Cougar Mountain Baking Company was started in 1988 by David Saulnier, who was in the midst of attaining an English degree from the University of Washington. He baked his first batch of from-scratch chocolate chip cookies in his kitchen at home. Tired from studying, he started merely as a college student hungry for fresh-baked cookies.
Not having any prior baking experience, he used a recipe from the back of a bag of chocolate chips. Although these cookies tasted fine, David wasn’t satisfied. Just for fun, he began trying variations of the quantity and type of ingredients he used.
“I wanted to know what would happen if I put in more brown sugar than white sugar, or if I put in two eggs instead of one. I was simply curious and having fun in the kitchen. After about a month of baking cookies every night, I got to the point where, no matter what I did, I couldn’t make a better chocolate chip cookie.”
He had indeed struck upon the ideal recipe. When David’s friends and relatives tasted the cookies, they loved them and suggested that he should market them. He decided they might be right. Having been interested from an early age in starting a business of his own, he had finally come across an idea that he liked. So, in between his classes at the University of Washington (studying English, not Business) and delivering pizza in the evenings, he spent the next 5 months doing research about starting his own bakery and marketing the cookies.
“I got to the point where I had everything figured out about this new venture except how to fund it. I decided to bite the bullet. I went to my dad, showed him my makeshift business plan, and asked to borrow some money. He was skeptical but he agreed to give me half of what I needed. So, I eked out the rest from my 3 credit cards. That provided just enough to buy a professional oven, lease a small bakery space, and buy a supply of packaging material.”
And so in July of 1988, at the age of 20, David started Cougar Mountain Baking Company. He named his company after the mountain near Issaquah, WA because it had local name recognition and evoked a rugged Northwest image for his unique product. His shoestring budget was just enough to fulfill the company mission statement of producing “The Best Cookies from the Northwest.” David hand-crafted his high-quality cookies, packaged them 8 to a bag, and distributed them in a few independent grocery stores and in the Seattle natural food chain, PCC Natural Markets. David was then competing head-to-head with national powerhouse cookie companies.
“I knew I wouldn’t be able to compete with their marketing and advertising budgets, but I felt all along that the quality of my cookies would be enough to carve a small niche in the marketplace. I knew people in the Pacific Northwest liked to buy Northwest-made products, and if I could get them to try it once, then the quality would bring them back.”
Well, it seemed to work. The first three years saw modest sales numbers and steady growth. David still had to deliver pizza at night to make ends meet, but he had the satisfaction of owning his own business.
“I look back at those first few years and wonder how I juggled all of my responsibilities. I was going to school during the day, delivering pizza at night, and trying to build the cookie business with whatever time was left over. There were periodic moments, then, when I thought it wasn’t worth it. I’m not sure if I was courageous or naïve, but I stayed with it because I really believed in what I was doing. I knew it had to get better.”
David was right. A big break came when Quality Food Centers (QFC), a chain of upscale grocery stores, finally agreed to give his product some shelf space. This gave Cougar Mountain Premium Cookies more than triple their previous number of grocery store outlets in the Seattle area. The growth that followed meant he could quit his night job. At about the same time, he graduated college with his creative writing degree. He was then free to devote his full-time efforts to making great cookies.
He came up with three more recipes and marketed this new “collection” by identifying each variety with a local Seattle neighborhood, park, or landmark. This seemed to catch the fancy of many new customers. Now came the time to start hiring employees. With many new accounts carrying his product line, David had to spend more time selling cookies and running the company and less time baking and delivering.
“Hiring the first employee was a little scary, but I knew I couldn’t keep doing it all myself and continue to grow. Fortunately, I’ve turned out to be a pretty good judge of who to hire and how to train them effectively.”
Over the years since then, Cougar Mountain Baking Company’s revenues have increased almost every year. There are now 11 regular cookie varieties as well as many more that rotate in as the company’s “Seasonal Variety” and the very popular “Flavor of the Moment.” Cougar Mountain is now based near the Magnolia Fisherman’s Terminal area of Seattle…just a short walk from the famous Hiram S. Chittenden Locks. Their 6,000 sq ft. building is recently renovated with state-of-the-art equipment. With lots of untapped capacity, they are poised to become a regional, and someday, national, premium cookie company.
Some of their other high-profile accounts include Whole Foods Markets, Costco Business Centers, New Seasons Markets, Canteen Vending Machines, and the University of Washington Food Services.
David says he paid back the loan to his dad after a few years in business. So, is Dad still skeptical?
“No, he is very proud of me and the company I have built. He’s an entrepreneur as well and he instilled that spirit in me. He wasn’t so sure about this particular idea at the beginning because it meant going up against huge conglomerates. Now, many years later, everyone has realized the potential of the “niche marketplace”. Coffee, beer, bread, bagels, cookies, and such have all become popular niche products. No longer do people just buy Budweiser, Folgers, Wonder and Oreos. Now, there are hand-crafted alternatives to the familiar national brands that cost a little more, but are a lot higher in quality. More people are recognizing the value they are getting for paying just a little more.”
For the future, David promises more expansion. Along with the fast growing product line, Cougar Mountain Premium Cookie Dough, they have also expanded into working with large companies on private label cookies and cookie dough. Additionally, Cougar Mountain is also a turn-key cookie dough fundraising organizer for schools and other groups looking to raise money. David also believes more markets will carry the Cougar Mountain product line across the Western United States. He stresses, however, that product quality and customer satisfaction will remain the highest priorities.
After over 30 years of growth, it seems he stayed true to his initial mission: Cougar Mountain Premium Cookies are “The Best Cookies from the Northwest.”