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Business Observer Saturday, May 28, 2022 4 months ago

Former pro wrestler bites into bakery business with Sarasota store

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Eric Koenreich seeks to find sustainable success in hyper-competitive industry: cookies.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Don’t be fooled by the X-Men T-shirt, the sleeves of colorful tattoos on each arm, the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" VHS tapes and the Britney Spears posters.

Eric Koenreich, owner of the bounty of 1990s nostalgia — and the tattoos —  is a serious entrepreneur, albeit one with a sweet tooth and silly side. Like his approach to business, the 40-year-old Koenreich’s life path is rather unconditional. His first career was in professional wrestling, competing in the Ring of Honor and Full Impact Pro circuits under the name Erick Stevens. After that, Koenreich, who weighed 300 pounds in high school, changed his focus to personal training, focusing on powerlifting.

Then, at the onset of the pandemic, Koenreich shifted again, become a cookie entrepreneur. That business, Kookies & Kream in Sarasota, is where Koenreich has cooked up some big plans, which come with just-as-big challenges.

Notably, Koenreich is attempting to make a go of brick and mortar bakery retail after finding fast success online. On the surface, the transition is a sour-tasting recipe, where expenses have increased significantly and margins have tightened. But Koenreich, like many of his 1990s-themed heroes, relishes a good underdog story. “I’m a grinder,” he says. “I always have been.”

The grind starts with the pandemic. A married father of three young kids, Koenreich, even with his fitness career, had a blog and Instagram page that tracked fun and goofy snacks, drinks and junk food. Some friends suggested he should bake cookies, not just post pictures. He gave it a whirl.

Through trial and error, Koenreich created a signature cookie, a dense, dome-shaped treat, some of which weigh half or even three-fourths of a pound. Flavors range from standard chocolate chip to cookies with Twinkies or Cinnamon Toast Crunch.  

Koenreich started an online business, which took off. “Six orders quickly became 12, that quickly became 24 and before you know it I was doing 32 orders in my kitchen,” Koenreich says, “with two Cuisinart machines humming at the same time.”

Koenreich then leased space in RISE Bakery, a shared kitchen in Sarasota run by Christine Nordstrom, founder of local chain Five-O Donuts. Kookies & Kream next went on a pandemic growth spurt. With online orders all over the country and low overhead, Koenreich was working a mere 16 hours a week, he says, Mondays and Tuesdays, churning out cookies. That was enough to hit $16,000 a month in sales and clear $10,000 a month in profit — at least for the first year or so of the pandemic.

But the dough didn’t last. By early 2021, Koenreich says, “every Tom, Dick and Harry who lost their job or quit their job amid the pandemic went to go be a home baker. The competition online is very fierce.”

Koenreich decided to shift again, to pushing local. The model is similar to Nordstrom’s Five-O Donuts, which has grown from one Sarasota-Bradenton location in 2017 to now four with a fifth on the way. Koenreich opened the first Kookies & Kream, on Beneva Road in the former RISE space, in June 2021. He used his online profits to open the store, an investment of $15,000 to $20,000, which included buying Nordstrom’s refrigerator and one of her convection ovens, in addition to a new mixer.

A pop-culture aficionado born in 1982, Koenreich decked out the location with 1990s nostalgia, heavy on “Saved by the Bell.” Says Koenreich: “I didn’t want to do this just because the cookies are unique. I wanted it to be my personal story. I wanted it to have personality.”

Eric Koenreich opened Kookies & Kream, a cookie store filled with 1990s memorabilia and nostalgia, in Sarasota in June 2021. (Photo by Mark Wemple)

As the one-year anniversary of the store approaches, the transition, Koenreich admits, hasn’t been a cinch. Rent, utilities and other expenses are up, and sales, without constant online orders, are OK he says, but not as robust as being exclusively e-commerce. “It’s been a hard adjustment,” he says. “I really liked it when I was on top of the world. But to have opened a brick and mortar store and not completely lost your butt, I consider that to be a pretty big accomplishment. I’m confident we can succeed with brick and mortar.”

The biggest challenge, Koenreich says, is “getting people in the shop.”

He intends to do that through online and social media marketing combined with word-of-mouth. He had a win a few weeks ago, when a tourist posted a TikTok video of the store and cookies that got some viral-like traction. “We got a crazy amount of business from that TikTok,” says Koenreich, including 40 customers in two days.

Another avenue to boost sales is partnering with local restaurants. In one, with Hana Sushi Lounge in Lakewood Ranch, Koenreich is making some quirky cookies, like peanut butter miso. Koenreich also targets corporate accounts and custom cake orders, the latter of which, he says, is “really where bakeries make money.”

Koenreich says multiple stores are in the three or five year plan, like Nordstrom has done with Five-O, but for now his attention is all on store No. 1. He adds that chains like Crumbl, which recently opened a stylish cookie store at the-nearby Mall at University Town Center, don’t really scare him because “they don’t have the heart I have … they don’t have our story.”

It’s that story — and those cool '90s characters —Koenreich will lean on to make Kookies and Kream last past the first bite. “Nothing makes me happier,” he says, “than when the store is full of people.”

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