Secret ingredient at Brown Butter Cookie Co. — the sisters who run it

Of all the growing pains that come with running a business, the Hozie sisters never imagined the most difficult would be having to spend time apart.

These days, while Christa Hozie oversees the sisters’ Brown Butter Cookie Co. in Cayucos, Traci Hozie is usually two blocks down, immersed in their newest venture, the Cass House boutique hotel.

“It’s strange for us — we used to be like this,” said Christa, her two index fingers pressed firmly together. But the two still find time to connect, sometimes stealing a few minutes to talk business during a car ride or over lunch. As always, their collaborations “come with a lot of ease,” said Christa, who believes their synergy is the key to a successful business relationship that has spanned more than 15 years.

Their most famous venture centers around a shortbread cookie, chewy yet meltingly delicate and sprinkled with sea salt. This “brown butter cookie” began simply, as one of several confections offered at the Little Market gourmet deli, owned by the sisters and Traci’s former husband. They put out samples and were astounded when customers snapped them up by the dozen — or more. “They would say, ‘We will take everything you are baking today,’ ” recalled Christa.

Buoyed by this enthusiasm, the sisters launched a website in 2008 and began shipping nationwide. A year later, they converted their deli into a full-time cookie operation.

Rave reviews followed from the likes of The New York Times, Gourmet Weekly, Good Housekeeping and the Rachael Ray Show. A 30-second segment on “The Today Show” sparked a flurry of more than 500 orders. An article by Westways Magazine that covered Brown Butter Cookie and other Cayucos attractions resulted in a flood of summer business in 2011.

The shop outgrew its location in 2012 and moved into a space three times larger, just two blocks down the road. Today, Brown Butter Cookie Co. produces about 5,000 shortbread cookies daily, five days a week, at its Cayucos production facility. That number swells to 7,000 during its two busiest seasons: summer and the holidays. It also produces several hundred traditional cookies, such as chocolate chip and oatmeal, each day.

Online orders account for 8 percent of sales, with 2 percent going to wholesale accounts. Ninety percent of sales occur at their storefronts, including a second store in Paso Robles that opened in 2013.

At the end of 2014, the sisters’ aunt and uncle, Harry and Tovya McKellop, purchased the historic Cass House, which they lease to the sisters. After a full renovation, it reopened in June 2016 as a five-room inn, wedding and event venue, grill and bakery. The Cass House has had a strong first year, said Traci, and the sisters are anticipating a busy summer.

Although the sisters’ roles have changed as their businesses have grown, Christa said that their relationship remains steady. “Even though we don’t work together on a daily basis anymore, we are super close,” she said. “The best of friends.”

“We trust each other”

The Hozie sisters agree on why their partnership succeeds: similar values and goals. “We are clear on who we are and where we are going,” said Traci. “We trust each other completely.”

Considering their closeness, you might not guess that their bond was forged primarily in adulthood. Following the divorce of their parents, Christa, then 3, went to live with her mother in San Diego. Traci, then 8, and middle sister Kimberly were raised by their father in Templeton. The siblings only saw each other during summers and holidays. Christa remembers that her desire to be close to Traci was so great, she would memorize her high school yearbooks.

The sisters were not reunited until both were young adults and they moved to Orange County. They have been nearly inseparable ever since. “I think we’re so close because we had to fight to be together,” said Christa.

The pair followed each other across the country and back. They have worked together on various jobs and business ventures including a wedding venue business. Each time, they capitalized on their individual strengths, and “gravitated to our different areas,” said Christa.

In the early years of Brown Butter Cookie Co., Traci worked in production and staffing, while Christa handled sales and marketing. Now, with a solid management team in place, Christa, 46, oversees that team. Traci, 52, is chief financial officer for both businesses and manages the staff at the Cass House.

Christa calls Traci a “go-getter, entrepreneur.” She noted that her sister is so organized, when the cookie company moved to its new location, it was only closed for two hours.

