Kojo explores the creative business strategies fueling America's boom in fast-casual dining - and why food has become one of the engines for innovation in the American economy.
One of Washington’s best-kept secrets is the recipe of an iconic cookie: the Salty Oats cookie. Terri Horn was already a successful pastry chef before she went into business with her quirky oatmeal treats. Now she’s the protector of a recipe that’s inspired imitators throughout the region and a parlor game to decipher a culinary secret that’s flummoxed professional and amateur chefs alike for years. Horn joins Kojo to chat about baking, launching a small business and protecting your culinary secrets.
- Terri Horn Owner, Kayak Cookies
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA cookie recipe doesn't typically require a top-secret clearance. But in Washington's culinary universe, few secrets are as sought-after as the recipes behind the Salty Oats cookie empire. Terri Horn started baking and selling these treats here some two decades ago, beginning with chewy, salty oatmeal raisin cookies that are now among the region's most iconic foods and among its greatest mysteries.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe original Salty Oats spawned imitator after imitator and inspired legions of home bakers to try, try and try again to sleuth the recipe on their own, a futile but necessary exercise because Horn won't budge, not even an inch. She runs her operation now from Cape Cod and still sells her cookies here in D.C. where their mystery remains a crucial element in their success.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe joins us in studio. Terri Horn is the founder and owner of Kayak Cookies, the company behind the Salty Oats cookies that can be purchased at Teaism restaurants here in Washington, D.C., and select areas of the northeastern United States. Terri Horn, thank you for joining us.
MS. TERRI HORNWell, thanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you've got questions or comments, you can call us at 800-433-8850. You want to know the history behind the mystery? Have you ever tried to make your own version of the Salty Oats cookies that are made by Kayak Cookies and sold at Teaism? How close do you think you came to sleuthing the original recipe? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDITerri, it's hard to detach both you and the Washington area from the Salty Oats cookie. You worked for a long time as a pastry chef here before you basically made a new career out of the cookie. But it's my understanding that the concept for the Salty Oat is something that you've been carrying around since your days in a North Carolina bakery. Where did you come across the original idea for the cookie and why did you gravitate towards this taste so strongly?
HORNI worked at a bakery in North Carolina where the bakers and I worked hard to come up with an idea that would mirror the oatcake from Scotland. Nice, hearty flavor, good ingredients, wonderful to eat at any time of day. And when I left there, moving back to the Washington, D.C. area, being just a lover of cookies, I decided that I wanted to work on it and really make it my own.
NNAMDIWhat kind of experimenting did you do when you were trying to get that first recipe just right?
HORNFor me, it's a balance of not too sweet and perhaps -- not perhaps, but that is why the salt is really just a huge part of it. It's about the balance. It was also a way for me to work with different quality of ingredients. I knew that I wanted some whole wheat flour in there so that it wasn't just the refined white flour flavor, not too much sugar, the texture of oats.
NNAMDII've heard you say before that the salty taste of the cookie reminds you of the sea. Why is that an important part of the cookie to you? Is nostalgia part of its appeal?
HORNPerhaps. Yes, it is. I used to spend few weeks every summer off the coast of Maine on extended kayaking trips with friends and family, and I always use to bring these cookies with me for snacks, for breakfast, whatnot. And everyone raved about them, I adored them and they were the perfect snack. And it was on one of those trips that I decided it was time to launch a business of my own.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're talking with Terri Horn, founder and owner of Kayak Cookies, the company behind the Salty Oats cookies that so many Washingtonians have come to know and love. 800-433-8850 if you have questions or comments. A lot of people who love baking fantasize about going pro taking the cookies or the cupcakes that they get so many compliments about from their friends and launching a business of their own, but you came into the Salty Oats project with a long, professional background. Where did you get the kitchen skills that you use to build your business?
HORNThe kitchen skills were really just developed along the way. I did not go to school, any culinary institute for education. I was very fortunate to work with talented chefs who oftentimes really gave me free run of the desserts and pastries that I would make. So it was really just a self-educated skill.
NNAMDIDesserts and pastry, what was it about the sweet end of the food spectrum that pulled you in? You've basically hung your hat professionally on pastries and alike for your entire career.
HORNA lot of it is the tactile and it's the dough and it's the -- I love sweet things but, however, I cannot eat -- I don't care for desserts that are overly sweet. So it's really about refining something to its utmost perfection. And it's the end of a meal. So it's the memorable part.
