cookies as gifts become customers as well.

We started with 6 cookie flavors and now regularly offer 12. The most popular flavors right now are the banana-chocolate chip and the chocolate with dried cherries. We do special flavors and colors for the holidays. Every 3-4 months we will add new cookies to the line-up.

What are some influences in developing your cookie profiles?
Fashion, my background, definitely is a reference for me. I pay attention to food trends, what the predictions are for the next hot ingredient or trend. Other food/ingredient references are seasonal, especially during the holidays.

Traveling and having the opportunity to eat out in cities all over the world had an impact on me. Understanding European food, the concept of eating local, deep traditions, and fresh food-how it relates to the soil.

Seasonally, I like to use peaches, apples, figs. I am not fond of nutmeg and I find walnuts bitter. Cinnamon, almonds and chocolate are some of my favorite ingredients. Trendy ingredients that I see now are comfort foods, familiar flavors and textures from pretzels and corn flakes to rice crispies. Also, salted caramel and kumquats. I try to take an ingredient and create something more delicious from it in a cookie.

What are some of the stand out food moments from your travels?

My first Grand Marnier soufflé in France is a stand out moment. Also, in France, eating crepes with Nutella from a street vendor. Having High Tea in England with scones and clotted cream.

How would you describe your food style?
I like to keep things simple, but I also like sophisticated. I like a sparkle of glitter. Premium ingredients are important. I don't bake with shortening. I like semi-sweet chocolate. I use Ghirardelli chocolate; after all I am from San Francisco!

I like to eat local. I love pizza in general, and enjoy eating it at Cibo. Fresh ingredients are important to me. I never used canned or frozen food. If you eat good food, you feel good.

Where do you hang out when you are not at the bakery?
I am a runner, so I run and train at the gym. I love the laid back lifestyle in Arizona. I spend time with family. We go to restaurants and go to movies. I like to be outdoors.

When we first moved here we lived in Fountain Hills, its really beautiful but I like to be near activity, city life. Now we live in the Biltmore area, and its great to be in a neighborhood where we can walk to restaurants, movies, and shops.

What do you like to cook and eat at home?
Fresh, homemade pasta is a favorite. We eat healthy, a lot of chicken and fresh vegetables. My husband is the official taste tester in the family. He loved the chocolate orange biscotti recipe from my grandma, which we translated into a scooped cookie.

Have you considered expanding beyond cookies?
I did cupcakes a few years back as they were becoming trendy. They were well received by customers, but they don't ship well. I know pies are becoming fashionable. I do specials for the holidays like cinnamon buns during Easter.

I like cookies because they are always "in"; cookies are forever. Cookies have universal appeal. You don't need a fork or a plate to eat them, only a napkin to hide the evidence.

I am not looking for big growth in the business right now. I want to maintain our high quality and don't want to compromise our cookie product. I've already lived the big corporate life.

What are some of the lessons from the corporate world that you have carried over into your business?
Care and listen to your customer, but also know when to say "No!" Deliver on your promises. Learn about your business. Create systems for the business to function. Identify the top sellers. Plan and prepare. Don't become too complex, simplify.

Do you have a tip or two for the home baker?

Use the best quality ingredients you can. Play with flavor combinations. Don't over bake your cookies. Out of the oven, cookies should be slightly soft, residual baking occurs after cookies are removed from the oven, so give them time.

Are there any celebrity chefs you would like to meet?
I would like to meet Bobby Flay because of his down to earth-throw down style. Wolfgang Puck-he started the whole California pizza craze, with fresh and unusual (at the time) ingredients. I will say Giada for my husband to meet! I would like to meet Martha Stewart (we call my Mom the original Martha) and pick her brain for a while.

Tomorrow, Suzanne shares her recipe for Chocolate Cherry Almond Cookies