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Ohio baker gets Girl Scout crumb

The McComb-based cookie manufacturer is now one of three bakers in the United States licensed to make the Scouts' signature thin mints, shortbreads, and peanut butter sandwiches. It will begin cookie production next week for a Girl Scout council in Connecticut - a small but promising start, officials say, in a new niche for Consolidated Biscuit, the largest privately owned cookiemaker in the country.

Leading the charge is Alexander Opoulos, Consolidated's vice president of sales and marketing since 1997. He oversaw Girl Scout cookie sales at the two companies that have been in the business the longest: Louisville, Ky.-based Little Brownie Bakers and the ABC Bakers division of Richmond, Va.-based Interbake Foods.

“It's a very big business,” Mr. Opoulos said. “There were 17.5 million cases sold last year.”

That's 210 million boxes.

For Consolidated, it's a good business opportunity. Girl Scout cookies traditionally are baked in December and January when regular cookie sales are soft, and cookie makers often have to lay off employees.

Nationwide, Girl Scout cookie sales account for 10 per cent of all cookie sales. And their sales have been increasing by about 5 per cent in recent years, while regular retail cookie sales have been flat for four years, Mr. Opoulos said.

“We believe it's a good business to be in,” he said.

The amount each scout council earns per $3 box varies. Each of the 318 councils in the country select its own baker and negotiates nearly a year in advance.

Gayle Campbell, executive director of the Toledo-based Maumee Valley Girl Scout Council, said proceeds from the cookie sale account for up to 55 per cent of the council's annual funding and 80 percent to 90 percent of each troop's funding.

It is a significant source of income - one not many councils would be willing to gamble with.

Ms. Campbell said she and others from the council have met with Consolidated Biscuit and most likely will meet with them again in a year when the council's two-year contract with Little Brownie Bakers expires.

She conceded she and the council's “cookie task force” were not prepared to be the first customer of a new baker.

“This is a new business for them. This is the first time they are baking a line of cookies,” she said. “This is a small run for them; for us, it's a million boxes. There was some reservation on being the first. We have to be financially prudent.”

The Maumee Valley council serves about 15,000 girls from eight counties, including Defiance, Henry, Fulton, Ottawa, Williams, Wood, and part of Sandusky County.

Ms. Campbell said she does like the idea of supporting a locally owned business such as Consolidated Biscuit. She said the company's president, James Appold, and his wife have been supportive of the Maumee Valley Girl Scout Council. She just wants to see how well they do in the Girl Scout cookie business - and how good the cookies taste.

Consolidated did not get a recipe book from the Girl Scouts when it signed on to become an official baker. Mr. Opoulos said the company has been developing and perfecting its own thin mint and the others since it received its Girl Scout baker's license in 1998.

The organization requires only that a baker make the mint, peanut butter sandwich, and shortbread cookies, although the chocolate-covered peanut butter patty and caramel coconut cluster also are standard fare.

The bakers are free to add two others of their choice, along with a low-fat cookie. Consolidated created a powdered sugar-covered almond crescent and what it called “forget-me-nots” - a cream-filled, chocolate-coated graham cookie sandwich.

Mr. Opoulos said it opted not to offer a low-fat cookie.

“They don't taste good and they don't sell well,” he said.

Consolidated Biscuit is taking the same no-nonsense approach to Girl Scout cookie production in general. Mr. Opoulos said Consolidated wants to take the unnecessary frills out of the business.

As a veteran of the industry, Mr. Opoulos said that over the years the two competing bakers have offered Girl Scout councils more and more extras: training materials, incentive merchandise, videotapes, software, and other items that ultimately increase the price of the cookies.

Mr. Opoulos said it has become “a multi-million dollar marketing program” that he, admittedly, helped to create.

“There are two good suppliers. They compete the same way, and the councils don't have an alternative,” he said. “We want to provide a back-to-basics approach.”

Consolidated Biscuit intends to offer quality cookies to councils along with the posters, order forms, and patches troops need, but at about a 10 per cent savings. Mr. Opoulos said that could translate into thousands of additional dollars for councils to use to provide services to Girl Scouts.

LaDonna Compton, deputy director of the Appleseed Ridge Girl Scout Council in Lima, said she is not certain Consolidated's approach would work for all councils.

She said that without the program and training materials supplied by the baker, her council would have to develop those on its own. She does not know whether a council as small as Appleseed Ridge would be able to do that.

The council serves 5,000 to 6,000 girls in 10 counties, including Hancock, Hardin, Paulding, Putnam, and Van Wert.

Mr. Opoulos said it's too early to say how councils will react to Consolidated's back-to-basics approach, but he thinks it will appeal to some.

“Our goal is not to be No. 1 in the Girl Scout business. Our goal is to create a healthy business for CBC and a viable alternative to councils across the country,” he said.

Consolidated has invested about $750,000 into product development for its Girl Scout venture. This year, some of the cookies will be manufactured in McComb and some at its plant in London, Ky. If sales increase for 2002, all production will be moved to McComb, Mr. Opoulos said.

“Our goal is to start small, be successful, show a record of success, and hopefully work with other councils,” he said.

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