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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Edible Evil Incarnate

August 23, 2016

The devil has come to town and he’s wearing a disguise.

This devil doesn’t have a red tail and horns. He doesn’t go by an evil moniker such as Lucifer. This devil is made of sugar and spice and has a cutesy name. This evil doesn’t live in a fiery pit, but dwells in a small retail space just off of the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi. This devil doesn’t deal in overt temptation, but his allure every bit as enticing and seemingly sinful as an Old Testament smack down.

The devil has arrived, and his name is Insomnia Cookies.

I first met this particular devil two years ago while dropping my daughter off for her freshman year of college in Starkville, Miss. We had finished eating at a restaurant in a small strip center just off of campus. While walking down the sidewalk I saw, what I would later come to know as, evil incarnate— Insomnia Cookies. The tagline under the logo was brilliant, “Warm cookies delivered until 3 a.m.” I “got it,” immediately.

I stepped into the store and was immediately impressed.

As restaurant concepts go, Insomnia Cookies is pure brilliance. I love the restaurant business. I am a student of restaurants. When I am out of town, I spend my time visiting and studying other concepts. Restaurants are my hobby. For 36 years I have eaten in, and been impressed by, some of the finest restaurants all across America and Europe. In a career that has spanned almost 40 years, I have been fortunate enough at some of the most elegant fine dining restaurants on the planet, but when it comes to a “pure restaurant concept,” at least from a development standpoint, Insomnia Cookies is unmatched in its simplicity, single-mindedness, and genius.

Each store occupies a small retail space of around 600 square feet. The menu is limited— a few varieties of cookies, eight ice cream flavors, milk, and bottled water. Equipment needs are minimal— an oven, freezer, display case, stand-up cooler, and a few warming drawers (I have made supplemental equipment orders after opening a restaurant that were larger than that). It takes about four employees to keep it running— more during peak times, less during slower periods. Waste is almost non-existent and the margins are great. It’s so perfect that the restaurant’s mission can be summed up into one simple, declarative and purposeful statement: “Warm cookies delivered until 3a.m.” On a restaurateur’s concept dream-list each category can be checked off. Pure brilliance.

There have been other cookie franchises through the years, but most of them set up kiosks in shopping malls. The difference with Insomnia is that, if you’ll spend at least six bucks with them, they will deliver and they will deliver early into the morning hours. That, and a good product, has been the key to their success.

The devilish concept is one thing. The cookies are another, and when I say “cookies” I mean the Snickerdoodle. Sure they carry most of the regular players— chocolate chip, oatmeal, something with white chocolate and/or nuts— but none of them matter. When eating at Insomnia Cookies you just need to know one word: Snickerdoodle, or as I like to call them, the devil’s sinful sweet-toothed snack.

It’s not like the Snickerdoodle cookie is a new invention. I’ve eaten them before. I might have even made a batch years ago. And it’s not a fancy, over-the-top creation. But there is something about the Insomnia Cookie Snickerdoodle that reduces itself to cookie perfection. It’s not too sweet, it’s not too complicated. It’s simple. It’s good, and you don’t even have to leave the house.

I don’t even know what the word Snickerdoodle means, and I don’t care. I just know it’s an awesome cookie. The name is irrelevant. It’s like someone took a handful of Scrabble letters and threw them out onto a table and let fate take its course. They could call it an “orbalnubert” and I would eat it. Actually they could name that particular cookie “dirt sandwich” and I would still stuff a few in my mouth and wash them down with a glass of ice cold milk.

I have been visiting the Insomnia Cookies in Starkville for a couple of years, and it is a well known St. John family fact that I have never visited that store, or received a delivery from Insomnia Cookies, that I haven’t exclaimed several times, “This is brilliant. I wish I had thought of this. Isn’t this brilliant? Why didn’t I think of this?” over and over and over and over. So much so that if my wife hears me make that statement one more time, she’s going to kick me in the orbalnuberts.

In business, the devil is in the details. Though with Insomnia Cookies, the details are simple and uncomplicated. The business model is to go into college towns— locales where ordering warm cookies to be delivered to a dorm room or apartment at 2:30a.m. makes perfect sense— set up shop close to campus, and wait for the phone to ring. It doesn’t take long.

Insomnia Cookies is the brainchild of Seth Berkowitz who, while attending the famed Wharton School of Business, started baking, selling, and delivering cookies to fellow students out of his dorm room. Today, 10 years and 90 stores later, he has become the object of my admiration and the subject of my scorn. Damn you, Snickerdoodle.

I was safe for two years. On that first visit in Starkville I remember thinking, I am grateful that there’s not one of these in my hometown. At that time it was the only Insomnia Cookies in the state. I lived way outside of their delivery area. Then a store opened in Oxford last year. That’s even farther outside their delivery area, I thought. It’s a good thing they are going in the opposite direction of my hometown, because Snickerdoodles on a constantly available basis would not be a good thing for Robert or his waistline. Then it happened. The devil moved to Hattiesburg, and a warm pizza box full of Snickerdoodles later, I found myself cussing Seth Berkowitz between every bite, and sometimes even with my mouthful.

insomnia 2

Shortbread Cookies (not as good as Snickerdoodles)

1 stick             Butter

1/ 3 cup         Light brown sugar

1 tsp.               Vanilla

1/ 8 tsp.         Salt

1 1 /4 cups    Flour

1 /2 cup         Pecans, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar on slowest speed until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and salt. Add flour making sure not to over mix. Fold in pecans by hand. Form dough into 1 1 /2 inch diameter balls and place on baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Using the palm of your hand, flatten the dough until it is about 1 /4 inch thick. Bake 15-18 minutes, just until cookies begin to brown.

Yield: 16-20 cookies

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