The Joy of Baking

Cookies so good L.L.Bean’s cafe came calling

Sarah Stadnicki’s kitchen, which doubles as the headquarters of her one-woman cookie factory The 27th Chip, brims with smells of warm butter, sugar and chocolate. As various timers go off, Stadnicki takes two sheets of large chocolate chip cookies out of a double oven, then moves swiftly into her dining room to pull scones from a double wall oven. Stadnicki is in full production mode and as a staff of one, every move matters. She sets down the cookies on a long sideboard to cool; ultimately they’ll end up at either L.L.Bean’s 1912 Cafe or The Gelato Fiasco, her biggest customers.

A batch of Sarah Stadnicki’s 27th Chip cookies fresh from the oven. Photo by Merritt James

In 2015, Stadnicki launched The 27th Chip out of her Brunswick home. It evolved from an earlier partnership with her best friend, Freeport resident Rachel James. The women grew up together in Newfoundland, where “everyone has baked goods and a warm kettle to welcome guests in their home,” Stadnicki says. True to that tradition, Stadnicki serves the still-warm scones with homemade strawberry jam, while describing her path from neonatal intensive care nurse to professional baker serving two of Maine’s best known companies.

Stadnicki had been working at Maine Medical Center in the NICU when she and James decided to start a wholesale baking business in 2011. They named their company after their mothers, Marg and Doots, and primarily served the now-closed Good Eats Boutique in Portland. When James stopped working to have her fourth child in 2015, Stadnicki chose to start her own company, this time focusing on her specialty, cookies.

Photo by Merritt James

The Gelato Fiasco has been Stadnicki’s customer since the beginning, when she essentially recruited them to be her first retailer. She’d browsed local storefronts and targeted The Gelato Fiasco because they have a consistent following of customers, but limited offerings: coffee and gelato. Owner Josh Davis was receptive, she says, but very specific in what he wanted. “A chocolate chip cookie that was crispy on the outside, chewy on inside, had lots of chocolate chunks, was big enough to share and sizable enough to be noticed in a jar.” Stadnicki experimented until she achieved a consistent product. It took her 27 recipes, hence the name of her business. One of her key ingredients is dark chocolate chunks from a Belgian chocolate-maker. “My husband gained five pounds taste-testing,” she says. (Her three sons also provide tasting expertise.) When she first started baking for The Gelato Fiasco, she made a dozen a week. Now she’s up to 15 dozen a week for the gelato maker, which sells them in both its Brunswick and Portland stores.

She has separate refrigerators in her garage for butter and dough, gets her water tested frequently and undergoes yearly inspections by the state, which licenses her home kitchen. “Being a former NICU nurse I’m conscious about cleanliness, which is tricky when you have three boys,” she says. As the business took off, she faced space issues in her home kitchen. The cookies are substantial, weighing in at a quarter pound each, and she could only make six at a time. “I used to get up at 4 in the morning and start baking so I could be finished before my kids started the day,” Stadnicki says.

Photo by Merritt James

Her production increased tenfold after a remodel turned her dining room into both a functional work and family space. She added a double wall oven (a “tried and true” Kenmore) and a long sideboard with a heat-resistant countertop that doubles as a place to roll out dough and cool cookies. Cabinet space below holds industrial storage bins and baking supplies. Stadnicki can now make nine dozen cookies before 11 a.m. in a space that doubles as the family’s dining room.

That extra space came in handy when L.L.Bean came calling. The manager of the retailer’s 1912 Cafe, who had tried her cookies at The Gelato Fiasco, called Stadnicki to order some for a staff Christmas party. After the party, she asked Stadnicki to start baking for the cafe, which is inside the Freeport store. The cookies are increasingly popular there, with sales up from 7,000 in 2017 to over 8,000 last year (40 dozen of them just over the Fourth of July). She takes some private orders as well, and contributes frequently to local fundraisers. A favorite recipient is TEAN (The Emergency Action Network) in Brunswick, which brings together community resources to anonymously help families in need. Stadnicki is on the board. In a peak month, like last December, she made 250 dozen cookies between retail sales and fundraisers.

Photo by Merritt James

That sounds like a daunting amount, but Stadnicki gets joy from it. “I remember as a kid watching my mom make bread, she would always get a look on her face when her hands sunk into the flour. I understand that look now, it’s ‘Flour Therapy.’” Her great-grandmother was famous for her breads and according to family lore, her grandmother delayed heading to the hospital to give birth to Stadnicki’s mother because she had a cake in the oven. “Baking truly is therapy for me, it’s in the genes.” She’s content doing it all herself as well, even though some have suggested she expand to a bigger facility. Expansion could negatively impact quality. “I feel like technology may never catch up with the basic goodness of having something that’s homemade vs. mass-produced,” Stadnicki says. “At the end of the day, my biggest concern is that the quality isn’t sacrificed.”

At this scale, she can buy Maine eggs (including from Bowden Egg Farm in Waldoboro) and work with local distributors like Native Maine and Downeast Foods, which deliver directly to her house. “Maine is a great place to start a business because people want you to succeed if they think you have a good product. The key is finding connections with people who are just as passionate about what you can offer.”

Stadnicki follows a motto she learned as a nurse that once you’ve stopped enjoying what you’re doing, it’s time to move on. “I put love and joy into my baking and I think it comes through in what I make,” she says. “If I’m ever not happy doing what I’m doing then it might be time to re-evaluate but right now I’m happy.”

Mercedes Grandin is a freelance writer, editor, English teacher and tutor. She lives in Brunswick with her husband Erik and their chocolate Labrador Fozzie.

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