NNAMDIWhere do you typically draw inspiration from when you're starting your own recipes? I heard that -- and you mentioned that Salty Oats have roots in oatcakes, the oatcakes that you love that a colleague of yours in North Carolina brought back once from Scotland. You seek inspiration in other things you've tasted before?
HORNI do. And primarily, they are things that I've tasted in my time overseas. I spent time studying in France and have found a few things that are not made in the United States, which I love and I take inspiration from.
NNAMDILet's get back to the Salty Oats for a minute. At what point did you realize that you were sitting on a recipe that needed to remain secret, that protecting your secret was imperative to your professional success?
HORNI found that when I was in Washington and beginning to make them on a grander scale, that people were really drawn to them and that I really needed to keep the recipe secret in order to really grow the business.
NNAMDIWho do you trust with this secret? How many people are out there who know everything that's going on in those cookies?
HORNWell, all of those people need to send a confidence -- sign a confidentiality agreement, but I have wonderful staff in Massachusetts who are very diligent in keeping that recipe secret. And then I have, of course, the folks at Teaism who actually do make them for me here, and they keep it as secretive as possible as well.
NNAMDIHave they signed a confidentiality agreement also?
NNAMDIWell, there's one person who clearly does not know the recipe sitting in this room, and that's me. So please put on your headphones as we take questions from the members of our audience. I know you can answer this one from Mary in Washington, D.C. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYHi, Kojo. I love the show. I'm wondering if this is the same cookie that -- or what's the relationship between your cookie and the one that I've enjoyed at the Marvelous Market. That's the only place I've ever purchased a saltier...
NNAMDII told you Terri can answer this one.
HORNThat's exactly where I started, was Marvelous Market...
HORN...in the Washington area. And I started their whole pastry line, actually, and part of which was launching the salty oat. And at one point when I did decide to move on, that was something that had been established there. And so it was great.
NNAMDIThey sell one now, but it's not the -- it's not your salty oat.
HORNNo. No, it's not our salty oat. It's very, very different. It's different ingredients. They use currants versus raisins, and it's just a different cookie.
NNAMDIMary, thank you very much for your call. If you have called, stay on the line. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Terri Horn, founder and owner of Kayak Cookies. That’s' the company behind the Salty Oats cookies that can be purchased at Teaism restaurants in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere in the Northeastern United States.
NNAMDIYou can also join us by going to our website, kojoshow.org, or sending us a tweet, @kojoshow. Have you ever fantasized about going pro with your baking skills? What ultimately pushed you into doing it, or what kept you from doing it? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're having a conversation about culinary secrets and business success with Terri Horn, founder and owner of Kayak Cookies, the company behind the Salty Oats cookies that so many Washingtonians love that can be purchased at Teaism restaurants here in Washington, D.C. You can also find Salty Oats cookies in select areas of the Northeastern United States. You can join this conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIHow often do you tinker with building your own recipes for your favorite dishes at home? At what point did you feel confident enough in your skills as a chef to start getting creative with your own recipe book? 800-433-8850. Terri Horn, you come down here a few times a year to run quality control checks on the cookies that Teaism is selling with your company's brand, Kayak Cookies. What are the kinds of things that you'll be checking to make sure that everything is, well, OK?
HORNPrimarily, it would be -- it is the taste, the texture, the appearance of them, making sure that they're using the ingredients that are specified, that the packaging is correct, that the bakers are happy, those sorts of things.
NNAMDIYou mentioned taste, but it's my understanding that you don't even have to taste the cookies a lot of the time to get a full sense of how well they're being made. How does that work?
HORNWell, it just works. It works. I've made them long enough that I can really look at them and just know. I can smell them, too. Smell is a really big thing. So...
NNAMDIThere are people who want to know more such as Douglas in Arlington, Va. Douglas, your turn.
DOUGLASYeah. Some of us look at the sodium content, you know, the percentage and so forth in the market when we pick up various sundry things. So what is the sodium percentage of your product?
HORNIt's relatively balanced. When we sprinkle cookies -- sprinkle the cookies with salt on top, it is a minimal amount, and we use a little bit less salt in the recipe, the actual batter of the cookie as well. I don't have that number on the top of my head. I'm happy to supply you with it if you want to email me, firstname.lastname@example.org.
DOUGLASSay it again? Kayak what?
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Douglas. On to Liz in Bethesda, Md. Liz, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LIZOh. Thanks for taking my call. I love these cookies, and I was just curious. What made you pick Teaism as the place to sell them at, and how did that fit in with your aesthetic?
