How Selling Cookies Online Was a Recipe For Success For This Healthy Baker
Stephen Lincoln believes that everyone deserves a cookie, albeit one that is a little healthier than the beloved chocolate chip version devoured in mom’s kitchen.
And that’s become his professional mission: healthier pastries packed with protein. Through his artisanal bakery, aptly named The Protein Bakery, Lincoln has created a line of baked goods that definitely tick the “healthy” box without sacrificing taste.
Lincoln came up with the idea following a major weight loss and move from California to New York, where he worked as a fitness instructor and actor.
“So, when I got to New York and I was teaching 28 classes a week of fitness, I was standing in a coffee shop and saw all of these carbohydrate-heavy pastries and I said why can’t we just make it healthier?” says Lincoln, who says he has always had a sweet tooth.
At the time, healthy snack options included protein-heavy energy bars that were so full of preservatives that they could last on shelves for a year. Realizing that there was nothing else like it on the market, he started The Protein Bakery in 1999 as one of the first online bakeries in the U.S.
One Smart Cookie: Making Healthy Sweets That Taste Great
At the time, ecommerce platforms were relatively unknown, so clients would email or call Lincoln with their order, credit card info, and address. Then Lincoln would manually charge them, handwrite an address label, and ship out the product, which would need to arrive in two days to ensure peak freshness.
The Protein Bakery offers products including cookies, blondies, brownies, and even birthday cakes for order, with all recipes being trans-fat free, preservative-free, wheat flour-free, fiber-rich, and gluten-free (though the baked goods are made in a facility with other food products, so they are not certified gluten-free).
While a healthy angle is key to the business, Lincoln prioritizes taste above everything. And that’s how he’s successfully differentiated his business.
“Even back in those early 2000s, there were a lot of gluten-free products."
Everything tasted like the box it came in.
"That was one of the biggest statements I wanted from day one. I wanted the cookie to taste like the cookie that came off of a Martha Stewart Baking segment and also to be nutritious with ingredients that your trainer would suggest to you to have in your body,” he says. “I always wanted it to look like something that belonged on Oprah’s favorite things.”
To make a product that adhered to this list of healthy principles and tasted so good it did, in fact, make it onto the list of Oprah’s Favorite Things, Lincoln invested in recipe testing. It’s a process that he says never stops, consistently testing seasonal products and classics to ensure consistency.
In the beginning, he turned to the fitness community in New York to get their opinions on his products.
“I would take what we were baking to my fitness classes and give it out for free asking for feedback without saying it was better for you, or healthier, or any of that. People kept saying ‘oh, it’s good, what’s so special about it?’ and I kept saying tell me what you think about the taste. It is so important to any bakery,” says Lincoln.
In addition to testing his products on his students, Lincoln also gifted talent agents a box of The Protein Bakery following auditions as a thank you. Shortly after, he began to see orders come in over the phone. “That kind of foundation bled out into the public rather quickly,” he says.
URL to IRL: Opening The Protein Bakery’s First Store
To meet growing demand, Lincoln found office space on the third floor of a building on West 20th Street in New York. There, Lincoln and his team were able to process orders and run the majority of the business from the space.
A decade later, orders were growing and the business expanded to take over another floor of the building, which was used to shoot video content and host meetings.
The Protein Bakery existed as an online bakery up until a year-and-a-half ago when a serendipitous brunch meeting landed Lincoln his first brick-and-mortar retail space. Some negotiations with the landlord ensued, and he was able to get out of the office and open his retail space at 144 West 19th St. in New York City.
“I opened my doors here and have never looked back," says Lincoln.
I really love that people can experience everything that I have built online.
How Strategic Self-Promotion Turned Into Sales
Taste-testing his cookies, brownies, and blondies in the fitness and acting communities created word-of-mouth promotion that quickly turned into more sales. Realizing that the best way to promote his products was to have others speak for him, he began sending his baked goods to big names that he admired such as Oprah, Rosie O'Donnell and Bobby Deen, in hopes that they would feature Protein Bakery. All three would eventually feature his products on their television or radio shows.
Once the word was out, more opportunities from highly rated morning shows and mainstream publications like People magazine came through. But making it onto Oprah did take some persistence.
“I sent product whenever I could. They saw me on Rosie or they saw me on Oprah and then it trickled out from there. I was actually at Billy’s Bakery and Adam Glasman, who is now the head of O, The Oprah Magazine, looked at me and said ‘Aren’t you that Protein Bakery guy I saw somewhere?’ And I said, ‘yep, that’s me.’ He said to keep sending us the product at Oprah, it will happen. It was very personal. It was awesome,” he said. “So, I kept sending product and I am very grateful for him. I send him product when I can because you can send products all over the world and all you are left with is the postage bill with no profits. So, I try and point it in the right direction,” says Lincoln.
