Chris Wyland was in the midst of growing the franchise base of Roll-Em-Up Taquitos—a chain that signed development deals for 420 stores in six months—when he first learned of fellow Southern California-based brand, Cookie Plug.
Erik Martinez, the company’s founder, connected through Instagram after having visited Roll-Em-Up several times. He kept up with the press releases and growth targets and was interested in Wyland doing the same for his emerging dessert company.
When Wyland did his due diligence, he discovered a brand that combines urban culture with a variety of cookie flavors. Graffiti covers the walls and hip-hop music plays over speakers—even unedited versions. More than a dozen cookies on the menu invoke the same ethos, like the Snooperdoodle, Mac Daddy, and Nutty O.G. Wyland visited a few locations and fell in love with the vibe. He helped Martinez initiate the process of creating an FDD and began working on everything required for a successful launch, like infrastructure, training, and real estate. The program was officially announced earlier this year.
The growth targets are massive. Cookie Plug, with 23 corporate stores and two franchises open as of early November, wants to have at least 300 locations by the end of 2026 and at least 1,000 units under development. Currently, there’s roughly 150 stores in the pipeline.
“I think we’re well on our way to that, but obviously you have to build the infrastructure and make sure you have the right personnel and teams in place in order to do it,” Wyland says. “That’s what we’re busy doing.”
Founders: Erik Martinez
Headquarters: Riverside, CA
Year Started: 2019
Annual Sales: NA
Total Units: 25
Franchised Units: 2 open/125 signed under development agreement
Martinez’s Cookie Plug journey originated from operating Cakewalk Cake and Candy Supplies, a cake decorating concept. The business’ success led him to London, where he found international chain Ben’s Cookies. The visit inspired Martinez to launch a cookie brand of his own in the U.S., infused with the culture he grew up in—West Coast 90s hip hop. The first Cookie Plug opened in May 2019 inside one of Martinez’s cake stores. It was only 60 square feet with a counter and enough room for one person to walk inside. The unit opened the day before Mother’s Day and only earned about $150. On Mother’s Day, even fewer cookies were sold. He kept at it, but in the following months, the highest days were just $600–$700.
But then in his hometown of Redlands, California, he came across a 700-square-foot spot that he was able to grab for $1,300 per month in rent. Martinez started posting about the second location, and Cookie Plug caught fire overnight. He added another store before COVID hit in March 2020, and instead of reeling back, he doubled down. Twenty units opened between 2020 and 2021.
“I mean honestly, all the other brands are boring,” Martinez says. “I mean when you walk into Mrs. Fields, they got a red wall with white writing. You walk into some of our other competitors, they got a pink wall with black writing, right? Like ain’t nothing cool about any of them. That’s probably where the term cookie cutter came from. No one’s ever done a cookie concept like we have.”
“The brand has become so polarizing because some people are offended by it. Just the name,” he adds. “Most people associate the plug with the plugs of drug dealers, like not really. plug is someone that you go to to get something that you want. It also made it current. It resonates with the younger generation.”
Wyland was named CEO, and Spencer Sabatasso, with past executive stops at Fatburger, Sweetwater Prime Seafood, Baja Sharkeez, and consulting firm Fransmart, joined as vice president of franchise development.
Cookie Plug transitioned quite easily into franchising, Wyland says. Not only because of its unique product, but also streamlined operations. Each location averages 800 square feet, and equipment packages are inexpensive; stores use ventless convection ovens and most don’t need a grease trap. Dough is copacked offsite so employees aren’t baking completely from scratch inside the shops. Cookie Plug can open with one employee, and that person can run the whole store until the afternoon shift, which only needs two workers. For evening times on a Friday or Saturday, three may be needed. With all that taken care of, Wyland just needed to focus on standardizing decor and ensuring each shop featured the same layout. Initial costs to open a store are roughly $100,000, and labor expenses run about 16 percent, translating to better margins for franchisees.
In November, there were two franchise locations in Henderson and Las Vegas, Nevada, which both opened to about 300 people in line. Wyland says the plan is to open one store per week throughout 2023. Notable markets include El Paso, Texas; Eugene and Corvallis, Oregon; Moreno Valley, California; Fort Hood, Texas; Denver; and Dallas. There are core markets Cookie Plug wants to target, but Wyland feels the brand can work anywhere, even with the hip hop and graffiti. That includes suburbia.
“I had a Super Bowl party last year and I live in Huntington Beach, pretty conservative area, and there were 40 women dancing to Dr. Dre and Snoop in my living room during the Super Bowl show,” Wyland says. “So I feel like we can go into the suburbs as much as we can be urban for sure.”
The cookie segment saw a flurry of action in 2022. Crumbl Cookies surpassed 500 locations in its fifth year of business, and filed lawsuits against smaller concepts Crave and Dirty Dough over similar branding and packaging. Then there’s Chip City Cookies, a New York-based chain that received a $10 million investment from Danny Meyer’s growth fund, Enlightened Hospitality Investments.
Wyland refers to it as the dawn of the cookie wars. However, he doesn’t think anyone will ever look at Cookie Plug and mistake it for another brand. That, combined with an efficient P&L—is how the company intends to win market share.
“Our cookie is a cookie you can eat every day,” Wyland says. “I think that some of the cookies that are out there are great for little kids’ birthday parties and things like that, where ours is an actual cookie that you’re going to eat every day. I think that when it’s all said and done, that’s what stands out the most.
“… I feel unfortunately we’re in a country where I think half the people are going to love our brand and half the people may not love it, but that’s OK,” Wyland says. “We’re going to lean into the brand and if half the people love us, we’re going to do really well and the other half of the people that don’t love us, as soon as they try the cookie, they will.”