Walking into Danish Pastry House this past Sunday, I was thinking only two things: one, how much I needed to invest in warmer gloves, and two, that I really wanted to score some free cookies. I was there to meet with the guy behind Sweet Idea, the one-man-on-a-bicycle cookie delivery service that operates on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights around the Tufts campus. Knowing only his first name, John, I had already begun to mentally call him “The Cookie Man.” When he stepped into the shop wearing a bright orange jumpsuit, I had a feeling I was in for an interesting interview.
The Acton, MA- native went to RIT as an undergrad, where he majored in Computer Science and, interestingly enough, minored in Creative Writing. With an easy senior year ahead of him and a love for baking, he began the Sweet Idea prototype named 2 Cookies 1 Buck. “If you’re making the reference there,” says John, “that’s exactly what I intended.” After graduating, he worked at IBM for a year before leaving in September to go back to the cookie-baking/delivery business, this time at Tufts University. “I chose Tufts because I had a few friends who went here and I had good connections to the campus through them. It was really close to where I was living [in Davis Square]. I know that it’s very small concentrated, and I know that here there’s a large amount of people who like to have fun and it’s the perfect place for something like this.”
The idea to change the name from 2 Cookies, 1 Buck to Sweet Idea was an easy one. “The name was restrictive with pricing. When I was doing it at school it was very much for fun so I didn’t care about making a lot of money. I still don’t care about making a lot of money, but now I need to make a living with it. That’s one of the interesting struggles I have to deal with. How do I price things appropriately so that college students will still want to buy them, but I can’t price them out of it while trying to make myself rich or something. It’s all about balance.”
The new name was born from John’s penchant for using the word “sweet” as an adjective and the flexibility of the name. “I didn’t want to typecast myself as just being the cookie salesman. I actually sold other pastries at RIT, like brioche and whatever I made in my kitchen. Just make something, put a price on it, and go for it. That’s one of the really fun things about it. So yeah, eventually I’ll be adding more sweet and savory items; actual food. The Sweet Idea name fits it all. Anything is a sweet idea, it doesn’t just have to be a cookie.”
He adds, “This isn’t just for fun anymore. I have a lot of fun while I’m doing it, but it’s something that I’m very serious and passionate about. I don’t want to go back to programming.” With a big smile on his face, he adds, “So… please, please buy my cookies.”
While he doesn’t want to be sitting at a desk programming as a career, John still enjoys programming for himself. He’s working on making programs to make his business run more smoothly for himself and for cookie-eaters everywhere, like an online delivery form. “I’m a huge nerd… a huuuge nerd. All this technological stuff, I love throwing it into the business.”
With the support of his friends who have sacrificed their stomachs for taste testing, John went through a few rounds of testing before hitting the right recipe. He makes the cookies at Crop Circle Kitchen in Jamaica Plain, a popular place for culinary entrepreneurs who want to get started in the industry but can’t afford their own space. Even though they’ll stay delicious for the whole week, John insists on baking the cookies fresh on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday mornings. He’s selling 2 types of cookies right now, Snickerdoodle and his personal favorite, Chocolate-Chip, but there are already 10 other flavors ready to be introduced.
The business has already hit an early stride, and John is trying to soak up every moment of it. “It’s all really surreal. I like that organic growth aspect to it. I just can’t even believe that this stuff is happening. When I finished this weekend, I went home and just couldn’t fall asleep. I was up until 6 the next morning and woke up at 9 to start baking.” Matching his vivid enthusiasm, he has taken to wearing his bright orange jumpsuit while delivering cookies as a way for people to recognize him and say hello.
Sweet Idea has been spreading more or less without formal press coverage. “I’m really happy to hear that it’s been spreading sort of virally. It’s really cool to have that organic growth aspect to it. I think that people really attach to a business when they find it on their own, you know? It makes you really connected to it, so that’s sort of what I’ve been trying to cultivate here. And I’m not trying to do it dishonestly, either; I would love to learn as many of my customers’ names as possible. Obviously it’s going to be difficult, but I want to make this business a part of campus and a part of Boston as well.”
