Friday Q&A: How a Tiny Cookie Company Cracked the College Market

If you’re a college student in Austin, Texas, you’ve probably heard of Tiff’s Treats, a warm cookie delivery business that has captured the sprawling, 50,000-plus Austin college student market.

In 1999, University of Texas sophomore Tiffany Taylor stood up fellow sophomore Leon Chen for a date. To apologize, she baked him cookies, and soon he was encouraging her to start selling her cookies. Out of Chen’s college apartment, they began a warm cookie delivery business, dropping off oven-fresh cookies and cold glasses of milk to dorm rooms across campus. The business concept provided much-needed boosts for late-night study sessions, and soon word got out that you could have warm cookies delivered to your door.

In a time before UberEATS and insta-delivery everything, warm cookie delivery seemed like an extravagant pleasure for a small price. Quickly, the cookie company turned into a 22-store franchised business, expanding to the college markets in San Antonio, Houston, and Atlanta. They now employ nearly 500 people, and they recently brought in $25 million in investment to boost plans to open 12 more stores in 2017.

Through a combination of simplified offerings and targeted marketing, Taylor and Chen (who have since married) use good old-fashioned chocolate chip cookies and milk to successfully capture the college market. To find out how this small start-up earned such success with the college student market, we spoke with Chen, CEO of Tiff’s Treats.

What was your original marketing strategy to reach the college market?

When we first started, we were very young and naive, and college sophomores ourselves. [Our marketing strategy] was very much what you’d expect from two college students: we’d just print up flyers at Kinko’s on colored paper and slide them under the door at dorms. We’d get kicked out of dorms all the time.

How would you describe your marketing strategy in today’s college student market?

College students these days expect and are used to a much higher quality of product and service than when we started. Social media changes everything; it plays a big role in how we reach and engage students.

One way in which we are unique in the way we reach college students today is that we try to support them as much as we can, whether it be by [providing cookies] during an organization meeting or for their fundraisers, and we sometimes even donate cookies.

In addition, we are a company that believes in giving back. At every [store] grand opening event, 100% of the sales from the day – not profits, but sales – goes to a specific charity. Our customers want to be a part of something that is about more than just cookies; that’s why we have lines around the block at our grand opening events. People start lining up on Friday at 2 p.m. for an event that doesn’t start until Saturday at 9 a.m. They camp out overnight in cold weather and in rain to be a part of a special moment.

What advice do you have for other small businesses looking to break into the college market?

The advice I would give is to be genuine in what you do. Don’t try to emulate or copy another concept or competitor. In 1999, we were the first warm cookie delivery concept in the nation; we try to be the best in the world at warm cookie delivery, and everything we do has to be built around that. Find out what you do better than anyone else, and make sure everything you do is built around that.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

The student market can be easy to crack when you’ve got a student discount. Download this free ebook ‘How and Why to Offer a Student Discount’ to learn how to get started. 

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The student market can be easy to crack when you've got a student discount. Download this ebook to learn how to get started.