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Maui Cookie Lady: The MAUIWatch Interview

While waiting at Casanova’s one morning, I consider the first time I ever heard the name, the Maui Cookie Lady. It was over the summer, when a friend recommended I try her cookies. By placing an order on Facebook and making a drive to a modest neighborhood in Makawao, my wife and I bought our first batch of Maui Cookie Lady Cookies. They were mind blowing. Rather than skinny, long cookies with the flavors spread out, these cookies were bulky, playfully shaped and felt like paper weights. Eating them is like gobbling down one of those gigantic cookies kids make when Mom isn’t watching them in the kitchen. Only, instead of a messy, unfocused disaster, there is an artful touch and a massive concentration of flavor that rushes through you while biting into them.

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Without question, the name of the Maui Cookie Lady has grown and she’s become a word of mouth sensation. Perhaps most importantly, the cookies are terrific.

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When the Maui Cookie Lady, who goes by Mitzi Toro, comes in for the interview, the first thing that strikes me is how tall she is. I’m 5’11 but she’s taller, a lovely lady with a dancer’s physique. Toro, who couldn’t be more approachable, is talkative, passionate about food and in the midst of seeing her business flourish. Her hobby grew into a Facebook and word-of-mouth fueled business. This past year included highlights like providing cookies for the inaugural Maui Comedy Fest and being spotlighted in the Costco Road Show. I’m barely scratching the surface, as Toro’s successful and steadily escalating brand continues to flourish, branch out in new directions and surprise with the endless variations she comes up with.

Barry Wurst: Do you remember the first time you bit into an amazing cookie?

Mitzi Toro: It’s actually a recipe I still use. I was 14 and a freshman at St. Bernard’s High School. My English teacher was Mrs. Merrick. On the first day of school brought us all cookies. It was the original Mrs. Fields recipe she had. It was a walnut chocolate chip and I thought, Oh those are really good cookies, so I asked her for a copy of the recipe. I kept altering it, it’s very different now, but that is the same recipe I’ve been baking since I was 14 and I still have it. I laminated it and it’s still in her writing. I would just constantly bake in high school for teachers, for friends and I saw it made people happy. It made my teachers happy and I made a lot of friends over it, so I just kept baking.

Since we’ve first started, we’ve made probably 56 to 58 different versions and they’ve all been based on that same recipe.  I want to get a hold of her somehow and find her. And tell her what an impression my freshman year made on me with that cookie she gave us.

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BW: Did you grow up here?

Mitzi Toro: No, I didn’t. I grew up in El Segundo, CA which is right next to Manhattan Beach in LA. But my mom and dad retired here right after I left high school, and I wanted to be by them as they got older and take care of them. I made that commitment when I was young, before I bought a house and got married. I came over when I was 20, did one year of college and then I came over and finished up college here. And it’s been incredible ever since.

All of these doors have opened. I’ve been very lucky. They have that old saying, “Sometimes Maui accepts you and everything works out and sometimes it’s really difficult and nothing works out.” Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve been very fortunate, made a lot of friends and met a lot of great people and never had a problem finding a job. It’s been really great.

BW: Tell us the story of your father that you mention on the package of your cookies.

Mitzi Toro: My Dad was born and raised in Germany, he met my mom and didn’t really speak much English. They got married and we grew up in El Segundo. And then they both retired here and I was very close to both of them. And I bought a property and convinced them to move next door, which is kinda funny, it’s usually the other way around. But I’m very close with my parents and my Dad would call me every day. We would have coffee, we would go to Starbucks or Maui Coffee Roasters was his favorite.  We would talk every day and we would go on hikes together. He was such an incredible Dad.

In May 2012, he had an aneurism. It was really sudden, so we didn’t really have a chance to say goodbye or anything like that and it was fatal. I started a fund raiser as a thank you for the nurses that helped him in the ICU unit. I don’t know if it’s like this everywhere, but the nurses here on Maui have to pay for their own uniforms, jackets and their own training materials and a lot of things I assumed was paid for.

The only thing I really love to do is bake cookies, it’s my passion. I got a booth at First Friday and just put up a sign that said, all proceeds are going to the ICU nurses.  I just wanted to be able to hand them a check that had no strings attached. We raised about $600 in four months. It was successful. It just made me feel good that I could do something to honor my dad and I had no intentions of making it a business.

People liked my cookies but I always assumed it was because they were free. (laughs) And I’m handing it to them and of course, they’re going to be polite and say, “Oh I like your cookie”. I never thought anyone would actually pay for them. I never intended for this to be a business and I don’t have any business background. I’m a school teacher.

I just continued baking and on the last month of the fund raiser, there was a girl who came every month and she asked me if I was going to come back. I really wasn’t, but I thought, well if she’s going to come back and buy a cookie, maybe I will come back one more month and bake a few. And then she kept coming back and we had other people coming back, so I just kept baking. Then I actually ended up naming a cookie after her, Sarah Biggs. Everyone always asks, Who is this Sarah Biggs lady? If she had never asked me, I would have never come back, so in a sense, she was this really cool power of suggestion.

I only had two variations and I think we only sold 50-60 cookies at events and we’re coming up on the two year anniversary, which is my dad’s birthday, February 1st. It’s been less than two years and I sat down to try and count all of the flavors we’ve done and it’s 56 or 58 flavors since we started, all off of that same recipe from Mrs. Merrick. I just kept making variations. We had five new ones last night. I’m starting to experiment with really unusual flavors.

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My new favorite is called “Dreaming of Doha” and that has saffron, fresh ground cardamom and organic rose petals, dry roasted walnuts and lemon chocolate and it’s savory. It’s not sweet. When I experiment with cookies, I don’t know how people are going to react. It’s fun coming up with these unusual flavors. We have lavender farm up in Kula. I’ve been waiting to make a lavender cookie that’s really good and showcases Maui’s beautifully grown lavender. That’s on my agenda for the new year.
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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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