Travis Howe of Fat T's Cookies
Travis Howe was once on a mission to make enough extra cash to afford his gym membership. Now he's the one-man-show behind Fat T’s Cookies, and he wouldn’t want it any other way. His mission is to provide unique cookies to his customers that’ll bring smiles to their faces. Read about how Travis turned this small idea into the business it is now in this week's Small Business Sunday feature.
Haley Mills: Can you tell me a little bit about what you were doing before you started Fat T’s Cookies?
Travis Howe: I was in grad school at Illinois State University and then I worked in their athletics department a year following. I graduated untraditionally, I graduated while studying abroad in Russia which is not the norm for graduate students, so it kind of delayed my career path a little bit. That's why I decided to stay at Illinois State for that extra year. I moved back in pursuit of my dream job and about two months in, nothing was working out, so I needed to find a way to pay for a gym membership. I tried a few things out and ended up randomly making cookies for the first time in my life and, in June of 2017, decided that would be my way to make money.
HM: How did you get started after that first time making cookies?
TH: The first time I made them, I was like, ‘ok, this is how I’m going to get my money.’ I baked for two weeks or so, sold them, made my money and then I stopped baking for two or three weeks because I had accomplished what I set out to accomplish with it. Then I started getting phone calls and emails about going to other markets or about people wanting to order cookies from me and I was like, ‘ok - I’ll do this until I find that fulltime job.’ The job search continued and about two months after teaching myself how to bake, so the beginning of August 2017, I was contacted by Cleveland Magazine, and they informed me that I was named the Top Cookie in Northeast Ohio in their editor poll. They gave me an ultimatum: if you want to be in the magazine, you need to become an official business. So, I decided to throw my three college degrees to the side for at least a year, that was the plan, and pursue this because it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I thought I might as well do this because it’s never going to come up again.
HM: Once you started the business, how did you continue to grow?
TH: Early on it was a lot of connections I made within the small business owner community from doing other events. Meeting these people, asking them for advice and events that they would go to and stuff like that. That's how I got my initial growth. I didn’t start my business officially until October of 2017, so I still kind of am a nobody, but I wasn’t on anyone's radar. A lot of it was just some young kid asking for advice on something he's not really familiar with. It was a lot of trusting other people at first and getting their idea of what is a good way to go about this and what’s a bad way. Another big part of my early success, when I was in that in-between phase of finding out about the Cleveland Magazine Award and starting my business, the Northside Marketplace in Akron approached me to be a part of their retail incubator. That was kind of my first official credential to be more than just some guy baking cookies out of his house. It became a lot more legitimate at that point.
HM: Where do you sell the majority of your cookies now?
TH: A lot of it, during the summertime, is at markets throughout the entire state this year. I’ve been in Cincinnati, Columbus, Youngstown, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and then online has picked up a lot. I do have a national and slight international presence. That's kind of cool, thinking about that.
HM: What would you say has been your biggest success in the past year?
TH: That's tough for me because I think a lot of people would consider my biggest successes the awards that I win, which I don’t really consider those successes because I think I still have a long way to go before I reach where I want to be. With one of my cookies, I support a local camp down here in Akron, and it’s called the Akron Rotary Camp. It’s a camp for children and adults with special needs. Half of the proceeds from one of my cookies goes to that camp. Last year while my summer seasonal, S’mummer Camp, was on sale, we raised a little over $1,800 within 3 months for the camp, so we sent a little over 20 kids to camp this summer. I’m hoping to exceed that goal this year.
HM: That is amazing!
TH: That is my personal favorite achievement that I've had so far. Some others are kind of empowering, I’ve talked to a few high school classes. Just putting smiles on people's faces is kind of a big fulfillment.
HM: I love finding a business that also gives back to the community directly.
TH: I’m kind of teetering back and forth on what my end game is. I’m leading towards the path of being a nonprofit eventually. That aligns with my personal beliefs a little bit more so than the traditional for-profit business.