HORNLinda and Michelle, who own Teaism, worked with me at Nora's Restaurant years ago. So we became friends there. And at some point when they decided to open up Teaism, that's when I decided to start making them there, and I used to make them myself. And they just -- they have the same integrity about what they sell and how they prepare all the food in their restaurants, and they're very, very committed to Kayak Cookies Salty Oats.
NNAMDILiz, thank you for your call.
LIZThank you. Bye-bye.
NNAMDIYou, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. These are handmade products. They're not being churned out by industrial machines that you can program to move faster and therefore make more products. So what's the biggest challenge from a quality control perspective when it comes to scaling up to meet demand of the cookie? How big do you want this to grow?
HORNWell, it's interesting because we did three year -- three or so years ago, I actually did visit the idea of a machine to actually make the cookies. It was not something I wanted to do. However, I was willing to give it a try and prove exactly what I knew would be the case, that they need to be handmade. It's every step of the way. It's everything from getting the quality of ingredients, scaling the ingredients, mixing the ingredients, scooping the cookie balls, baking them. The -- every step of the way is crucial.
NNAMDIWhat would happen if you mechanize the process, do you think?
HORNIt would change them. It would -- my experience with the machine that I did look at was it was just not the same cookie. I think a lot of it has to do with who makes the cookies and how they're made.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Mary in Bethesda, who writes, "Literally, every time there is a new salty oat cookie, it's like a life event for me, like an -- I remember where I was when I had my first chocolate salty oat cookie kind of life event. So does Terri have any new cookies in the works?" asks Mary.
HORNI do, and I've had them in the works for a while. As many of you know that have had Salty Oats, it takes me a while to come up with a new one, but that's just because I want it to be as good if not better than the others. The next one will be peanut butter. It's...
NNAMDIHmm. Why has peanut butter been such a particular challenge for you? You can find articles where you're talking about building a peanut butter salty oat from, oh, five, six years ago?
HORNNo. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I've been on the move as well, and it really takes focus for me. And there is a challenge with the peanut butter. The peanut butter, together with the rolled oats, tends to produce a very cloying, kind of dry experience in the mouth. So I'm experimenting with other flours, and so it takes time. But it's top on my list when I get back.
NNAMDISoon coming to a Teaism near you. Here is Sean in Washington, D.C. Sean, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SEANHi, Terri. My name is Sean. I own The Pretzel Bakery, which is in -- on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. We pretty much focus just on pretzel, so your story sounded very similar to mine. And actually, one comment before the question. It's just that the longer we're open, the more emails I get and calls from people asking me for the recipe.
SEANAnd, you know, I find it very presumptuous that people think you're going to be that free with the recipe, you know. But that was just my comment. But my question is, how long did it take you to get out of the day-to-day work in the bakery to focus on expanding your business?
HORNGood question. I'm still not there.
HORNBut that's really important to me. It's very important that I stay -- have some presence in the kitchen. That's really where I'm the happiest. So -- but I do -- now, I do have a very experienced staff that can handle it. Obviously, I'm away right now, and so I am able to have more time. But it's taken -- you know, for a long time I did it myself. So it's -- I don't know -- it was probably a good seven years.
NNAMDISean, have you gotten to that point yet, or how close are you?
SEANNo. We just did our one year anniversary, and I'm nowhere closer to getting out of the bakery. And, in fact, now that I do have trained staff, you know, I do have an hour here and there to get away, but I just find myself coming back to the bakery as soon as I can, you know?
HORNI do find, Sean, that that time in the kitchen is imperative for me in terms of thinking, in terms of making decisions about, you know, how to expand the business, where it's going, what's next. I just find that the experience actually making the product just feeds me for what's to come.
SEANYeah. Well, my issue right now is just the physical and mental energy to run the bakery day-to-day just sucked all my energy up from thinking about how do I expand the business. So...
NNAMDIWell, good luck to you with that.
NNAMDISean, before you go -- because no one else is really listening, just between you and me -- what's your recipe?
NNAMDIThank you very much...
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Sean. We move on to Gary in Arlington, Va. Gary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GARYYes. One of the idea -- I haven't had the pleasure of trying your cookies, but I will look them up. And I just wanted to make -- ask a question and anticipate it with maybe a suggestion, which is that there are many folks with intellectual disabilities in the greater D.C. area who really struggle to find a job. And I think the type of work you do is a place where they could be great employees.
GARYYou'll find many folks with Down syndrome light up the room they're in and work very hard and will stick at simple tactile tasks for a long time. And there are folks who have certain types of autism, spectrum disorders who are very detail-oriented and very great workers. And so if you don't look at hiring folks like that, I'd encourage you to reach out to the Down syndrome society, the autism society, and I'm sure you can find a lot of very eager potential employees in those communities.
