Alison Johnson was a single mom on a mission — raise her young daughter and always be there for her while still making money. She realized she had talents (and a good recipe handed down through the generations) to help her reach that goal but the money-making part was a struggle at first.
She started selling Alison’s Homemade Welsh Cookies 14 years ago, having made them every year at Christmas and giving them as Christmas presents. Everyone told her she should sell them, including her dad to whom she always listened.
Johnson partnered up with her friend Donna Reichle and Alison’s Homemade Welsh Cookies was born.
Reichle stayed with it for a year-and-a-half, but decided it wasn’t for her so Johnson took the business on herself.
“It was a struggle and a learning experience,” she said. “We started off with 12 stores, and we built it up and created all the flavors. I continued on with it when she left and doubled the size of the business. I worked with my mom (it was on her mom’s side where the recipe began) and she helped a little bit. And my daughter Rebecca Barrett helped while she was in high school. Once she graduated, she was doing everything with me. She does more of it now and, one day, it’s going to be hers.”
Johnson is a wholesaler now, working with 30 grocery stores and a couple of meat stores, some of which are outside Lackawanna County. She lives in Newton Ransom, but is formerly from the Abingtons.
One of the things Johnson did to get started was work with the Department of Agriculture.
“They give you a set of rules,” she said. “You have to have shatter-free lights and everything has to be for food safety, be labeled and not have anything else in your shop. They inspect it every year. All your water has to be at the right temperature, and your coolers have to be at the right temperatures and clean.”
When Johnson goes to the stores, she introduces herself and brings samples of Alison’s Homemade Welsh Cookies. A lot of stores get weekly deliveries. It’s Barrett who makes those deliveries and finds out how many more dozen they need to supply.
“Most of the stores let me run my own thing,” Johnson said. “They have 50 dozen in their stores, and I just make them. I know how much they sell. I keep track of it every week, and most sell about the same every week. I just keep making them. I feel like a trained monkey. After a while, you don’t have to even think about it. It’s like you’re on auto pilot.
“I do fundraisers, too,” she added. “I did Cookies for Cancer back in April. I did it for two local women, Jennifer Michaels and Amy Brown, and donated the proceeds to help with their care for cancer.”
Johnson had her daughter and a friend help out while she made 400 dozen cookies that were delivered to the Sunrise Café in Clarks Summit. A table was set up with the different flavors and a bucket with the two women’s stories and what they were going through. Over 215 dozen cookies were sold in four hours, and the money was split evenly between the two women.
Johnson defied the odds, and now she offers 30 different kinds of Welsh cookies, averaging 1,000 dozen a week. She experiments in her bakery which consists of commercial griddles that her husband is now expanding.
“Most people are surprised when they learn the cookies are fried on the griddle and not oven-baked,” she said.
Because Johnson is a wholesaler, her bakery is not open to the public. But, when she wants to know how a new flavor will go over with customers, she actually goes out and stops cars, asking the drivers to sample them, then listens to what they have to say.
“In the beginning, I actually stood in front of stores and handed out samples,” she said. “A lot of people liked the samples and word spread.
“Being that we did other flavors, well, the stores were skeptical of that,” Johnson added. “I would hand out packs to the stores. It was a Welsh cookie, but sometimes I put candy in them. I did a chocolate toffee cookie once just for fun.”
Johnson admits flavors are tricky, but usually turn out well. She explains, “I don’t like apricots, but they are one of my favorite flavors. Two years ago, we came out with blueberry pineapple. There was only one cookie people didn’t like and that was cranberry pineapple. You’ve got to play with it to see what people like. We’re still experimenting and I want to make a candy cane one.”
Johnson doesn’t feel like she has competition and said Gerrity’s markets make its own, “but it doesn’t affect my sales which is nice.”
Her busiest time is from now until Christmas. Around Halloween, she makes her cookies with M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces. She does special ones for Thanksgiving and Christmas trays of five dozen with three different flavors. Her price per dozen in all of the stores ranges from $4.19 to $4.99 a dozen.
Johnson ships 6,000 cookies every five weeks to a woman in North Carolina. She also does weddings and is willing to work with people for whatever their needs.
Barrett is now 23 and also handles her mother’s Facebook page. Between word of mouth, Facebook and stores putting up signs, the business hasn’t had a need to advertise.
Johnson’s advice to other entrepreneurs: “I’ve told other people to go to a store and look around to see what is missing. There is always something you could make, like shortbread cookies, for example. I told them to walk around and see what you can do that nobody else does.”
Alison Johnson, right and daughter Rebecca Barret pose in front of their stand at Gerrity’s.
Alison’s Homemade Welsh Cookies on display at Gerrity’s.