Queen City sweetness: Home-town bakery startup expands offerings, again
Eat. Smile. Repeat. Peggy Shannon’s deliciously simple motto for Queen City Cookies
takes on a new dimension as she continues to grow the business she launched just two years ago.
Today marks the opening of one small piece of the schnecken-making, elephant-loving, community-minded baker’s plan as she offers a peek into the ongoing renovations of the rectory of the former St. Pius Church on Blue Rock Road in Northside.
One small front room, the only one on the building’s first floor that’s devoid of wood paneling, has been fashioned into a wintery wonderland of a gift shop. She’ll sell varieties of her award-winning schnecken (including pumpkin marshmallow cream and apple bourbon), her buttery bliss cookies (including blueberry maple and chocolate chipotle), lemon squares and a regular dollop of savory surprises, in addition to espresso, tea and plenty of samples.
“I wanted to create something really magical,” says Shannon, who took on the challenge of creating the shop in just two weeks after spending months acting as general contractor for the renovations of the former church’s school gym, a separate building behind the former church which now serves as Queen City Cookies’ wholesale bakery.
She had to have the wooden gym floor reinforced with concrete along paths where massive ovens and freezers now sit and add drainage in the floor, all the while maintaining production to fill product demand from her storefront in Findlay Market and Internet orders.
“Two years ago I was putting cookies in a cellophane bag and tying it with a ribbon and that was it,” Shannon says. “Now I’m wrapping pallets.”
Head baker Megan Hall, 26, started working with Shannon after graduating from culinary school last spring. “I like the everyday inspiration to do something great because Peggy is so passionate,” she says. “Everyone here is excited because everything is so new and changing.”
Since Hall started with the company, Shannon’s creations have racked up two Sofi Awards, the Oscars of the specialty food world—one for her rosemary sesame cookies and one for her bacon schnecken, which Hall calls “buttery bliss with bacon in it.”
The bacon schnecken is set to be featured in the January issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, and Queen City iced cookies are already in Real Simple’s online holiday gift guide
One look at, and bite of, Queen City Cookies’ products explain the accolades. “It’s so important to me that it’s the absolute best you can be, from the start to the finish,” says Shannon, a lifelong baker with a business background. “And I mean the start to the finish, from ingredients, to the way it tastes, to the way it looks, to the package that it comes in, to how we treat you when you walk in the door, to the experience you have all the way through.”
She could ship using the post office, for instance, but using UPS, a pricier option, allows her to send hand-addressed packages. Every detail matters. Her goal is to “create an experience of delight from the minute that you look at that package on your doorstep.”
But Shannon, who fields requests from magazines and vendors all over the country, didn’t start her business to add to the world’s cookie and schnecken supply. In fact, she didn’t know what schnecken was until Northside neighbors who knew of her baking prowess implored her to try to make it.
“The thrust of Queen City Cookies is giving back to the community,” she says. “Nobody needs another cookie company. Nobody needs more schnecken in the world. But that’s all I knew to do. That’s the vehicle. That’s what was in my hands, and so that’s what I did.”
She donates portions of sales to nonprofits in and around Northside and sponsors community-focused events in the neighborhood that has been her adopted home since 2008.
“It’s such a unique community that’s filled with wonder and magic and weirdness,” she says. “It’s all of those things, and I love all of that. There’s a sense of ownership.”
As her business grew, Shannon looked for a space larger than the carriage house where she started baking. After more than a year passed with no luck, Shannon started to worry. But her commitment to Northside never wavered. “We really need to maintain businesses here,” she says.
She happened upon the St. Pius “campus”—the church, the gym, the rectory and a garage—which had gone on and off the market. The thousands and thousands of square feet were about as far from a traditional bakery as she could imagine. At first.
Then she envisioned the spaces differently—the bakery in the gym, “something interesting” in the rectory, a retail bakery/dessert bar/space for classes in the church and bee hives behind the garage. Celebrity garden designer Jon Carlofits
will design a variation on the "secret garden" theme for the green space between the rectory and the church.
Massive and budget-busting updates to the church, which holds a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, have delayed Shannon’s hopes for that massive space, but she plans on opening a café and wine bar in the rectory soon after the holidays. Each month, she’ll partner with a different local non-profit to share proceeds and missions, with each enterprise feeding the other.
“It sure would have been easier just doing a bakery,” says Lisa Ballard, the designer who has crafted the ever-growing cast of elephant characters that add an extra layer of charm, and narrative, to all Queen City Cookie products.
The weekend before the opening of the gift shop in the rectory, Ballard sits with Shannon in the rectory space still crowded with gift-shop props newly retrieved from Shannon’s third floor. Ballard and Shannon finish each other’s sentences, each building on the other’s ideas in a kind of rhythm reserved for like-minded, singularly focused friends.
As they talk about new packaging possibilities for the elephant-shaped cookies, Shannon jolts upright, letting out a loud, “OH MY GOD! Wait till you see this!” before rushing out of the room.
She returns, her eyes widened, holding a bag of dehydrated pastry twists. “You want to see my new biggest idea?” she asks. Ballard doesn’t even have to wait to hear the idea. “Schnecken twists!” she says, and Shannon squeals with delight.
In the next five minutes, the two have named the new product and its elephant counterpart: Peggy Sue’s Schnecken Sticks. “They are like biscotti,” Shannon says. Being able to dehydrate and then use leftover schnecken opens up a whole world of possibilities for Shannon, and Ballard is right there beside her on the journey.
Despite dramatic “a-ha” moments and a too-beautiful-to-eat cookie reputation, Shannon says that the most important thing to her, the very reason for her business’ existence, is still supporting her community.
And she worries that her larger-than-life persona, her appeal to stores like Fresh Market and Sur la Table and her star-studded fan club might overshadow those local philanthropic goals and her quest to become an accepted Cincinnati brand, right alongside Graeters and Skyline.
“I want to be your hometown bakery,” she says.
Elissa Yancey lives in Northside, loves schnecken and is managing editor of Soapbox.