Laurie Hemsley isn’t afraid to admit that she was skeptical when she first heard about her son’s ambitious business plan heading into his senior year at Utah State University. And she wasn’t exactly alone.
“I remember it very vividly,” Hemsley says of the moment in 2017 when her son, Sawyer, first revealed that he and his cousin, Jason McGowan, were about to act upon the entrepreneurial idea they had been mulling over for a while.
“We were sitting around the table having Sunday dinner when he just said, ‘We’re going to open a cookie shop.’ And everyone reacted with, ‘That’s the dumbest thing. It will never go. Blah, blah, blah.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah. Well, I’m going to do it.’
“… But that’s how Sawyer and Jason are,” Hemsley notes. “They’re both really driven people, and they don’t let people tell them they can’t do something. I almost think that it brings out the opposite. ‘You’re going to tell me I can’t do that? Well, you watch.’”
Less than five years later, the original “cookie shop” Hemsley and McGowan opened is no longer around. The old wooden structure at the south end of Logan was torn down a few years ago to make way for a new business development.
But that hardly means that those doubters were proven correct. Rather, there are now two of those cookie stores in Logan — one at each end of town — along with 26 other locations in the state of Utah alone.
Known as Crumbl, the company has thrived and franchised, with people from coast to coast now familiar with not only its tantalizing chocolate chip cookies, but a revolving selection of other unique cookies served up in distinctive pink boxes.
As of January 2022, there are 344 Crumbl stores in 42 different states, and around a dozen of them are owned by Laurie Hemsley, her husband, Lance, and/or Sawyer’s three siblings. Needless to say, Sawyer Hemsley’s family and friends — several of his old college roommates from USU also own franchises — came around to embrace the idea of “a tech-driven bakery.”
“We quickly found out that if we were going to do this, we were going to have to go big,” Sawyer Hemsley proclaims. “We have the passion for cookies, as well as for the concept and the brand. And we did have our trials in the very beginning, and a lot of people didn’t believe that this would even work.
“But,” he adds with a big smile, “we didn’t care.”
YOU WIN SOME, YOU LOSE SOME
Growing up in Southeastern Idaho, Sawyer Hemsley served as the student body president at Preston High School. He got involved in student politics again at Utah State after serving a mission in Mexico for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but following a stint as student events vice president, Hemsley took an even bigger swing and ran for student body president in the spring of 2017.
But in retrospect, losing was probably the best thing that could have happened to Hemsley.
While attending the Stadium of Fire fireworks show in Provo the previous summer, he had shared a business idea with McGowan, who is married to his mother’s niece, Whitney. McGowan has a strong entrepreneurial spirit in him, along with a talent for technology that had already led to the creation of some highly successful apps and a great job with Ancestry.com in Lehi.
A native of Alberta, Canada, who moved to the U.S. after serving a mission in Las Vegas, McGowan was intrigued by the idea of opening a cookie shop in Logan where the products could be purchased via an app and then delivered to the customer’s front door. But he also wanted to make certain the opportunity was right.
Hemsley, who now had some extra time after losing the election at USU, was able to secure an advantageous month-to-month lease on an older building in Logan that was slated to be torn down in the not-too-distant future. So, all they needed was a recipe for what they anticipated as being “the best chocolate chip cookie in the world” and the equipment to bake them in.
“We didn’t have the concept fully baked out,” McGowan says without acknowledging the obvious pun. “We didn’t have the recipe. And we didn’t have any of the stuff. We just knew that there was a need, and we both had a passion to do something great and build something awesome.”
In an effort to come up with recipe of the company’s signature cookie, McGowan and Hemsley started gathering the chocolate chip cookie recipes of friends and family members, while borrowing additional ideas from the internet. Utilizing the oven in the Hemsley home in Preston, the duo cranked out numerous batches of cookies, then did taste tests with friends, relatives, and outside some local stores.
Eventually they discovered that 70% of folks sided with Hemsley that milk chocolate chips were the way to go (McGowan is a semi-sweet fan), and that conventional home ovens weren’t really ideal for baking the large, 6-ounce cookies that they wanted to sell. So, in a huge leap of faith, Hemsley and McGowan purchased some commercial-size ovens and other equipment even before they had their business plan solidified, and soon they were selling cookies.
Actually, a lot of cookies. All chocolate chip and sold in batches of four at a time.
“It was crazy; they didn’t even have all the stuff you’re supposed to have to open a store,” Laurie Hemsley recalls. “But they found out what they needed and hurried and got it. It was just kind of overnight. My husband and I went down to help, and it was so busy and so much fun. We had a line out the door and the deliveries were going crazy. We had so many that we had to start calling up friends and family and asking them if they could come help deliver.”
Hemsley, who graduated from USU with a degree in communications studies and a minor in marketing, ran the first store in Logan, while McGowan took care of the technology side of the business while still living and working in Utah County. But things went so well in the first few months that Hemsley gave up an internship at a marketing agency in Arizona to help grow the company.
“We honestly didn’t think it would be a career for any of us,” Hemsley admits. “We just thought it was a fun side hustle that I would do in college. But the buzz was there. And with all of the excitement it created in the Cache Valley community, we saw a lot of hope in this business.”
