RCCC helps Kannapolis cookie business rise

Published 12:01 am Thursday, February 24, 2022

KANNAPOLIS — Juan Irby first picked up baking from his grandmother

His granny did spectacular things with food. She baked for beauty pageants, and she made weddings cakes and decorative pieces like carved watermelons.

“It just seemed truly amazing,” Irby said.

He could not keep up with her skill with cakes, but he could make her perfect chocolate chip cookies.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic started and he was stuck at home more. He started baking more in his free time. He was baking so much he had more than his family could use and he started giving away his creations to his friends. They said he should start selling them.

At that point it was just a hobby. He was baking pound cakes, cheesecakes and other small baked goods, but he carved out a niche with his cookies.

He said the ingredient cost to start making cookies was not very high, and they could be packaged individually so they could be served safely during the pandemic. He said he filled one order for 150 cookies individually wrapped that were served at a COVID-safe birthday party.

This had transformed from a hobby into Mason’s Mixer, named after Irby’s son.

The business started to take off, but the family moved to Kannapolis from Alabama. The family decided to start the business again, and Irby’s wife found out about Rowan-Cabarrus Community College’s Small Business Center.

The center offers education and resources for people looking to get their own business going. The mentors he was assigned taught him about the details that make a difference in food service like best practices for measuring ingredients so he can know how much cost he has in each cookie and dialing in the right dough temperature so he can keep the cookies at a consistent size when they are baked.

“I actually had to sit down and break down my ingredients,” Irby said. “How much am I really making off of one cookie or a batch of cookies? I had to break down the flour measurements, the chocolate chip measurements. It forced me to realize, to stay up late and sometimes burn the midnight oil to make sure I had everything I needed for my business.”

Irby said he is always open to sharing his ideas and what he has learned from the center with other people as well.  Recently he tuned in for a workshop just about dough with chef Maria Kemp and had the chance to speak to her and other people involved in the workshop. This led to a potential wholesale opportunity in another city in the state.

Irby relaunched the business in January after rebranding and making improvements like sourcing fresh local eggs and flour for the recipes. Irby said the upgraded ingredients are in pursuit of a truly fresh product as the company calls itself a fresh bakery.

Irby connected with Small Business Center Director Meg Smit and she was excited to get Mason’s Mixer into a new pilot program at the center. He has been connected with local businesses that may be interested in carrying his cookies and the N.C. Food Innovation Lab. He said he knows what he has learned through the program will drive his business forward.

“You get this sneak peek into the journey and you want to help in any way possible,” Smit said.

Smit said for Irby a big part of the support was connecting with people here after moving from Alabama. They worked on strategies for the area and got the business into the mentoring services program. It uses a team mentoring approach based on a Massachusetts Institute of Technology model for entrepreneurs. Irby was assigned a team of three mentors to invest in him.

“It’s still a pilot program, so we’re all learning in the process,” Smit said.

Irby said he wants the business to create generational wealth in his family and eventually transition into cookies full time. His son already loves to help him when he breaks out the stand mixer and starts prototyping new cookies, but he said he does not want to lock his kids into running the business if they have other dreams they want to pursue, either.

The company offered a Valentine’s Day-themed Cupid cookie for February. The flavors change and the company also offers a king cake cookie, strawberries and cream and the classic chocolate chip cookie, which has been the biggest seller since the relaunch.

The test batches get handed out for feedback so Irby can research if they should make their way to the regular menu.

About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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