Heather Yunger’s love for Boston started at an early age. She was born in New Hampshire and her father grew up in South Boston, where she continues to have strong family roots. “I have 20 first cousins and they all live down and around here,” she said. “When I was three and I first saw the city, I told my dad I was going to move there when I was a grownup.”
Like her connection to Boston, Heather’s passion for baking stemmed from her childhood experiences. Growing up in a single parent household, Heather developed a weekly ritual of baking cookies with her grandmother, Hazel, when she would stay with her over the weekends. As an adult, baking became an avenue to get through a difficult time. “I was out of work for a little while and I was really just baking to keep myself busy. Then it just became fun. I realized as I was tooling with these recipes how much I was enjoying it.”
Making Cookies a Job?
Heather’s passion for baking and Boston converged during the 2011 hockey season, when she started bringing “Black & Gold” cookies made of dark chocolate and peanut butter chips to her local bar in support of the Boston Bruins. This game day superstition resulted in a Stanley Cup win for the Bruins and an avid fan base for Heather’s cookies. “I was working corporate customer service and knew that there was no future for me at the company that I was at, so I started to think about what life would look like if I made cookies as a job.” Her fellow bar patrons encouraged her, particularly Jennifer Glanville, Brewer and Director of Partnerships for Samuel Adams. “She wouldn’t leave me alone about it,” Heather joked. Jennifer told Heather about the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream Program, a partnership with Accion that supports small food and beverage businesses with access to capital, coaching and networks. “When you think about starting a business and going off on your own, it’s so daunting. I was like, ‘Well, if somebody’s out there that will help me, I’m sure there’s other people that will help me.’ That really helped me make the leap.”
Heather started out doing business planning and research on top of her full-time job before quitting to begin working part-time at a bakery. “That was supposed to be my, ‘This is crazy. Don’t do this’ experience,” Heather explained. But rather than grow discouraged, Heather’s drive to start her own baking business only grew. “I couldn’t sleep at night because all I could think about was, what would I do differently? How would I be successful where this baker was failing?” she recalled. Heather officially launched Top Shelf Cookies in 2014, starting to fulfill special orders and cater small events. Over time, the business expanded to farmers markets, specialty grocery stores and an e-commerce store, including an “insanely popular” Cookie of the Month club. Most recently, the business has expanded into pre-portioned frozen dough available wholesale. “The industry term for pre-portioned frozen dough is pucks, so it’s pretty funny that we’re selling cookie pucks to local colleges considering our hockey roots.”
Making the leap to start her own business was not without financial challenges. “I started with $2,500. I think the fact that we’re still standing here five years later is slightly a miracle.” Heather started production out of a kitchen incubator, Commonwealth Kitchen, which enabled her to rent out production space by the hour. “If I didn’t get enough orders, I wasn’t going to be out a huge amount of rent.” A loan from Accion helped Heather with startup costs to fund a pop-up shop at Boston Public Market and build her audience. “It’s very, very difficult to get a loan in our kind of business – it’s high risk. And it helped me to build my credit,” Heather explained. Subsequent loans have helped Heather smooth out the business’ uneven cash flow. “Working capital is a huge stress for us because of the way we operate. We’re primarily a pop-up shop, so we only get paid when we’re popping up.”
A Trusted Partner
Equally helpful to the financial support have been the coaching and resources available through the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream Program. Volunteers from Samuel Adams have advised Heather on numerous aspects of her business, including social media, marketing, and public relations. Most recently, as Heather has worked to expand into a storefront at a local food hall, the Samuel Adams team reviewed her slide deck to “audition” for available space. “My coworker is a 15-year-old dog. A lot of times I don’t have anybody to give me a second set of eyes. With Brewing the American Dream, it’s nice to know that I have that if I need it.” Heather also credits Samuel Adams for building her confidence to experiment and create new recipes. “Three weeks after we launched, we got a call from Sam Adams to do a pumpkin beer chocolate chip cookie. I was able to make it up on the fly and I realized that I can do that. And that’s made us pretty serviceable to a lot of people.” In addition to limited seasonal offerings and cookies for special events, Top Shelf Cookies offers six year-round flavors, including their popular Boston Lager Chocolate Chip cookie.
As Heather’s business continues to grow, so too does her connection to her community. The flavors and stories behind her cookie recipes each tell a different story of Boston, from its sports teams to the Boston Marathon, to the Great Molasses Flood of 2019. Heather takes pride in supporting her fellow kitchen incubator members with advice on managing their financials and navigating new business opportunities, just like others helped her when she started out. “I’m glad to do that because we live in a pay-it-forward community over there.”
Top Shelf Cookies has grown an avid fan base due to the quality of their products, and Heather looks forward to having a home base to deepen their connection to their customers. “People who have never tried our cookies and google ‘best cookies in Boston’ are showing up at a giant food production facility and hoping it’s a storefront,” she explained. In addition to offering more consistent revenue, Heather noted that a storefront would enable the business to experiment with more flavors and offer new products, like ice cream sandwiches. Regardless of what the future holds for her business, Heather knows one thing for sure. “I love my job!”
Photo credit: Lucas Mulder