When Nebraska-born Zachary Schmahl first arrived in New York City 12 years ago, he found himself in search of what he calls the “old American bake shop,” characterized by authentic, warm customer service and classical recipes.
He initially moved to the Big Apple as an actor with a side passion for baking but eventually started selling cookies out of his studio apartment to avoid eating them all himself. He never expected Schmackary’s to take off as it did, but he was determined to recreate the atmosphere of the old-school bakery that he had been searching for.
“[NYC] felt like such a cold and unfriendly place, and I kept asking myself, why does it need Schmackary’s?” Schmahl says. “This city needed a heartbeat, a bake shop from our grandparents’ childhood, but revived and fresh.”
The brand is built on the concept of combining new-age comfort food with reimagined classics, boasting a rotation of over 100 flavors and a customer experience Schmahl describes as highly empathetic. Schmackary’s first location opened just four blocks from his apartment, in the heart of Broadway.
Schmahl recalls his initial marketing campaign as both grassroots and guerrilla, leveraging his Broadway connections and sending cookies to nearby theaters. He says in the first 11 years of Schmackary’s, there was no advertising budget; the buzz was generated through word of mouth.
“We became the talk of Broadway,” Schmahl says. “We became the place where Broadway actors came between shows to enjoy cookies … It became a spot where you might spot a Broadway star.”
The chain is dubbed the “Official Cookie of Broadway” and recently received a spotlight in Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” featuring actor Paul Rudd.
The intersection between theater and baking inspired Schmahl’s push to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fight AIDS. He initiated Broadway Bakes, an annual fundraiser that involves Broadway actors selling cookies. The event has occurred six times so far, raising over $78,000. More than 30 actors, including Sarah Burrell and Audra McDonald, have stepped behind the counter at Schmackary’s.
Emerging from the pandemic marked a turning point for Schmackary’s when Schmahl brought his husband Jonny Polizzi on board as COO. Polizzi, a native New Yorker, says he’s been an entrepreneur since 14. He wanted to “find the right mix and the right environment” to cultivate Schmackary’s like a growing plant.
Expanding nationwide shipping became a driving force as the brand created exposure beyond New York. Even through FedEx deliveries, the brand ensures its warm, inviting vibe is conveyed through the packaging and presentation.
After partnering with franchise development firm Fransmart in May, Schmackary’s unveiled its franchise program and plans to expand its footprint to more than 500 units throughout the U.S.
The move to franchise felt organic, with Schmahl noting he had been operating the business like a franchise model for years. Recipes are “nailed down to a science,” and the dough is mixed in a commissary, ready to be frozen and shipped.
Streamlined operations, low startup costs, available territories, and strong unit economics add to the list of potential attractions for franchisees. In 2022, total sales reached $2,073,381, an improvement of nearly $500,000 from 2021.
Schmackary’s signed its first franchise agreement in early October with husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Richipal Bindra and Harsharan Kaur in New Jersey, marking the brand’s first expansion outside its home state.
“What truly sets [Schmackary’s] apart is the personal touches it brings to every interaction. My experience so far has been delightful,” Bindra says.
Following the initial agreement was a second multi-unit deal in New York, signed by Alex Laracy, co-owner of a Shark Tank-winning business. The deal will add five locations to the New York area.
“When I first walked into Schmackary’s, I immediately felt at home, as if I were stepping into someone’s living room or kitchen,” Laracy explains. “When I got to meet Zach and Jonny and saw their passion for the brand and their product, I knew Schmackary’s was something special that I needed to be a part of.”
Schmahl is enthusiastic about working with franchisees to find locations with character and that tell a lasting story, a contrast to the sterile, trend-driven nature of cookie shops from the mid-2010s, he adds. His goal is to create a mom-and-pop atmosphere, even in franchised units.
“We’re looking for spaces where we can adapt to the existing environment and make it feel as if it has been there for a long time,” Schmahl says. “We’ll provide our franchisees with options, as we aim to craft a narrative that aligns with the space.”
He likens this approach to Starbucks, which has created distinct spaces depending on the location, but all share a recognizable design “family.”
According to Polizzi, Schmackary’s is on track to open five stores annually and is willing to expand into any market, particularly those connected to Broadway shows and local theaters. Bucket-list locations include the London theater district and Schmahl’s hometown in Nebraska.
“There are not many places where I couldn’t envision us opening because the concept of an old hometown bakery can thrive anywhere,” Schmahl says. “If your product is outstanding and you can tell a story, it’s a winning combination.”