Christa is “more front of house,” interacting with customers and the media, she said. According to Traci, her sister also has a “special talent for knowing what is trending as far as flavors and products,” which she leverages to direct product development for both businesses.

Hands-on and homespun

Both the logo and storefronts for Brown Butter Cookie Co. have a vintage flavor, emphasizing the homespun quality of its products. It also underscores the philosophy of the Hozie sisters who, despite their fantastic success, still elect to be very hands-on, with a focus on fundamentals.

Production for the cookies is mostly low-tech.

At the Cayucos production facility, rows of employees hand roll each cookie individually. In the back kitchen, others carefully measure out ingredients. The process is labor-intensive, but the sisters view it as necessary to maintain a high standard of quality and consistency.

A few years ago, Cal Poly engineering students tried to create an automated portioning tool. Like any baker worth her sea salt would have predicted, the dough’s consistency fluctuated according to atmospheric conditions — something only a human can make adaptations for. The sisters refuse to add fillers necessary for such automation, so the machine idea was scrapped and the dough continues to be portioned out, one scoop at a time, by hand.

The sisters have declined offers by large retailers, opting to stay with about 20 smaller retail partners. Those who have shown interest include QVC, Dean & Deluca, Williams Sonoma and Trader Joe’s. Christa noted that she and Traci were flattered, but realized they could not have handled such volume without a significant shift in their business model, or without shaving their profit margin razor thin.

Brown Butter Cookie Co. rarely collaborates with other businesses.

“We are very protective of our brand, and we like to do everything in-house,” said Christa. One exception has been an ongoing partnership with Firestone Walker Brewery. When it was ramping up for the release of its Nitro Merlin Milk Stout in 2016, it contacted the Hozie sisters with the idea of a “Milk and Cookies” promotion, which the sisters considered a “great way to reach new customers,” said Traci.

The company shipped brown butter sea salt cookies to bars and restaurants all over the country to pair with the beer. “It was well received,” said Traci. The two companies repeated the promotion this year and are currently discussing future collaborations.

Future plans

Brown Butter Cookie Co. “continues to grow every year,” said Traci, although it doesn’t match the explosive growth of the early years. Sales growth in recent years has ranged from 5 to 10 percent, and she anticipates around 5 percent growth this year.

The business is in a stable place and “runs so well after so many years,” said Christa.

Still, there are challenges. The most significant is rising overhead — primarily the cost of goods and insurance.

“We charge a premium price for our handmade product and do not feel we can pass this increase in operating expenses direct to consumer,“ said Traci. The sisters also refuse to compromise on their product, packaging or employees. Traci noted that their larger location has “allowed us to grow our business and therefore generate more volume, but changed our profit margin.”

Christa and Traci don’t anticipate moving or adding more locations — and definitely no franchising, citing their desire to be hands-on and to maintain tight control over quality. During the busiest months, their production facility can get cramped, Christa said. “The next step would be increasing hours. We could even have staff there 24 hours a day.”

For now, innovations at the cookie business mostly involve concocting new flavors. While the recipe of the original Brown Butter cookie has not changed since its debut, and it is still the company’s best seller, the sisters have introduced other flavors such as cocoa, almond and, their newest, cinnamon.

The sisters are also self-publishing a children’s book called “Lil’ Darla Can’t Taste Chocolate!” with the help of illustrators Meghann D, a senior director at their company, and former employee Kelsey Wordeman. They plan to sell it online and at their stores this summer.

As with those original batches of brown butter cookies, they don’t have grand expectations or elaborate plans for the book, said Christa.

“But you never know. …”

Brown Butter Cookie Co.

Location: 98 N. Ocean Ave., Cayucos

Owners: Christa Hozie and Traci Hozie (50-50)

Number of employees: 40-55, depending upon the season

Annual sales/profits: Declined to disclose

Favorite non-cookie treat:

Christa — “All cake, all day, especially coconut cake.”

Traci — “I love custards, (especially) vanilla!”

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