One Smart Cookie: Lisa Newmann’s Snack Revolution
Photo by Ginny Hussey
In September, food entrepreneur Lisa Newmann of Housatonic was called upon to give a speech in Palm Springs, California. The topic, while not addressing global climate change or the gritty situation in Gaza, was an important one, one that has quickly become Newmann’s life work: the troubled snack industry. Or as she so rightly put it, “serious issues around food and health.” Addressing a crowd of high-powered executives from big name food companies such as General Mills, PepsiCo, Dole, and Coca Cola, Newmann implored a rapt audience to “put the focus back on ‘food’”.
“We’re feeding our shelves,” she said to stake holders and industry innovators. “Not ourselves.”
Newmann’s long and nutritional road to transforming the snack industry began in the late 1990s when, while looking at the food label for one of her favorite snacks, cookies, she was appalled (but not surprised) at the not-so-simple ingredients contained in a presumably simple food. Laden with high fructose corn syrup, bleached and enriched flour, sodium alginate, guar gum (whatever the hell that is), and a slew of other unrecognizable additives, these were not cookies, Newman surmised, they were little food travesties taking over the health and lives of snackers across the world. It was at that moment that she decided to return to the cookie, the real cookie, with all five or six of its ingredients and an abundance of love and brilliant, solid marketing. Cookiehead was born in 2007 in Newmann’s test kitchen in Housatonic. Since then, production kitchens have popped up all over New England, and there is even one in Canada, and each produces a solid confection that is akin to momma’s homemade goodies with a few subtle, healthy additions.
“We decided early on that whole grains, which seem to be missing from everyone’s diet, be reintroduced,” Newmann says. “Whole grains, natural sweeteners, sodium in moderation – a hint of sea salt brings out the flavor of chocolate – dark chocolate, sprouted grains.”
The result of all this mixing, matching and tasting is a decadent line of delicious snacks – cookies, brownies, and muffins – with simple, recognizable (and pronounceable) ingredients. The half-dollar sized cookies come in flavors such as Chocolate Java – a fully-charged chocolate chunk cookie containing chocolate, coffee, and almonds; and Honey Maple Walnut Flax, a salty-sweet treat layered with rich textures of raisins, coconut, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds. In addition to the cookie line (which also includes Peanut Butter Chocolate, Cranberry Orange, and Dark Chocolate Chunk), Cookiehead boasts a to-die-for brownie bite made with sprouted spelt flour that could easily defeat any fake-frosting-filled Hostess charlatan on the snack market.
“We’re going against the grain, no pun intended,” Newmann quips. “A lot of people since the 1950s grew up with the Hostess cupcake. It’s sweet and creamy on the inside and people got used to the taste. To the untrained palate, it’s good, kind of, it tastes how people expect it to taste. But it’s these not natural flavorings that present the problem. Food on the shelves now are often stripped of their natural ability to be nutritious. We’re the product developers, and these snacks are innocently consumed by the public. We have to do better than this.”
Newmann with niece Sage. Photo by Rebecca Aronson
Replacing white flour with sprouted spelt, and vanillin with real vanilla, is just the first step in initiating what is now unofficially sealed as Cookiehead’s snack food revolution. There is no doubt, upon first bite, that any Cookiehead product is worth sinking your teeth into. But it’s getting to that first bite that has presented the greatest challenge for Newmann as a food innovator. While the delectable cookies and brownies and Wakey Cakes (soft, rich award-winning mini-muffins perfect for a tasty breakfast treat) are available both locally – the Berkshire Coop, Barlett’s Orchard, Housatonic’s Corner Market, Guido’s – and nationally – Whole Foods, Costco (Northeast Region), and independent stores scattered across Delaware, New York, Maryland, and Virginia to name a few states – it is ultimately up to the consumer to take the initial plunge and give the “Insanely tasty. Crazy smart” snacks a whirl around the taste buds. In that regard, Newmann has faith, and brilliant ambition.
“Costco is a high-end club store, buyers are knowledgeable and know the trends,” she says. “They’re always looking for something that is good; they’re conscious of what’s going on with whole grains. Whole Foods represents about fifteen percent of food consumers. My mission is to find a way to reach the other 85 percent.” —Nichole Dupont
Cookiehead treats and triumphs are also available online.