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The Model For The Essential Pandemic Cookie Shop

Gina Celli is co-founder, co-owner, and baker at Celli’s Chocolate Chips in Williamsburg, Virginia.

I baked all my life, starting as a kid and then as a teenager. I never went to culinary school or anything like that. I stay in my lane—I don’t try to say I’m a pastry chef. I’m not a Michelin star. I do what I do, and I do it well. Everybody else can say their cookies are handcrafted and made with love and blah, blah, blah.

I don’t have an industrial mixer. I have four stand-up mixers, and I go from mixer to mixer to mixer. If you ever walked into my kitchen, it’s not a big bakery kind of kitchen where you have a 40-gallon mixer and somebody pouring in a big bag of flour. It is a homemade cookie experience. I took what I did in my kitchen, and I put it on steroids in terms of different varieties and different techniques and different sizes. Though I do have a big-boy powerful baking oven.

I know it sounds so hokey and cliched, but I was always the one making the cookies for the family sports teams or the bake sales or this or that. Soon enough it became a “don’t show up if you don’t have cookies” kind of thing. We decided to make a go of it as a business. I did get into a brick-and-mortar space—not a very glamorous address. Now I’m moving to a Class A retail center with Starbucks and Fresh Market and Pure Barre as our anchors.

This past April 15th, on what would normally have been tax day, was our one-year anniversary. And in 14 or 15 months—even during a pandemic—we’ve been really successful. But I’ll say that the last really good day of my life was March 11th. We were all out to dinner in the fanciest restaurant in Colonial Williamsburg, celebrating my little one’s 17th birthday. On March 13th, my husband and I were supposed to be up in New York City, where we still have a place. My son was going to meet us up there from South Carolina. He was job hunting for the summer.

It’s surreal that on that Friday the 13th, life just stopped. Governor Ralph Northam down here in Virginia put out the stay-at-home order. We were really unclear whether we were going to be able to be open, to operate. But we were deemed an essential business. Of course, cookies are essential.

Gina Celli. Photo: Courtesy Celli’s Chocolate Chips.

We just fell back on something we were very comfortable with, which was shipping. We made everything contactless. People would order over the phone, we’d take the credit card info, and we had a table set up in our lobby where people would pick their cookies up. For the first week or two—it’s kind of blurry because it really sucked—we did free delivery within a certain radius.

Our business is down probably 40 percent. We’re seeing a bit of a pickup now because we’re in Phase 3 here in Virginia. But I’m still not doing walk-ins because our space is kind of small, and I can’t be bothered with the socially distant thing. We’ve trained everybody. Just call, pay for it, and it will be out there fresh and ready for you. We are also being carried on Goldbelly, which has been a significant boost for our business. That has been a blessing for us.

But we’re growing. We have to pinch ourselves sometimes to see how far we’ve come in just a little over a year. We’re in a low-rent district. We really are. We’re in an industrial part of town, so people have to want to find us, and they have. We’ve gotten all sorts of accolades, and that’s really cool. And we do no advertising, by the way. It’s all word of mouth.

We had been thinking about moving to a new space before the pandemic. We didn’t know if we could afford it. When we saw that business was steady enough, and we weren’t dead in the water during the pandemic, that gave us the courage to move forward. We negotiated a pretty good rent. I think where we’re going, it’s the visibility. If we’re doing a banging business with no visibility at all now, then getting visible is going to be really clutch.

In our original space we designed it as a little cafe where you could sit down and have coffee and cookies. It never took off. And we have a non-compete with Starbucks in the new space, so that’s not a thing for us anymore. It’s going to be strictly walk in, buy your cookies, and that’s it.