HM: What is your favorite cookie that you make?
TH: My favorite is the S’mummer Camp cookie, it’s my summer seasonal. It’s probably a bit biased because it donates back to a place that's near and dear to my heart. My number two is probably Moose House, it’s a play on moose tracks ice cream and it's named after my college house, so another biased one I guess. I have one called Cereal Killer, it was my March seasonal, and it will come back again next March; it’s like a cereal & milk-based cookie with fruity pebbles with a cereal milk buttercream frosting. It’s something that is not traditional and that's along the lines of what I want to continue to do.
HM: How do you come up with the different cookie ideas?
TH: I think, ‘what would fat little 6-year old Travis really think is cool?’ I obviously have some of the classics but, you have to come up with something that is going to be remembered. I could probably make a lot more money, making plain jane cookies because people know what it's going to be, but I like pushing the boundaries a little bit. I also like taking something that is classic and taking it up to the next notch for it.
HM: Is there anything else that you’d want people to know about Fat T’s?
TH: I’m not a giant team of thirty people, I think that's one giant misconception. Up until about mid-June of this year, it was just myself doing everything. I did recently hire an assistant to the regional baker, and I have some friends and family that help me out with markets and stuff like that. As far as the whole baking process goes, when people see me at markets with 250-300 pounds of cookies, they often say, ‘that must’ve taken you guys a lot of time,’ and I’m like, ‘yeah it took ME 60 hours this week in the kitchen.’ I am still a very young company and I am still trying to build my base for everything and figure out what direction I want to move in. I’m still figuring things out as people find out about me. I think people think I am a lot more established than I am.
HM: I always find it funny how people honestly think that the Bucket List makes millions of dollars and that there are 50 people running it. I got an email the other day asking to be directed to the Social Media Manager, and I was like she’s here, it’s just me! I mean, it’s really cool.
TH: I get that so much. I do all of my own accounting, I do social media. I do everything. I get phone calls and they ask to speak to the marketing guy and it's like, there's no passing the phone, “let me direct you to him real quick.”
HM: I think it speaks volumes about how well you are doing everything if people think that one person can’t do it all. I think it's very impressive.
TH: I do like having my hands in everything. I do think I’ll eventually get to the point where I have to expand. I mean hiring the baker was nerve-wracking enough for me because everything is not on me anymore. On the one hand, it's like I’m getting home at 8 pm now, but on the other hand, it's like I kind of liked knowing every cookie was my personal signature. That’s one thing that's weird about being a small business owner. Once you get to the point where you need to expand, it’s kind of like giving your child to someone. Well, I don’t have a child, but I’m imagining it's like that.
HM: What is your favorite event that you’ve been to?
TH: That's a tough one. The Summer Market in Avon Lake, just location, it’s unlike any other market I’ve done before. It’s scenic, but I have to pay attention to customers. Up until that point, that was my biggest weekend I’d ever had in my life. I was right next to Kelsey Elizabeth and it was crazy seeing people that you see running their business when you're starting off and you're like, ‘oh man, it’s crazy where they are,’ but you are slowly making your way towards it. Brewnuts is one of those big businesses I look up to. I’ve talked with Shelley (Pippin, owner of Brewnuts) a lot about it, and it's kind of wild how similar yet different both of our businesses are.
HM: It was really exciting that you got to do that collaboration with them. I bet that was really fun!
TH: That was so cool. A side story to that, I had to drop my parents off at the airport that day so I showed up an hour and a half to two hours early. I was sitting there thinking, “there's like 30 people here and no one is drinking any beer or eating any donuts,” and eventually, the bartender came over to me and was like, “all of these people are here for you and they are waiting.” That blows my mind because I don’t have a brick and mortar location, so the only time I see people waiting is at events, and it’s not very long that they are waiting. So, seeing people waiting over an hour for something I created is kind of mind-boggling to me.
HM: Do you have a favorite restaurant in Cleveland?