Unlike most food entrepreneurs in San Francisco, Christa Hill doesn’t have a brick and mortar restaurant , a commercial storefront, or even a food truck. She bakes cookies in her San Francisco apartment—and then sells them in parks and local bars.
What started as a quirky one-time fundraiser turned into a popular business. Tapping into skills she developed during her 17-year career in nonprofit fundraising and management , Christa stumbled onto a secret recipe for success—a genuine connection with customers and a desire to make them happy.
We caught up with Christa as she baked cookies for an upcoming event and heard how she networked her way to unexpected success.
How did you get started?
I used to offer my help with fundraisers for friends and local organizations because of my nonprofit background. A few years ago, I did a bake sale for a rabbit rescue organization, SaveABunny, on the eve of Easter. I didn’t bake a thing—I just facilitated the event. I mobilized volunteers, coordinated efforts, and set up shop. We raised $1,200 in four hours.
The next year, I quit my job when my mom had a stroke. When Easter was coming up, I thought that I should help SaveABunny again, and then I thought, “Wait a minute—maybe I should help myself!” That’s how it got started. I truly thought it was just going to be a one-day event, but it turned out to be a really fun and rewarding position.
What are some challenges you had to overcome on your first day selling your cookies?
My first day was terrifying, but with the support of my roommate, I managed to get out the door. I put on the goofy dress I wear all the time and it was like armor—it was more fun and eye-catching and a protective layer for me. It was so nice because people saw me coming, and within just a few weeks I started growing a following.
I had started all this three weeks before Easter, and by the time Easter came around, many people knew that there was this person selling cookies in a silly outfit. When I did a Google search, I found a headline that said, “Cookie Lady Well-known in the Area.” I think people thought I’d been doing it much longer than I had.
Do you think your fundraising background played a role in your success?
I think the greatest skills I’ve used in this business are my abilities to connect with people and provide wonderful customer service . I had mobilized 2,000 volunteers in the past, so my specialty was connecting with people and recognizing them for their hard work. Customers’ support of Hey, Cookie is very similar, and I am so grateful for it.
I also used my marketing experience. So, where I used to reach out to people to make a donation to Rebuilding Together or the Gorilla Foundation, now I seek partnerships with different nonprofits whose missions I believe in. I’m donating my services to them—and gaining visibility within certain communities at the same time.
How did you make the jump from selling cookies in the park and at bars to doing office events at places like Airbnb and Yelp ?
The park has been one of my greatest resources for networking. Here I am, walking around like a clown with cookies, and there are thousands of people just sitting on blankets watching what’s going on. It's that visibility, I believe, that has opened the doors for me at Twitter, Yelp, and the MOMA.
It's wonderful to see how each step of outreach makes a significant impact. While doing an event with SF Weekly , I ran into a new friend from 7x7 . He invited me to bring samples to his upcoming event at the Armory. At the Armory, I met a representative from Saks Fifth Avenue who fell in love with the cookies, and hired me for one of his events—it was absolutely amazing!
Then, I was just doing my thing and I ran into a friend of a friend—and she was with someone who writes for Sunset magazine, and she wrote a small online piece on Hey, Cookie.
And I recently did an event for the Junior League—I try to at least one nonprofit fundraiser a month—and that led to a possible gig at the Exploratorium.
Basically, I’ve tried to keep myself as visible as possible. I am often really tired on the weekends , but I still want to go out to the park and to the bars. I know with each day that I’m not out there, that’s 1,000 people who won’t experience Hey, Cookie.
How did you get so much media attention so quickly? Did you have a strategy?
My strategy was to take baby steps. First, it was to help a nonprofit twice a month, and get the marketing material basics down, such as a business card and stickers. Once I felt like I was in a more comfortable position, I started reaching out to the different newspapers and media outlets.
One of the writers from the San Francisco Guardian must have seen me in the park and highlighted Hey, Cookie in last year's Best of the Bay issue. That inspired me to reach out to other media. I emailed Daily Candy, 7x7, and San Francisco Magazine and sent them sample cookies.
What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking of starting his or her own business venture?
Make yourself as visible as possible with things like free samples and outreach booths. Yelp is also great for this—I always encourage people to check me out on Yelp, and now if you do a search for “Best Desserts” or “Best Food Vendor,” I come up. That visibility is so great, and it's free.
Customer satisfaction and happiness are paramount when trying to get a business like this off the ground. Ensure that every contact is a positive one.
Finally, relax, have fun, and don't be too pushy. If you are excited about what you are doing, it will be contagious.
TopicsEntrepreneurship , Foodies , Small Businesses , Q&A Interviews , Starting a Business , Food Entrepreneurs , Successful Entrepreneurs , Syndication
Nina Tamburello is a freelance writer and communications assistant. When she’s not reading about food, following food trucks or trying out new restaurants, you can find her traveling, learning French, or watching cheesy ‘80s crime dramas and plotting her escape from Boston’s brutal winters.More from this Author