There’s an all-important debate in Jason McGowan’s family and it’s all about how the perfect chocolate chip cookie should taste.
“I love mine semi-sweet,” he tells The CEO Magazine.
In the other corner is his cousin, Sawyer Hemsley, who prefers his sweetened by milk chocolate.
Yet the significance of this split has consequences far wider than the walls of their homes in Utah, as Hemsley also happens to be McGowan’s business partner at Crumbl Cookies, the fastest-growing cookie company in the United States.
McGowan knows that Crumbl Cookies is the side hustle that has come good for the entrepreneurial cousins.
“I think everyone believes we had this massive plan to dominate the baking and food and beverage industry, but it couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says.
What did drive the company’s inception was McGowan’s desire to get his hands dirty, something he found lacking in a stellar career in marketing, technology and social media.
“I loved the idea of doing something tangible while also putting my technology spin on it,” he reveals.
Aware that there was a gap in the market for a food platform other than ubiquitous pizza in their home state, the pair decided to take the idea of cookies for a spin.
“We didn’t know anything about baking,” McGowan admits. But they did have YouTube tutorials.
To answer the first big hurdle – whose taste buds would prevail – McGowan drew upon techniques from his background in technology and put the question out to A/B testing.
“We decided to take our cookie, change up the ingredients and present them to our early customers to see which ones they liked better,” he explains.
The results landed in favor of Hemsley’s sweet tooth, and the rest is history. With that one chocolate chip cookie deemed perfect by multiple rounds of testing, the pair opened their first Crumbl Cookies store in 2017 in a wooden hut in Logan, Utah, while Hemsley was still at college.
McGowan recalls thinking that at least if the business didn’t work out, he would have fun with the technology platform they had built for it. On reflection, he had little to worry about.
“When we opened, people started trying our cookies, then telling other people and the lines were suddenly out the door,” he says.
Six years later, there are now more than 900 Crumbl Cookies bakeries across all 50 states, as well as Canada, with plans to hit 1,000 by the end of the year.
A clear vision for the brand has driven much of this ascent.
“We think about branding a lot. We think about the smell of the stores, the shape of the box and how easy it is to order through our technology,” McGowan explains.
What is also key is the element of pure and simple fun. “At the end of the day, with everything that’s going on in people’s lives, having something fun is just so exciting,” he says.
This commitment translates into the fact that each batch of cookies is made fresh in front of customers, using only high-quality ingredients.
“When you walk into our stores, you see bakers cracking eggs and flour on the counter and it feels just like your family kitchen growing up,” he confirms.
There’s also the brand’s signature pink elongated box presentation, conceived by Utah State University students, which is particularly photogenic for social media.
The most inspired branding decision was to rotate its menu and unveil six new cookies every week. The strategy has turned the business into a TikTok phenomenon as millions of users tune in to see the new flavors drop every Sunday night, and then race to review them.
What is also at the heart of the Crumbl Cookies brand is the idea of meaningful moments.
“Our cookies are large and they’re meant to be shared with other people to create a meaningful moment with the people who matter most,” McGowan says.
“That could be a family celebrating a soccer game win, a bunch of guys getting together to play some video games or someone going to hang out with their partner who is having a bad day.
“Whatever it is, we’re at those points when people can set aside social media, set aside the cares of the world and create these meaningful moments.”
McGowan adds that this promise is also encouraged inside Crumbl Cookies headquarters.
“Every summer, we give everyone Fridays off so they can go and spend meaningful moments with those people who matter the most,” he explains. “You’re not allowed to work.”
For McGowan, there’s an immense reward that comes from knowing he’s creating meaningful moments.
“When I look back on my career and everything I’ve achieved with Crumbl, I don’t want to be thinking about the sales or the money we made,” he reflects.
“Instead I want to think about how people had a work–life balance and were able to put things aside and take an extra moment to spend time with their loved ones.
“I know it’s only cookies, but for us it is really important to be able to look back on our lives and know that we inspired the world to actually spend time with those who matter the most. That is core to who we are as a company.”
As a base ingredient, McGowan’s technology expertise has been crucial and enabled the nascent business to develop everything from custom-built loyalty programs to its own point-of-sale and delivery systems.
This skill set has also allowed the duo to leverage technology for rapid growth.
“Once we realized that this was a concept that might work, we said, ‘Let’s go to all these states as fast as possible. Let’s dominate the United States’,” he recalls.
The idea was to move quickly, but in a measured way. “Instead of building systems for 50 stores or 100 stores, we leapfrogged to thinking about what happens when we have 500 stores,” he says.
For example, he explains how the company built an internal social network to share communications with its franchise partners at a time when only a handful of franchisees were on board and email was an easier form of communication.
“That’s helped us avoid iterations and given us the foresight to look ahead and work on what is going to help us scale,” he adds.
It has also helped that the business has found like-minded partners able to keep up, such as Sysco. “They saw something in us and were willing to invest early on,” McGowan reveals.
In addition, the agility of ITW Food Equipment Group’s Hobart brand has equipped Crumbl Cookies with the equipment required to open stores at such a rapid pace.
McGowan, who is CEO to Hemsley’s CBO, is maintaining this measured yet ambitious approach as he looks to push further expansion within the current economic climate.
“The focus is on making sure that we grow healthily,” he stresses. “We don’t want to grow too fast given the conditions.”
He also has international expansion in his sights as Crumbl Cookies looks to export its sweet treats to markets outside the United States.
If McGowan has any advice to pass on to those working on establishing a brand, he says to focus on building something people want and being the best at it.
“When you build something, whether it’s software, food or anything else, the magic comes from caring about it so much that you want it to be the world’s best,” he explains.
“For us, if our names are on it, we have to make it the best. So that’s what we’ve set out to do.”
However, budding entrepreneurs could also learn a lesson from McGowan and Hemsley’s willingness to give something a go.
“A lot of business owners feel like something has to be perfect to execute. For us, what has worked well is that we’re just willing to try,” he explains.
“You don’t have to have everything together, you just have to get moving and that will start the ball rolling. That movement and execution will help you outpace your competitors or anyone in the marketplace.”