Stephanie Sellers didn’t sugarcoat the reality of starting a business in 2020.
“It was definitely terrifying,” she said. But the pandemic also inspired people to try and brighten their loved ones’ days — and cookies were a sweet way to do that.
“[People] would drop cookies off on their friend’s doorstep if they were having a hard time with the shutdown or people would send cookies to Mom or Dad for their birthday or anniversary,” Sellers said. “So it was a way for people to connect when they couldn’t in person. We definitely found that that increased our sales quite a bit during the shutdown, which we were not expecting or prepared for but was really, really nice.”
Sellers, owner of the bakery Cookies & Dreams, said she can’t wrap her mind around how quickly the business took off and expanded. The first two stores opened in the Quad Cities, followed by a Coralville location that opened last month, and there are four more openings on the horizon in Iowa and Illinois.
Customers are able to create their own cookie box, selecting from nine different cookie flavors and a selection of new rotating flavors, such as a flavor of the month. Among the flavors are snickerdoodle cheesecake, puppy chow, caramel pretzel and the chocolate chip cookie that started it all.
“I feel so grateful and so fortunate to have so many people that love these cookies,” Sellers said, adding that she is equally grateful for the employees that make up her “Dream Team.”
“We certainly wouldn’t be where we are without such amazing people on our side. It all just feels — not to be too cliché — but like a dream.”
Sellers’ passion for baking started when she was a kid. Her babysitter, whose name is Fran but who Sellers called Mimi, taught Sellers the “fundamentals of baking.”
The hobby stuck. After graduating from college, Sellers started an entry-level banking position at Wells Fargo but got laid off about three weeks later after the housing market crashed. Sellers saw this as an opportunity to start baking full-time.
She focused on wedding cakes, birthday cakes and other desserts for about five years until she decided to sell her business. Sellers said she felt burnt out, and swore off baking for good.
But that didn’t last for long. A few years later, Sellers, along with her husband and business partner Bill Scheeder, opened a restaurant with a bakery in Davenport called Baked.
“I think I just really couldn’t stay away from it,” Sellers said about baking. “I’m somebody that just loves to work with my hands and to create things. It’s this cathartic, meditative, self-care thing for me almost, where I just love to put ingredients together and make people happy with baked goods. Baked goods just make people happy — there’s no other way around it, and I just love that aspect of it so much.”
The restaurant has a menu with brunch, lunch and dinner options, but it was cookies that were the best seller. The second best-seller was Busch Light beer “because we are in Iowa after all,” Sellers added with a laugh.
Then came Davenport’s devastating flood of 2019.
“We are close to the downtown area and the entire city flooded,” Sellers recalled. “There was no way to access the restaurant — all of our access points were closed. We had just come off of a terrible, terrible Iowa winter, and things were really hard and very, very difficult. We almost lost everything more than once trying to get through those challenges.”
“The next winter, I was trying to think what can we do to diversify and bring in more income, and I’m like, ‘Well, our cookies are our best seller, we should just run with that.’”
Sellers came up with a menu of 12 different cookies, and Cookies & Dreams was launched in January 2020. The new business operated out of Baked at first, but Sellers and her husband quickly realized a separate storefront was needed to keep up with the demand.
The first Cookies & Dreams store opened in Davenport in September 2020, followed by a location in Bettendorf opening on Jan. 15, 2021, which was the same day that the concept was announced on social media in 2020.
The location in Coralville, which opened in July, was the third store.
“It was our best opening that we’ve had by a landslide — not even close,” Sellers said. “It was awesome. We feel so loved by the Coralville community, which is just amazing.”
Cookies & Dreams in Coralville is still in a “soft opening” phase, open Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sellers said she hopes to be open full time in about four weeks.
Ankeny is the next Iowa city on the Cookies & Dreams radar, along with three sites in Illinois. The bakery also has nationwide shipping.