GARYI'll take my answer off air.
NNAMDIExpansion plan preparations for you, Terri Horn.
HORNI love this, I love this. Thank you so much for calling in. We actually have an organization on the Cape called Cape Abilities, and that's exactly what they do. And I have other friends that are in small businesses that use them. And now that we are in our own space -- we are getting ready for summer, which is huge -- I do plan on bringing on a couple of them. And I'm really excited. I think that that whole focus on -- the joy that they bring, the simplicity of, you know, everything that they do, it's wonderful.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Have you ever tried to make your own version of the Salty Oats cookies that are made by Kayak Cookies and sold at Teaism? How close do you think you come to sleuthing the original recipe? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Terri Horn, sleuthing your recipe has become something of a parlor game bordering on obsession for bakers here in Washington. There are countless online message boards dedicated to this hunt. The Washington Post, the website, dcs.com, they've all dedicated space to the chase. What do you make of it all?
HORNI think it's really great.
HORNI think it's great. I think that, you know, I salute them for, you know, trying to figure out their own Salty Oat. And I think that some of them will come up with something that's wonderful. But I think that products -- you can still get the recipe, but, perhaps, you won't be able to make it in the same way. But I encourage them, continue.
NNAMDIGiven how much time it has taken or it took you to come up with the recipe and how much time you spend developing the recipes, in a way, the fact that they say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, the fact that people are trying to do this and really spending shorter amounts of time than you did finding the recipe itself is an indication that they just have to try harder, I guess.
HORNYeah. That's right.
NNAMDIWhere do you typically draw the line in the help you're willing to give when someone asks you about making a Salty Oat of their own?
HORNWell, I mean, the ingredients are listed on the packaging, so that's a given for them. And, you know, as far as I'm willing to talk about the role of the ingredients in terms of how they come together, that's fine. I, you know, I've taken a long time to really source where it is that I get my oats, where it is that I get my vanilla, et cetera. And I think that that's something which they need to come up with on their own.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Naomi, who asked a question that I also asked Terri Horn in the break. Naomi says, "Curious to know the connection to Cape Cod and why she chose the Cape as her place to run her business. I go to the Lower Cape and have never seen the cookies. I'll look for them this summer."
HORNOh. I grew up going to the Cape in summers, and I always, always, always wanted to make it a home for me. And in 2007, after having gone back and forth with family, with my mom, I decided to make it my home.
NNAMDIYou're originally from right here, Washington, D.C. Your parents lived not far away from this station, as a matter of fact. Have there ever been recipes that you've been able nail once or twice? Most of us who cook from time to time experience this, but you've had a hard time hitting the mark with consistently.
HORNThere are a couple of things. They are products that I've had in France. And they are something that I still work on and still hope to master.
NNAMDIWe talked about the cookies being available at Teaism restaurants in Washington and select areas of the Northeastern United States. When you think of expanding, where primarily are you thinking of expanding to and how do you plan to accomplish that?
HORNWell, it's interesting. With the influx of tourists on the Cape in the summer from all over, I always get the question, OK, where can I get these when I get back home? And I have one account in Wellfleet, Mass. where they actually stock up to take them home. So at the end of the summer, the orders double, triple because they're preparing for people stocking up.
HORNSo -- and then with online sales, I would say that, you know, California is a big goal of mine. But I think in the near future, it's to expand the sales in the Mid-Atlantic, which is the Washington-Maryland area, as well as New York City. Those are my next two areas.
NNAMDIWe don't have much time left, but enough time for Sona to get in a quick comment. Sona in Arlington, your turn.
SONAHi. Thanks so much for taking my call. I love your show, Kojo. Thank you so much. I wanted to ask quickly if you were thinking about maybe making smaller cookies or mini cookies because the cookies are great, but they're really large for my kids. And I was just hoping to maybe (word?) them out a little more.
NNAMDIYou just have about 10 seconds to respond.
HORNWe make Baby Oats. Check out the website, kayakcookies.com. We make Baby Oats, and then we make toddlers, which are in between the babies and the regular size.
NNAMDIThere you go. Terri Horn is the founder and owner of Kayak Cookies. That's the company behind the Salty Oat cookies that so many of you purchase at Teaism restaurants in Washington, D.C. It can also be found at select -- in select areas of the Northeastern United States. Terri Horn, thank you for joining us.
HORNThank you very much, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening on this Food Wednesday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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