“What have I done?” Martha Rossini Olson asked herself out loud as she hung up the phone with the Minnesota State Fair. In addition to her career as an elementary school art teacher, Martha owned a frozen yogurt franchise with her husband, Gary, and had dreamt of having a booth at the fair. She had applied to sell frozen yogurt there for many years, but her application was always rejected. This time it was approved. But there was a condition—Martha was invited to sell chocolate chip cookies, not frozen yogurt.
She couldn’t say no to one of the largest fairs in the country. So, Martha enthusiastically agreed to sell cookies. Then panic set in. She didn’t have her own chocolate chip cookie recipe—they served ready-made cookie crumbles at the yogurt shop. She quickly shifted into problem-solving mode. She sought advice from vendors she and Gary worked with at the shop. Then she got to work collecting, testing and tweaking recipes until she created the perfect chewy-gooey cookie.
Next, Martha put her husband and their close friend Neil O’Leary to work building a cookie stand and scouting equipment to rent. There was staffing to consider throughout the fair’s 12-day run. Both the Olsons and the O’Learys recruited friends and family members to work the booth, filling dozens of shifts to make, bake and serve cookies.
As Martha prepared for the fair, her excitement grew. She’d grown up a few miles from the fairgrounds and her family made a tradition of going together every year. They often went more than once. She looked forward to it all—the attractions, the midway, the people-watching, the food. Though she and Gary hadn’t started a family of their own just yet, she imagined what it might be like to share the fair with their kids one day. While she loved teaching, and the yogurt franchise had been successful, she was energized by the idea of building something special for her family.
When the fair started—just three weeks after getting word her vendor application was approved—Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar was fully operational. Martha’s treats were being gobbled up by thousands of fairgoers and they kept coming back for more. When the Olsons and O’Learys fully realized they had a lucrative seasonal business on their hands, they officially became partners. And the day after the fair ended, they all returned to their regular jobs.
But the experience lit a fire in Martha. She couldn’t stop thinking about how to make the business better. Over the years, they fine-tuned the recipe, streamlined their processes, added take-home buckets, built three permanent structures on the fairgrounds, and made it a goal to attract employees who shared their values—a commitment to community, quality and hard work. And the original partners all believe in walking the walk. After more than three decades in business together, they continue to roll up their sleeves and work alongside their staff every day of the fair.
This past year, Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar generated more than $4 million in sales and earned the title of most popular food attraction at the Minnesota State Fair. Hot, fresh chocolate chip cookies baked on the spot are available at the fair and Sweet Martha’s frozen cookie dough is available in a variety of flavors all year long at grocery stores nationwide.
What about that vision Martha had early on for creating a legacy for her family? The next generation of leaders—including the Olsons’ and O’Learys’ adult children—are just as passionate about the business. The company’s succession plan includes transitioning them into key roles over the next few years. Until then, Martha continues to look forward to her end-of-summer tradition at the Minnesota State Fair.
To learn more about Martha’s business, visit SweetMarthas.com.
Photo: Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar
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