The ultimate goal may be to spread Sweet Idea far and wide to other campuses, but John knows that it’s not as easy as it sounds. “I’ve heard from a lot of people at different campuses that they’d love to have it there and I’d love to bring it to them, but there are a lot of elements incorporated in this that are difficult to replicate. It’s not exactly like a Taco Bell or something that you can just franchise out easily… well actually, I’ve never worked at Taco Bell before so I can’t really say for sure, but I do know that at Taco Bell that they’re not biking around for 6 hours in the rain and snow. So it’s a labor of love and I’d love to spread it if I can, but I don’t want this to be a big thing around the country or anything like that.”
“It has always made me a little upset how some people don’t really give Boston the respect it deserves for some of its food and I don’t think I’m going to do a lot to change that because I’m basically selling junk food off of a bicycle and I know that,” John says, “but anything I can do to promote the food industry out here. That includes getting into your own kitchen, baking for yourself, and feeling comfortable about it.”
Like any cookie salesman worth his weight in flour, John is as goofy as he is good-looking. No, seriously. Like, Campus Cutie of the Year status. (Order some cookies and you’ll see what I’m talking about.) “Basically another reason I want to do this is so that I can come up with ridiculous ideas and seeing if I can do them. So now I have this awesome platform just doing ridiculous things and using this as an excuse. It’s awesome. It’s all meant to be fun. I love going to, say, some of the nicer restaurants in Boston. It’s just good food. But as much as I love the upper-crust places, the places that I love, that I go to all the time, I looove Taco Bell. Love it to death. Makes me feel sick every time. I love Golden Light. People say it’s awful, the worst food they’ve ever had, I love it. I get the pork-fried rice and the crab rangoons and I stuff it down my throat and I am sooo happy. I’m just sad they aren’t open until 3:01 am or I would stop there on my way home after work. I just want to add something else to that awesome realm of junk food.”
Even when his job is messy, it’s still outrageously entertaining. John encourages Jumbos to get creative with the deliveries. “One of the best ones I had at RIT was a delivery to a 4th story window. They dropped a basket down and I did the delivery that way… Maybe I’ll give people baskets and fishing lines, when I can actually afford baskets to give out to people.”
Faced with the Bartender’s Dilemma largely due to the inebriated state of many of his customers, John has managed to make light of every situation. Recently, while biking around campus making deliveries, John came across a “pretty intoxicated” girl who told him all about her religious beliefs and how she was “saving herself for marriage.” Usually though, John ends up chatting with his customers when he makes deliveries. He has that personality and charisma that makes you want to order cookies, if only to hang out with him for a few minutes. His enthusiasm is contagious, and it is obvious that he is passionate about what he does. My love for cookies intensified each minute of the interview. And that was before I got to even taste the cookies.
The cookies. Wow, the cookies. When John handed me two packs of the baked goods to try them out, I wasn’t sure what to expect but I promised to be honest with him. Well, John, I can honestly say that they were absolutely delicious. They are much more filling that your average cookie, and both the Snickerdoodle and Chocolate-Chip cookies were the perfect consistency: soft, but they held their shape nicely. I meant to share them with my housemates, but once I tried one, I decided to keep them to myself. (Sorry, guys.)
I’ll leave you with one of the last things John shared with me: “I have a ball every night I’m out there. You guys can’t see it because I have the mask on during the winter, but I’ve got a huge grin on my face. When it gets nice out again, you’ll see me beaming. I have fun making people happy and helping them to make awesome stories. That’s really the main reason I started this when I was in school. I realized I didn’t have an answer to ‘what’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done?’ This incorporates a lot of my different passions, and it blows my mind that people like it, too.”
John will be updating the Sweet Idea blog (http://haveasweetidea.com/blog/) regularly, so check back there to read more about his encounters and adventures. Support local businesses and a nice guy- order some cookies.
Open: 9pm to 3am Thursdays through Saturdays
(Plus Superbowl Sunday from 6pm until the cookies run out!)
Price: 6 cookies for $5
To order, just text 424-241-2825
To get in touch with Sweet Idea…
E-mail – email@example.com
Twitter – @haveasweetidea?
Facebook – www.facebook.com/haveasweetidea
Photo: Daniel Wodecki (www.danielwodecki.com)