Securing press coverage in key titles such as USA Today, Men’s Health, and Elle all on his own, Lincoln now works with a PR specialist to manage his press inbox, though he still handles press outreach on his own. When pitching press, he advises entrepreneurs to “keep it true to your brand, keep it on message for what you are doing and have a sense of humor with it.”
Mastering Influencer Management
If Oprah, Rosie, and Bobby were the original influencers, the social media stars of today are the new breed of promoters. While Lincoln has a natural instinct when it comes to press, the social media influencer game is new to him. That’s why he’s enlisted the help of a trusted friend who knows digital marketing and understands Lincoln’s style when it comes to outreach.
“While I was first to the market to sell baked goods on a website, I am last to the market [when it comes to] sending ... my product to an influencer. That’s why I am working with someone else now who can help me wrap my head around what is a good match and what is not,” he says.
Staying true to his brand, his social media presence consists of Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Instagram, with the latter being the highest-performing platform for him when it comes to engagement. The Protein Bakery’s social media is a reflection of the overall store and of Lincoln’s day-to-day life, with images of the products and fans of the protein treats.
Listening to your Clientele and Adapting to Trends
Social media connects Lincoln to his customers, plugging him into the food trends of today — whether it’s keto, South Beach, or the sugar-free diet. In the company’s nearly 20 years of operation, dozens of diet fads have come and gone. Lincoln keeps track of these food trends, adapting his business when he sees fit.
“We cannot be all things for all people. I also know if you put the word ‘protein’ in front of the word ‘bakery’ and you open a storefront in a Type A city like New York City, everyone’s food issue is walking in the door with them,” he says.
While he has introduced new lines of products over the years that are in line with various food trends, he doesn’t make a cookie for every new diet fad that comes out each year. One such line is a new peanut-based vegan offering which uses peanut flour and peanut protein. But he won’t be conforming to the extreme diets that seem to be popular today.
“People right now are being drilled that sugar is the new heroin. If you touch sugar, you’re going to become a drug addict and I keep saying it’s ok to have a cookie,” he says. “You have to listen to your customers, but you also have to realize what you are to your clientele. This has kind of been a struggle for me because my motto has always been ‘everyone deserves a cookie.’ So, if everyone deserves a cookie, then how can I not be everything to everyone?”
Lincoln’s advice to entrepreneurs is that, yes, it is important to listen to your customers — but you don’t need to necessarily follow everything they say.
“Stay true to your brand. We do that a lot here. What is best for the bakery? Is it best for the bakery that we develop a keto-friendly cookie that goes moldy in two days? No.”
Building a Wholesale Business
Wholeselling is the cornerstone of The Protein Bakery, accounting for half of Lincoln’s business. His products can be found at high-end gym cafes, grab-and-go stores in airports, and as the dessert option in salad shops. But being a niche product that’s preservative-free in a market full of health-focused baked goods proves challenging for his wholesale business.
“People walk in and say [to business owners], I see you have Protein Bakery. My product is half the price and it lasts a year on the shelf. And then it’s not the same product, but the store owner seems to be making more money or they just don’t have to worry about it because it lasts for so long. The fact of the matter is that any small business owner should realize that your customer is the priority, not saving 37 cents on a genetically modified food good.”
While copycat brands do pose a threat to Lincoln’s business, he finds it flattering. He also holds on tight to his brand values and takes comfort in the fact that no other brand is doing things quite the way he does.
“I still say, you can copy me all that you want. No one is taking the time to still make by hand protein-enhanced baked goods that only last two weeks as is or three months in a freezer. No one is doing it. They are all using chemicals or things that prolong the shelf life.”
Lucky for Lincoln, many business owners do value handmade, artisan products. To streamline his wholesale process, he has a portal on his website dedicated to his wholesale business where clients can easily place orders. It’s a feature he would recommend to any business owner.
“We have a really easy wholesale portal on our website, so instead of getting phone calls or making calls to retailers that carry the product, they are just going online and ordering it. I don’t even see their credit card, which I really love a lot.”
Find Work-Life Balance
Next year, Lincoln will celebrate The Protein Bakery's 20th birthday. He still teaches fitness classes (five per week) and works out regularly while keeping up with the bakery. To enforce personal time, he flies back to California to visit family and gets out of New York at least once a quarter.
On a day-to-day basis, he keeps a clear head by meditating.
“I meditate every morning for 20 minutes. I have a meditation room in my apartment that is dedicated to just meditating,” he says. “Silencing my mind for 15 to 20 minutes helps the structure of my day, coming from my best self and not my reactionary self.”
Lincoln’s secrets to building a successful business are fairly simple Stay true to your brand; know what your business is to its customers; invest in quality and continue to test your products; and perhaps add in a little meditation daily for mindfulness.
It’s a recipe that has served him well with Oprah as a fan, a thriving retail and wholesale business, and nearly two decades in the competitive health foods space.