ITHACA, N.Y.—Emmy’s has come a long way from making cookies in a home kitchen and selling them at the Farmer’s Market. While they still make cookies in Tompkins County, the audience is bigger and now the ownership is as well.
The gluten-free cookie maker, which now operates out of a production and warehouse facility in the town of Dryden, has been acquired by Mexico-based Grupo Bimbo, better known in the states as Bimbo Bakeries. The Bimbo name may not be familiar, but their products are supermarket staples, with brands such as Sara Lee, Entenmann’s, and Freihofer’s.
Bimbo first reported the deal in the release of its second-quarter earnings at the end of July, according to food industry trade publications. Bimbo, whose headquarters is in Mexico City, described Emmy’s as a manufacturer of “ultra-premium organic cookies and a major player in gluten-free cookies,” adding the acquisition provides the company with an “entry point into the quickly growing better-for-you cookie and sweet baked goods market.” The terms of the sale, which was completed in May, were not disclosed.
Now, if you have a sense of worry, that’s understandable. We’ve seen this storyline play out before, not just in Ithaca but in similar communities around the country—quirky local business develops an attractive product, sales grow, the firm gets bought out by some big enterprise, the jobs are outsourced to a cheaper place and the quality declines. It’s fair game that that question was posed to Samantha Abrams and Ian Gaffney, the co-founders and co-owners of Emmy’s.
“Nothing is changing. Our entire team is still on,” said Abrams. “If anything, I believe our team will be able to grow jobs in the community. Our company is really important to us, we wouldn’t have sold it if we didn’t think our new owners were going to take what we created and keep it going.”
“We care deeply about the company and the brand,” added Gaffney. “We always had this agreement between ourselves that we wouldn’t let our egos get involved and we’d always do what’s best for the business. This next step with Bimbo really felt like the best foot forward for Emmy’s.”
Both Abrams and Gaffney stressed that they will still be running day-to-day operations, and that the sale was driven by their desire to grow Emmy’s as a business. Bimbo offered facilities, equipment and research facilities beyond what Emmy’s was able to tackle on its own, as well as new sales and marketing avenues. As the COVID pandemic was ongoing when the months of negotiations were underway, the discussions were largely done by remote video calls (Zoom) with Bimbo’s U.S. headquarters near Philadelphia, with site visits happening later in the acquisition process.
“I think what attracted us to Bimbo Bakeries was that they’re manufacturers. Along with the deal, they also purchased our manufacturing building (on Royal Road in Dryden). We’re maintaining our entire bakery, that’s going to stay and likely expand, which is really exciting for us. We aligned with Bimbo Bakeries’ values, they’re a people-first organizations and that’s always been top-of-mind for us, creating a good company culture and a great place to work. We really felt like there was a good match,” said Abrams.
“They own legacy brands that have been around forever,” Abrams continued. “That’s our dream, that we continue to grow and truly become a household name. We feel like we’re in a place now where we can really make that happen.”
“I think just with their experience with manufacturing, they’re bringing a lot to the table for us, especially as we expand product lines,” added Gaffney. “They have the background to really support future buildout and production lines, equipment needs. They run somewhere around 65 plants just in the U.S. alone. There’s just a plethora of information and knowledgeable people that are ready, willing and able to help us grow the company and grow beyond just our coconut cookie.”
Emmy’s is a case of being in the right place at the right time: a gluten-free cookie with ingredients that people can pronounce, part of a trend back to basic and unprocessed “clean” ingredients. Organic coconut is the principal ingredient in Emmy’s cookies. For the sake of example, the ingredients in Emmy’s chocolate chip cookies are organic coconut, organic agave syrup, organic fair-trade dark chocolate chips, organic almond flour, organic coconut oil, organic vanilla extract and Himalayan salt.
Like many businesses, Emmy’s had its share of COVID pandemic impacts over the past 18 months.
“At the beginning, distribution trucks only had so much space, and as people were buying droves of toilet paper and freaking out, it was pretty challenging making sure our products got on the trucks,” Gaffney said. “But once all that leveled out, things kinda got back to normal. Some months were peaking, some months were a total dropoff (of sales), it was a month-to-month basis. Online sales increased and store sales decreased, and then they flipped, and now we’re back to a pre-pandemic place for the business. It was pretty challenging making sure everyone stayed safe.”
They had COVID response teams and weekly testing, and Abrams said she was grateful to Tompkins County for offering convenient and free testing so that they could take active steps to maintain staff safety, especially on the production floor.
Emmy’s next product line is already gearing up to hit store shelves. “Brownie snaps” will be launching in the next few months, which Abrams described as a “crispy, delicious snackable brownie product”. The product is currently outsourced to another facility for production, but Abrams and Gaffney would like to move production to Tompkins County as Bimbo helps them install the equipment needed to make the new product line in-house.
Currently, Emmy’s employs 34 staff, mostly on the production side, and have stayed on with the company beyond the sale. Emmy’s, which is a living wage employer, is rather unusual in that it employs a fair number of refugees, ethnic Karen people who have resettled in the Ithaca area from the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar (Burma).
“It was through the YES (Youth Employment Services) program that we hired our first Burmese refugee. She was just a fantastic worker, she loved the job, and she said to us, ‘Whenever you have openings, I know people who want to work.’ We really had no idea how large the Burmese community was in Ithaca, and as positions became available, she recommended this person and that person, and now we have a couple dozen Burmese refugees working at Emmy’s,” said Gaffney.
“They’re great workers, we try to be very accommodating, all our facility signage is translated to Karen, which is their native dialect, we have translators, we celebrate their holidays, we’ve been a part of weddings, funerals, a lot of babies being born,” added Abrams. “We didn’t start this business to hire refugees, it just happened in this beautiful way and has become a special part of our story. It’s a symbiotic relationship, we have an amazing, loyal staff, we’re living wage, and with the acquisition we can provide even better benefits. We’re inspired by their community.”
“They realize they’re like the special sauce to our company and its products, our team. (Bimbo) doesn’t want to meddle with that, they really just want to help support what we already have in place, something really special,” said Gaffney. In a sense, Emmy’s Organics support of the refugee community is an organic outgrowth of their organic cookie business.
As for Abrams and Gaffney themselves, watching their brand grow from a home kitchen to 20,000 store shelves with corporate backing, the experience brings a bevy of feelings. “I’m really proud of us and our entire team. It’s not just about us anymore. To think back on where we started, now I feel like we’re at this inflection point where we can see the brand grow into a household name, and this acquisition puts us in the best way forward to do that,” said Abrams. “We might be big for Ithaca, but we’re small-medium for the industry. There’s so much more we can do and we’re excited to have the resources to do what we want to do.”