The Moravian cookie those thin, crisp ginger or sugar cookies that grace holiday tables around the world this time of year has likely gone farther than any Moravian settler ever imagined.
These cookies were once treats baked only by Moravians, a small group of pre-Reformation Protestants who settled in North Carolina in the mid-1700s after escaping religious persecution in what is now the Czech Republic. They built the town of Salem, which merged with Winston in 1913.
Winston-Salem is now the the epicenter of Moravian cookie production, with more than 1.1 million pounds baked in the area every year. And those cookies the Pringles of holiday baked goods are sold, shipped and enjoyed worldwide.
It used to be that nobody knew what Moravian cookies were, said Raleigh cookbook author Debbie Moose, who grew up in Winston-Salem and remembers Moravian cookie care packages from her mother. Mooses affection for the cookies once led her to use a pair of calipers to measure the thickness of the two main competing brands for journalistic purposes, of course. The thinnest cookie was 0.05 inch thick.
On one end of the Moravian cookie spectrum is Mrs. Hanes, a Clemmons-based, family-owned company whose bakers roll and cut out 110,000 pounds of cookies each year by hand. Mrs. Hanes is Evva Foltz Hanes, 81, who transformed her mothers home-based cookie operation into a small but successful enterprise that counts Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones among its fans.
On the other end is Deweys, Winston-Salems hometown bakery, whose wholesale arm, Salem Baking Co., will produce more than 1 million pounds of Moravian cookies this year. Not only has Salem Baking Co. developed a national audience for a cookie that could have remained a regional delicacy, but it has updated a classic. Salem Baking Co. cookies are dipped (one side only) or enrobed (covered entirely) in chocolate, topped with crushed toffee or crushed peppermint and come in such flavors as toasted coconut and pomegranate lime with just a hint of sea salt.
Although Moose prefers Mrs. Hanes cookies, she admires the business acumen of Deweys owners: You have to give Deweys credit for bringing the delight of the Moravian cookie to the world.
Both companies owe a debt to Old Salem, the Moravian settlement that is now a historic site, living history museum and tourist destination. Not to be outdone, Old Salem also has its own line of Moravian cookies. Those cookies are not produced at the sites historic Winkler Bakery but by a contract bakery whose product line falls somewhere between the traditionalist hew of Mrs. Hanes and the modern interpretations of Salem Baking Co.
A boost from Oprah
Evva Foltz Hanes got launched in the cookie business because she felt sorry for her mother.
Bertha Foltz started baking Moravian sugar cookies in a wood-burning stove in the 1930s to help support the familys dairy farm in Clemmons. Her mother would make the treats year-round for customers in Winston-Salem, but business was best during the holidays. Around 1960, Evva Hanes said her 70-year-old mother told her: I dont think I can roll the cookies. Can you do it?
Evva, then 26, was working at the Hanes Hosiery plant at the time. And so that fall, she rolled the cookies for three hours after work on weeknights and all day Saturdays.
Evva Hanes gradually took over her mothers cookie business, moving it to her home kitchen, then creating a larger kitchen in her basement and finally in 1970 to a building constructed on the family farm. Evva, her husband, Travis, and two of their children, slowly built the business. Through word of mouth and the occasional bump from a newspaper story, their business grew about 3 percent a year for decades until 2008. After seven expansions, that original building is now a 34,000-square-foot bakery and showroom.
The company weathered the economic downturn, Travis Hanes explained, by asking their 45 employees to work four days a week, shaving labor costs by 20 percent. Then in December 2010, Oprah magazine included a mention of Mrs. Hanes cookies. The item quoted Oprah: It wouldnt be Christmas if Quincy Jones didnt send me Mrs. Hanes cookies. Business rebounded enough that their employees have been working five days a week ever since.
Autographed photos of Jones and other celebrities, including Lauren Bacall and Arnold Palmer, hang above a window in Mrs. Hanes salesroom, where customers can watch the bakers roll and cut out cookies. The bakers, mostly women who have been with the company an average of 15 years, work with 20-pound batches of dough. From experience, they know just how much flour to add to the dough, how much to handle the dough, how thin to roll out the cookies.
Its rare in business today to see something made by hand, even Moravian cookies. Travis Hanes says: Were the only ones still doing it.
Updating the classics
Deweys opened its first bakery in Winston-Salem in 1930. It did well for itself, turning out all kinds of baked goods, including Moravian sugar cakes and cookies.
By the early 1990s, the Moravian cookies were selling so well that the company started Salem Baking Co. to focus on the cookies. A decade ago, it made fewer than 10 different flavors; today, the company produces more than 30 flavors, including its two newest: caramel sea salt and raspberry.
Cookies are the biggest growth area, said marketing manager Maggie Sartin.
If a company wants to turn a holiday treat into a year-round business, it has to make that case for consumers. So part of chef Alison Turners job with Salem Baking Co. is to come up with savory recipes using the companys cookies.
Weve decided to take the Moravian cookie and modernize it, Turner explains as she assembles examples: a SMoravian, a toasted marshmallow between two chocolate-dipped ginger cookies; and a ginger cookie topped with blue cheese, toasted walnuts and a drizzle of honey.
Until consumers gravitate to the cookies savory uses, this time of year will continue to be its busiest; its 50,000-square-foot bakery south of Winston-Salem is operating around the clock to meet the demand.
Brooke Smith, president of Salem Baking Co., has witnessed the companys growth in the last six years. As a Winston-Salem native, she grew up with these Moravian treats and has watched something so identified with her hometown become a holiday tradition in homes across the country.
It has been exciting to see a product that has deep roots in Winston-Salem to have a place in a national market, Smith said, and for consumers all over the world to embrace it.
Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl