Having founded the wildly popular Strictly Cookies at the age of 22, Lexie Comstock has since seen her business grow into a beloved Shanghai mainstay with 23 employees, dozens of different flavors and her own factory. We sat down to talk shop in her office, which smells of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies, by the way.
I just love them. ‘Cookie’ was my first word as a baby. No joke. It was foretold that I would make them.
Sounds like you were destined to bake.
They’re the only thing I knew I’d consistently enjoy baking. I don’t even like baking anything else much, just cookies. You can do so many things with them; they’re a vehicle for experimentation.
What cookies were available in Shanghai when you started Strictly?
Subway, Marks & Spencer… that was pretty much it. Shanghai’s craft food scene now is so awesome compared to back then.
So you saw a gap in the market…
It really was as simple as, ‘I love cookies. I want cookies. I imagine other people here will also want them.’ Having that clear idea gave me the motivation. Besides, there was a real lack of dessert options back in 2010.
Things were more loosey goosey in the beginning, but I started really taking it seriously a year after that, and it became my sole job by 2011. Back then, I didn’t know about stuff like wholesale markets. I remember walking into City Shop and being psyched they had full-size packs of butter – other places just had those single serving things!
Then again, maybe my 22-year-old self wasn’t very good at looking…
How many cookies do you make a day now?
Depending on the season, about 1,000 to 2,000.
That’s a lot of butter…
It ranges depending on the day, season etc. We’re also spread out between three different sales channels now: wholesale (restaurants, cafés) delivery and our own retail shops.
What’s the future got in store for Strictly?
More retail shops, or Cookie Nooks, as we like to call them. We don’t need a lot of space to do what we do best, and I have no grand plans for a large café space. We’re just focused on getting the cookies out there.
Healthy cookies… is there such a thing?
Yes! I’m working with Lizzie’s All-Natural on ‘super cookies’ that are vegan, gluten- and sugar-free.
It’s been a fun challenge developing recipes that don’t use flour, butter or sugar; the vegan chocolate chip took literally three months to develop and test.
We’ve also started doing decorated cookies – something I was initially against because that is not my talent. We have a new team member now who is great at it, meaning we’ve been able to do it in a way that feels authentic to our brand.
Can you show us an example?
Yah, wanna see our Year of the Rooster cookie? It’s so cute! [Reveals photo of cookie]
What are some of the craziest flavors you’ve done in the past?
The one I’m proudest of is the ‘matcha marzipan’ flavor. Not crazy kooky, but the combination really worked.
For February, I’m launching the ‘Mexican hot chocolate’ – spicy chocolate topped with melted marshmallows! I’m not a big salty-sweet person, but baking cookies has opened me up to being more adventurous with flavors, and in some ways, with my life in general.
There’s something we can all learn from that. What are the highs and lows to owning an F&B business here?
The high is working with employees who are excited to be a part of the business and are invested in its progress. That’s just so, so cool.
The challenges are that things change really quickly in Shanghai, and you have to stay adaptable. That’s why we have three different sales avenues – you can’t become too reliant on one.
Stuff happens. For example, our Xiangyang Lu shop had to close – you can’t rely on stuff being the same forever.
Are you a risk taker?
Yes. I didn’t think I was, but guess I am. A responsible risk taker, maybe? People think starting a business is risky, but as a 22-year-old I didn’t have anything to lose.
What advice would you give to somebody starting an artisanal F&B business?
Really care about the product. Be able to stand behind it and stick with it. There are really long hours, crazy things come up, but if you genuinely love your product it makes it a lot easier, and possible – without that, it isn’t.
Also, don’t rush it. It’s ok to let it happen organically.