Some might say Diane Clarke is one smart cookie.
In just over six months, the Kinnelon resident has managed to turn a dream of owning and operating her own business into reality by using her knowledge of real estate and passion for baking to satisfy a niche virtually unfilled locally. Clarke opened the website My Mommy's Cookies Rock last August with encouragement from four of her biggest fans: her daughters. And now, Clarke is preparing for the grand opening of her new Butler store, My Mommy's Kitchen, at 1295 Route 23 South, this week.
"I like to cook. Baking is just one of those things that I just did because I didn't like to buy (my daughters) cookies," Clarke said. "I just was not happy with what you get in the supermarket and there was nothing really around here so I just baked for them. They were always telling me that I should sell them because they were good. I just kind of took off with that."
Business started doing well and Clarke was shipping her homemade cookies to "a good deal" of the continental United States. It was then that Clarke, who also has been working in real estate for 10 years, decided to expand her business and open up a retail shop in the Route 23 plaza alongside Polski Smak and Giovanni's Place.
"I think that the familiarity that I have to real estate with going through the town and the permit situation and the health requirements and all those things help," she said. "But I basically spoke to the landlord who owns the building, I knew him through previous real estate dealings, I told him I was looking for a place, and he told me this place was becoming available. I really liked the location because it has good visibility and is right next door to the Polish deli and the Italian restaurant, so I had a built-in traffic flow. I picked the place back in December when I decided to do it, and then in January I filed for my permits and started construction. It used to be a dry cleaner, so I had to put in a kitchen and do pretty much everything. I (received) my food-handler's license and I was pretty well-prepped for the health department. So it really only took about eight weeks from start to finish."
Clarke decided to go with the name My Mommy's Kitchen in order to branch out and go beyond just selling cookies. The store, which actually opened on March 15, also sells other baked goods, gourmet coffees, gourmet teas, all-natural dog treats, bubble tea, cookie ice cream sandwiches in the summer and there are plans to start selling "grab 'n go breakfast items, hopefully from a more nutritional standpoint," Clarke said.
Clarke said that the reception has been great so far and that there are people from many of the neighboring towns frequenting the store. "The store is very homey, it's been a very positive response. All of the business that I've gotten to date has been through word-of-mouth. I look at that as a good sign because people are actually sending people here," she said.
While still doing real estate and running the store, Clarke does all the baking and the lion's share of the work herself, but does have one full-time employee and one part-time employee. Clarke said her days begin with baking at 6 a.m. and sometimes don't end until as late as midnight, but with her daughters all grown, out of college and gainfully employed, now is the time to pursue her dream.
"Eventually, I would like to open a new location once this one gets going," she said. "What I would like to do is grow this one, open another one, maybe open three or four and then as it starts to become a profitable business, hopefully sell it," she said. "I was actually approached by somebody in Lodi that has a deli business to do something with him. I really haven't looked at other locations, I've only been open a month. I'll be researching that and I might even consider different states. Maybe someplace warmer."
If her first month in business is any indication, Clarke will be able to call it a career pretty soon.
"There's nothing like it in the area for good cookies or sweets," Kimberly Becker, a customer from Hewitt, said. "Also, the sign on the road looked cute."
Even Clarke's lone full-time employee is having a ball.
"I love working here, it's the best job I ever had. (Clarke's) so fun to work with, it's fun to make the cookies, it's a great environment. It's happy, it's a very happy time. It's home-baked goods, you can't get 'em anywhere else. It's all homemade," Colleen Redmond said.
To help celebrate, My Mommy's Kitchen is having a grand opening on April 28. It starts at 9 a.m. and runs until 8 p.m., and will feature tastings, a contest and perhaps the biggest cookie fiend of them all.
"Cookie Monster will be here and we'll be giving away samples of baked goods," Clarke said. "We'll also have coffee and tea tastings. I'm also running a contest for anybody to give me a written suggestion on a new creative cookie that they would like to see. It doesn't have to be the recipe, it can just be the combination. The contest is basically you give me the idea for the cookie, the cookie gets named after you and you get a $75 gift card (to My Mommy's Kitchen)."
For more information about My Mommy's Cookies, visit their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter at @Mymommyscookies.