In 2001, Syracuse native Tina Corso was a real estate agent who also enjoyed getting creative in the kitchen. The aroma of her freshly baked shortbread cookies made Tina’s open houses all the more alluring. At the time, Tina’s fiancé Peter Hess had previously run a dot-com business in Manhattan and was in Syracuse looking for a new position through a head hunter. Tina created a hand-decorated cookie bouquet as a thank you gift for the head hunter, who was so delighted that she wanted to order Tina’s cookie bouquets for all of her clients. Tina and Peter launched the startup business from their home that same year, with Tina making and decorating the cookies and Peter handling the marketing and accounting roles. After less than one year in business, Corso’s Cookies had to move from their home’s kitchen to a 500-square-foot rental space in Solvay, just outside of Syracuse, NY.
“Tina made a cookie that people fell in love with, and I realized this was amazing and it was just a matter of figuring out how to sell it. I turned to my friend Trevor Whiting, the third partner in the business, to build us a website. We quickly formed strategic partnerships with some companies that were already in the gift business. It was a natural for them to sell our product to their customers. Our philosophy was at the beginning and still is today to make a great product and let someone else sell it,” explains Peter. “You want to focus on what you’re good at. That’s where some businesses fail-they try to do everything themselves instead of looking for the right partnerships.”
Partnerships took the startup cookie company to the next level of success: their first contract was to fill 20 orders a day, at a time when Corso’s was only fulfilling 20 a week. For the company’s first Valentine’s Day on their partner’s website in 2003, orders came pouring in at a rate of 20 an hour. With just three employees on staff, Peter and Tina had to scramble to fill hundreds of orders on time, leaving the bakery only for quick showers and to mail orders. The experience was a steep learning curve for Peter and Tina, and once the holiday orders were shipped, they set about planning to hire more staff to accommodate their company’s growing production demands.
By the third year, the couple had expanded the bakery to double their production area to 1,100-square-feet. In the fourth year, the bakery was no longer large enough for their needs and Peter and Tina started looking for a new location. Their plan was to find a building in Solvay to take advantage of the town’s lower electric rates, since the business has to run air conditioning, freezers and ovens simultaneously. After months of searching, Peter found the perfect site in an empty 13,000-square-foot building located right off of State Fair Boulevard in Lakeland. Peter and Tina were able to buy the building with the partnership of HSBC and the Greater Syracuse Business Development Corporation (GSBDC) through the SBA’s 504 loan program. The company stayed in the original space for six months while Peter, Trevor and Tina’s father renovated the new building with new walls, ceilings and floors to suit the bakery business.
The move to the new location enabled Corso’s to install larger ovens, hire more staff and increase production. The increased production capacity was put to use right away when a new partnership with national company ProFlowers required Corso’s to grow exponentially to meet demand. The deal helped attract interest in Corso’s products from the Yankee Candle Company and more national contracts quickly followed. Tina and Peter’s success continues to keep them motivated, and growth plans are definitely on the company’s horizon. In 2013, participating in the SBA Emerging Leaders initiative helped Tina and Peter map out their three-year Strategic Growth Action Plan to deal with the seasonal nature of their sales as well as to plan ahead for the next level of the business.
Peter explains, “The Emerging Leaders program had been highly recommended to me by local leaders and fellow business owners who had graduated from the program. Our business was growing so fast that it made sense to me to get out of the office and focus on growing strategically. The course did a great job helping us break down the numbers behind our business and I thought the guest mentors who worked with us one-on-one were fantastic.”
In February 2014, Corso’s will be audited for its SQF Level 2 certification, regarded as one of the toughest food safety certifications, to become the only decorated cookie company in North America with the certification. The higher SQF certification would enable Corso’s to pursue even bigger partners such as WalMart, Starbucks and Target. The company expects to relocate to an even larger space with 50,000-square-feet to accommodate planned growth.
“The best part of owning our business is working with my wife. It’s great to share the whole experience together, making us much stronger as a couple. At this point, the years of 15-hour days are somewhat in the past for us and we have more freedom to spend time with our three daughters,” Peter says. “It’s great to be a contributor to the local community as well, as we now employ almost 50 people who we consider part of our extended family.”
In a baker’s dozen years, Corso’s Cookies has grown from a home-based business to the largest producer of decorated cookies in North America. Corso’s Cookies stand out in the market with proprietary decorating technology that provides enormous manufacturing capacity while maintaining a hand-made look and taste. The almond and vanilla flavored shortbread cookies come in a wide range of shapes and colors, from striped bumblebees to winking snowmen, in bouquets for almost any occasion. Their decorated cookies can be purchased nationwide, including at Barnes and Noble, Hobby Lobby, and Cracker Barrel Restaurants, at their company website, or visiting their annual NY State Fair bakery in the Dairy Barn.