On his 21st birthday, Corey Rimmel, instead of visiting a local watering hole with his buddies for a celebratory first legal drink, enjoyed milk and cookies at his newly opened business, Hot Box Cookies in downtown Columbia.
Corey and co-owners Adam Hendin and David Melnick have barely had a moment to celebrate anything recently. Hot Box Cookies has kept them and their 26 employees hopping from the moment the first batch of homemade customized delicacies came out of the oven.
“We haven’t even really advertised,” Corey says. “This is all word of mouth, a little bit of door mail, helping out with a couple of tailgating events and having a prime location on Broadway. We haven’t had time to work our way through our marketing plan — we’ve just been too busy.”
No doubt. Corey, Adam and David are all juniors at the University of Missouri. While Corey and David major in accounting, Adam is considering atmospheric science.
The three best friends grew up together in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield, Mo. They attended Parkway Central High School and came to MU expecting the typical college experience. Several months ago, Corey visited the University of Indiana and saw a cookie bakery and delivery business near the campus. He thought the concept was rather novel, and in conversation with his friends a few days later, mentioned the idea.
“At first we were just joking, kicking the idea around,” Corey says. “Before long, we were holed up in the library every night doing research. Then, one day, we said, ‘Well, let’s just see if we can do it.’”
Armed with their research, they sought out every resource they could, including the local Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) chapter, where they were assisted by Gary Duncan, owner of Frameworks, a local gift and framing store. Then they found Virginia Wilson, business specialist with the Missouri Small Business & Technology Development Center in MU’s College of Engineering.
Slowly, the trio finalized the plan. The next step: financing.
Armed with $30,000 of their own investment, the partners approached Keith McLaughlin, senior vice president of the SBA Lending Division at The Bank of Missouri in Columbia.
“I think when I talked to Keith on the phone the first time, he was just a little bit skeptical,” Corey says, with a healthy dose of understatement. “But then we went to see him, and I just never quit talking. I thought the meeting went really well. Keith looked at our plan, our numbers and our research, and a few days later he called me and told me they would do the loan.”
Hot Box Cookies is one of a kind — as is every cookie they bake.
Starting with homemade dough in four flavors, bakers add whatever you like to make your cookies specifically to your taste. You order in increments of six, and you can pick them up or have them delivered within minutes of their emergence from the oven. Packaged up in a small pizza box, the cookies arrive at your doorstep while they are still warm.
An order of six, customized cookies is $5.95 plus $1 delivery fee. Or you can walk into the store and select them fresh from the case. Sit at one of the tables, play a board game, use the free wi-fi and enjoy a cold glass of milk or one of Corey’s signature smoothies or shakes. What else could you possibly need after a hard day of work or school?
Hot Box Cookies opens on weekdays at 4 p.m. (noon on Saturdays and Sundays), just about the time when kids traditionally come home to milk and cookies after school. It’s also the time that currently works best for these school-bound cookie entrepreneurs.
“It’s after we get out of class,” Corey says. “We’d he open earlier if we didn’t have class.”
Corey says the biggest surprise he’s had is how incredibly busy Hot Box Cookies is after such a short time in business. His biggest challenge is sometimes dealing with suppliers who run late or bring the wrong order. Employees are not a challenge, because the three entrepreneurs hired only their good friends and fraternity brothers.
“We don’t have to worry about trusting any of these people,” Corey says. “We all know them really, really well. And they all want us to be successful.”
Bakers arrive at the store about 15 minutes before opening and put the first batches in the oven. Things really get “crazy,” Corey says, late in the evening when everyone is studying or wanting a late-night snack. Two delivery drivers hustle to take the hot boxes throughout the delivery area. If more help is needed, it’s just a phone call away. One of the owners is onsite at all times. Things typically quiet down about 2 a.m., and the owners grab a few hours of sleep before heading off to class the next day.
“Fortunately for us, we’re all pretty smart,” Corey says. “So keeping up — at least so far — has not been a problem.”
What’s next for these “accidental” entrepreneurs?
“I really want to franchise this,” Corey says. “I’ve always had it in my mind that I would work for myself. And I’ve always cooked and studied the culinary arts. I didn’t know I was a baker, but it seems to have turned out that way. I think this would be really popular in other communities, particularly college towns.”
Landlord Arnie Fagan calls the early success “phenomenal.” He adds, “I live upstairs, and the smells — it’s wonderful!”
Must be. After all, it’s the sweet smell of success!