When the Cookie Business Crumbled, This Entrepreneur Helped Frontline Workers
MN Hero Snack Packs for health care workers feature locally made products.

When the Cookie Business Crumbled, This Entrepreneur Helped Frontline Workers

Minneapolis-based Thumbs Cookies organized an effort that has provided snacks to more than 10,000 health care workers on the frontlines of the Covid-19 crisis. It's also keeping small food producers in business.

When Thumbs Cookies’ owner and founder Robyn Frank was a child, she used to bake tiny, circular butter cookies, finished with a thumb print, with her mother, Barb. They would share the cookies with their family, friends, and community members any opportunity they got.

Today, Thumbs Cookies is sharing with its community again.

Frank’s business practically vanished when the pandemic hit, and she found herself with tons of inventory at risk of going to waste. So when the chief of staff at Bethesda Medical Center in St. Paul—the dedicated Covid-19 facility for the Twin Cities—reached out to her in need of snacks for her staff who were working grueling shifts, Frank didn’t hesitate even a moment.

She took to Instagram to rally a troop of other local small food businesses who were also struggling to make ends meet to find a way to raise funds and donate what they termed “MN Hero Snack Packs” to frontline workers.
The team of 20 local businesses has now served more than 10,000 frontline workers nationwide in more than 30 facilities. And they’re still going.

TCB: How has your work changed/been disrupted by the coronavirus?

Frank | It’s hard to sum it all up… At first, when everything started shutting down, it was crickets. The only thing I had going for the business was that we were on Amazon. And it was the only activity we were seeing in sales. All wholesale accounts came to a halt, and any corporate orders we had lined up were in limbo. Not to mention, I had to tell all of my workers to stay home. Right before the crisis hit, we had just finished construction on KIRBY, our new Cookie Trailer that we were planning to roll out this spring. But all events we had lined up were cancelled or postponed.

Q. Anything you’re able to do right now to compensate for lost work or create new streams of revenue?

A | Right away, we started curbside pick-up, delivery, and amped up our shipping. Those have all been gaining momentum, which is definitely encouraging.

Q. Tell us what you’re doing right now to benefit your community?

A | The very unexpected silver lining that happened in the wake of this crisis is our MN Hero Snack Packs. Dr. Erica Kuhlmann, chief of staff at Bethesda Medical Center in St. Paul (the dedicated Covid-19 facility), reached out to several of us in the Minnesota snack community, looking for snacks for her staff. She explained that, at the time, her staff was committed to long shifts and couldn’t find time to get to the grocery store, and all of the break rooms were closed. Dr. Kuhlmann thought this was unacceptable, and googled a bunch of us to ask for individualized snacks. To top it off, she offered to pay us at cost for our donated goods in an effort to support small businesses. That’s when I got teary talking to her. How could this woman, in the face of fear and uncertainty and having a lot on her plate, possibly be thinking about how to support small businesses? It was just touching. And it led to an outpouring of generosity, kindness, and open-heartedness from so many.

I told her that she shouldn’t pay us. I figured there were people in the community who wanted to help. I started an Instagram thread with 11 other snack companies and suggested coming together to create the MN Hero Snack Pack. We makers would donate our goods (many of these local food producers had been hit hard by Covid-19 and were sitting on inventory they couldn’t sell) and then we would ask our community for $25 donations to support what we were giving. The $25 would provide snacks for eight to 10 medical workers, and the money would go back to pay the makers at cost for what they were providing. The mission was two-fold: support frontline workers and small food businesses.
After serving almost 10,000 frontline workers nationwide, 20 local businesses are now participating in the Snack Pack, and 30-plus facilities have been served. We have raised enough to keep serving frontline heroes and paying back businesses at cost through at least May.

There’s so much more to say, but the whole experience has been completely inspiring. Even in a moment of so much fear, uncertainty, and economic panic, we are seeing the good in people firsthand. It has been a pretty incredible effort. The best part is seeing all of these local businesses come together. Every week we pack the packs and bring them out to people’s cars. There are endless stories of people that need uplifting right now. And we are able to show our love in food to so many.

Q. Do you think this pandemic will have a lasting impact on your business or how you run your business?

A | I think this is a moment for the creative and the innovative to rise. I think online will obviously be a huge part of how we survive going forward, but I also think we will be thinking of more ways to collaborate with businesses around us. We all need each other right now.
Q. Any other bright spots in this crisis?

A | The support has been amazing. We have seen lots of people paying it forward and lots of customers dropping anonymous cookies at people’s doors, just to brighten days. I believe this crisis has been humbling for many. No one has gone untouched. Everyone has a story about how their lives have been interrupted or changed. I think empathy is running high right now, which again, is a silver lining in this overwhelmingly challenging climate.
To donate to Thumbs Cookies’ MN Hero Snack Pack project, visit thumbscookies.com