McGowan says a major milestone for him was when he was home one day in Provo and found himself thinking, I really need a chocolate chip cookie.
“I was craving my own product, so I drove two hours up there to go and get one of my own chocolate chip cookies,” McGowan notes. “That’s when I knew for sure this had legs because if I was craving one after having had them a million times, I knew there must be something special there.”
IN THE PINK
It needs to be noted that the co-founders of the burgeoning cookie empire known as Crumbl do know how to spell. They didn’t run out space on their company’s original sign, and while Jason McGowan is from north of the border, Crumbl is not some Canadian way to spell “crumble.”
“When I was trying to come up with a name, I was thinking of the action you take when you eat a cookie and what takes place,” Hemsley explains. “And I said to myself, When you eat a really delicious and yummy cookie, you’re going to want to eat every last crumb. So, I started to play around with the word crumble.
“We dropped the ‘e’ because we felt like it was more brandable, a little more sexy, if you will,” he adds. “It’s a little more edgy. And C-R-U-M-B-L looks better on the box.”
Oh, yes. The box.
While Crumbl’s distinctive pink came courtesy of a 1959 Cadillac owned by a Hemsley family friend in Preston (a vehicle now owned by Sawyer Hemsley that is used in parades and at promotional activities), “99%” of the instantly recognizable long, pink box that holds four chocolate chip cookies came courtesy of a small group of USU marketing students who won a case competition hosted by a professor.
“One of the core things that we’re about at Crumbl is the experience,” McGowan says. “It’s how things look and how it smells when you come to the store. And how you can see people cracking the eggs. That’s the experience. So, we thought we needed to come with a box that’s unique and special and different.”
Crumbl now sells single cookies, as well as the traditional four-pack and a box of a dozen. In addition, Crumbl also makes ice cream and has developed its very own chocolate chips, which Hemsley and McGowan anticipate will be available in retail stores someday.
And in December 2018, the company dramatically changed its menu selection. While its signature chocolate chip cookies are always available, Crumbl now unveils a new lineup of four or five unique cookies each week that are created in the test kitchen of the company’s headquarters in Orem.
“Our mission is to bring friends and families together over the best box of cookies in the world, and we take that so seriously. Like no one will ever beat us at having a better cookie,” McGowan says. “We’re just so adamant about that.”
THE TASTE OF SUCCESS
Jason McGowan is the proud father of seven children under the age of 11.
“We go big. Whether it’s Crumbl or my family, we go all out,” he declares.
That’s likely why after opening a second Crumbl location in Orem, McGowan and Hemsley decided to start franchising within their company’s first year. Hemsley convinced his parents to open the next store in Bountiful, and since then, it’s been a “whirlwind,” with new Crumbl locations opening practically every week.
“It’s really hard and tiring, especially the first month. I would have to say that it almost kills you,” Laurie Hemsley says with a chuckle. “It is hard, but it gets easier the more you get people trained. Things start falling into place, and it gets really good.”
Sawyer Hemsley, the company’s COO, points out that there is a distinctive and positive vibe that he and McGowan, who serves as the CEO, aspire to be found in every Crumbl store. The interiors are clean and bright, with white counters and walls accented in black and pink.
“We get to see the happiness and joy because a lot of people use Crumbl as a channel to make someone’s day brighter,” McGowan says. “And when people come in, they’re usually not coming in here hangry. They’ve probably already eaten, and they’re coming in for a treat. The whole culture and atmosphere in the store is of brightness.”
“Just to reiterate,” Hemsley declares in mid-interview. “What I want you to understand is, we’re not a bakery. We’re a tech-driven bakery. We can adapt and innovate and do what it takes in order to be successful.”
Crumbl proved that in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when the company organized a “war room” to help figure out how to navigate a unique time in history. It helped that the company already delivered its delicious “comfort food,” but by creating a new app in just two weeks, it also made it easier for patrons to pay for the cookies and then pick them up curbside.
“Our sales just skyrocketed after we launched it,” McGowan says. “It was amazing. It was a watershed moment for the company.”
For Utah State Aggies, another watershed moment came in October 2021 when Crumbl released the Aggie Blue Mint cookie. Based on the beloved Aggie Blue Mint ice cream available at the Aggie Creamery, Hemsley says it took a year to develop the chilled cookies and cream cookie topped off with minty buttercream. While Hemsley was “super adamant” about the creation of the Aggie Blue Mint cookie, McGowan admits to being a little nervous about selling it around the country. However, it sold well outside of Utah while more than doubling sales in Cache Valley, leading to the Aggie Blue Mint cookie still being sold in Logan on the weekends.
“We were going to run it under a different name because we didn’t think that Utah State would allow us to use Aggie Blue Mint, but we were able to get permission, and that was like the happiest day for me because I knew we would be able to show that Aggie pride and connect with Aggies in all of these different states,” Hemsley says with a grin. “Utah State is a huge part of our story because Aggies supported us and helped give us our start, and I never want that to be lost. And Aggie Blue Mint was developed so we could share that story with the nation.”
By Jeff Hunter ’96
Photos by Levi Sim.