Increasing production by 20,000 is a lot easier for Thelma’s owner Dereck Lewis than increasing production by two million.
But that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
What started as a mom and her son selling cookies and ice cream sandwiches at the Des Moines Farmers Market has evolved into an operation with a 17,000 square foot office and production building with ten different flavors.
“Every time you become a click bigger, you need more on hand,” Lewis explains. “More inventory, all that stuff and then warehouse space for trucks and equipment. And now we will need offices, we’ve never needed those before.”
But Thelma’s has never been this big before.
Lewis and his mother came up with the idea of putting ice cream between their cookies during 2010 after starting a warm cookie delivery franchise in Minnesota. Lewis had a friend with an ice cream machine and put ice cream between cookies.
“Then we started making my grandma Thelma’s snickerdoodles with ice cream,” Lewis says.
In 2012 Thelma’s launched at the Des Moines Farmers Market.
The cookies and sandwiches were assembled all across central Iowa, from a shared kitchen by Buzzard Billy’s restaurant across from Wells Fargo Arena to the shops at Roosevelt on 42nd Street and the BrickStreet Market in Bondurant.
They are now comfortably assembled in a 17,000 square foot building on the east side of Des Moines, where they moved in 2016.
“Scaling up production while keeping the product quality the same is really tricky,” Lewis said. “That’s really hard, because when you make bigger batches of things it’s hard to make them seem like they are from your house.”
Lewis says as the batches become bigger, they must be assembled more efficiently.
“And your processes when you are low volume can be inefficient because it doesn’t really matter, but now we have to constantly edit our processes to make sure it’s efficient.”
But what makes Thelma’s unique hasn’t been lost.
“We fill by hand, we are touching all the cookies a bunch of times,” Lewis says laughing.
Becoming part of the 80 percent
Lewis says in the grocery business 80 percent of what a shopper puts in their cart they do every week.
But getting into that club takes time.
Thelma’s first wholesale seller was the Gateway Market in downtown Des Moines and then the Hy-Vee in Urbandale in 2013.
Dan Van Gundy, is the frozen food manager of the store and said the variety of ice sandwiches Thelma’s offers is what makes them different from other sandwiches.
Lewis said an entire display of sandwiches immediately sold out.
“That’s where we learned the most as far as how much we could scale up,” Lewis said. “So then I figured with one Hy-Vee doing well, there’s so many Hy-Vees and that’s exactly what we did.”
Thelma’s is now sold in eight states and 520 retailers.
“We want to be a popular regional item,” Lewis says. “So that means expanding in those states. And then maybe expanding out offerings into other things.”
Lewis said he’s exploring potential fundraising opportunities where Thelma’s can serve as a sponsor for little league teams or youth programs.
“I think it’s a unique offering and a way to reach small communities that maybe can’t get our product,” Lewis said. “It’s a great way to support those communities and build our brand going into 2018.”