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In Shelburne, family business Douglas Sweets bakes Scottish shortbread cookies just like mother used to make them | Food & Beverage Features | Seven days

click to enlarge Double shortbread cookies with dark chocolate chips - BEAR CIERI

  • Bear Cieri
  • Double shortbread cookies with dark chocolate chips

The Townsend kids grew up in Bolton in the early 2000s and had the coolest mother on the block – er, slope. Debra Townsend was known for entertaining up to 30 of their friends at a time in the family’s large ski lodge-style home. Nearly a quarter of a century later, siblings Brittiny, Matthew, Hannah and Ian are grown and spread across the world, but they all talk every day. And Douglas Sweets, the cookie bakery their mother founded in 2011, helps keep them close.

Debra, 66, and daughter Hannah, 32, may be the only family members on the payroll at the moment, but the Scottish shortbread company has employed the entire family – both officially and unofficially, as small businesses are wont to do – at different times. its 13-year history.

“The kids would come home from college and help out, especially at Christmas, when things got busy,” Debra remembers the early days, when she baked in her own kitchen.

Today, the company no longer has a commercial space in Shelburne, and her children don’t have to put on aprons when they come home for the holidays. With Hannah working remotely from Montreal, Debra has built a brand that captures Vermont’s artisanal food culture in an old-fashioned treat. The crunchy, buttery, sweet-but-not-too-sweet treats are already available in gift shops and delis across the Lower 48 and will soon reach a new group of foodies across the country, thanks to an expanded seasonal partnership with Whole Foods Market.

Despite all its success, the Vermont company remains rooted in the family.

click to enlarge Debra and Hannah Townsend - COURTESY OF WINTER CAPLANSON/NEW ENGLAND FOOD AND FARM

  • Courtesy of Winter Calanson/New England Food And Farm
  • Debra and Hannah Townsend

“Being a mother means absolutely everything to me,” Debra said. And the company’s origin story is tied to an unconventional choice the family made in 2008.

After separating from her husband, Debra took her four teenagers on an epic two-year backpacking trip. With money from the sale of their house, the Townsends started in Peru and traveled through 45 countries and all but one continent, mostly in hostels and on a tight budget. They saw the wonders of the world, visited markets, took cooking and language classes and, like Vermonters, tried to visit Ben & Jerry’s scoop stores along the way.

When the trip ended in 2010, the children were off to university and Debra was back in Bolton and in need of income. So she dusted off her mother’s shortbread recipe and sold cookies at a Richmond Christmas market under the name Douglas Sweets, in honor of her mother, Joan Douglas. Douglas, a Scottish immigrant, had developed the recipe when she was 17 and missed Scottish shortbread when she lived in the US

To Debra’s surprise, she sold out at the market.

“It has 50 percent less sugar than a regular cookie; it’s all good ingredients; it’s all natural. I know it’s a good product, and I thank my mom for it,” she said, crediting the family recipe instead of her own baking talent or business acumen.

click to enlarge Emily Bechtold, Douglas Sweets' lead baker, with double shortbread cookies with dark chocolate chips - BEAR CIERI

  • Bear Cieri
  • Emily Bechtold, Douglas Sweets’ lead baker, with shortbread cookies with double dark chocolate chips

Encouraged by her early success, Debra began approaching local food stores that sold Vermont products. Healthy Living in South Burlington was the first to carry her cookies, she said. City Market, Onion River Co-op in Burlington and Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier followed. “Slowly the business grew organically,” she said.

In 2013, Hannah joined the company with the fresh confidence of business school and worked her way up to a COO role that includes strategic planning, sales and business relations, and shared responsibility for account management, branding and administrative tasks.

To meet growing demand, the duo moved the business in 2016 to a quaint red building behind Fiddlehead Brewing and Folino’s pizzeria in Shelburne. (The neighbor is another specialty food company, Vermont Tortilla.)

Although the Townsends declined to give exact figures, they said sales increased 65 percent in their first year together at the bakery. Sales increased 400 percent between 2016 and the end of 2023, they say.

Despite enthusiastic support from Vermont locavores, shortbread doubters remain. For a simple dessert (some recipes only contain butter, flour and sugar), it is very difficult to make shortbread. It can come out dry, hard and tasteless, or worse, soft and greasy. At tastings, Debra sometimes has to convince people to try it.

Hannah suggested that many people just don’t realize how wonderful shortbread can be. To rectify that, she took on the packaging of Douglas Sweets. “I really wanted that ‘cookie’ to stand out, and not necessarily ‘shortbread,’” she said.

Whatever you call them, Douglas Sweets treats are excellent. Their elegant shape with scalloped edge and natural long shelf life make them ideal for gift giving. The perfectly crispy, cookie-style shortbread cookies are rich and light at the same time. A hint of salt hits the palate first, and as the cookie dissolves into buttery chunks, a subtle sweetness accentuates the signature flavor, of which there are currently 10.

The lineup includes pecan, orange blossom, and salted caramel, as well as chocolate chip-studded flavors like double dark, coconut, and latte. Debra said the latter two will retire soon as the company prepares for its Whole Foods partnership. A new flavor exclusive to the supermarket chain is in the works, and the Townsends plan to increase cookie production at their Shelburne factory by 15 percent.

While Whole Foods’ expansion will increase its profile, Douglas Sweets already has fans across the country. Maddy Wright, 26, of Sacramento, California, puts the cookies into curated book boxes that she ships from her online bookstore, Obsidian Bookhouse. In Douglas Sweets’ shortbread cookies, Wright said she found the right “snackable” book accompaniment.

“Something about their brand story, flavor profiles, and even the packaging felt special — like I was in Vermont myself and could smell the cookies being baked in the other room,” she wrote by email.

click to enlarge The Townsend family on their journey around the world - COURTESY

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  • The Townsend family on their journey around the world

The business, which employs two full-time bakers in addition to two seasonal employees, is doing well, thanks in part to the Townsends’ willingness to adapt and make decisions that meet the needs of both the market and their family. They have streamlined their offering – previous flavors inspired by their world travels, such as Thai Basil Peanut, were delicious but too niche. And they now mix in chocolate chips instead of dipping the cookies by hand in chocolate, a physically tiring task that Debra used to do alone.

“We tried to automate the process as much as possible so that no employee who replaced my mother was in the same situation and in pain going home,” said Hannah, noting that the chocolate layer also had a tendency to melt . which limited shipping options.

For a time, the Shelburne bakery also included a store and a small café, but to avoid burnout, the company gradually shifted to a wholesale-only model with online purchases available for pickup. (A six-ounce bag of Douglas Sweets shortbread cookies costs $7.50.)

The Townsends also instituted a four-day work week to help achieve that elusive work-life balance. Starting from scratch forced Debra to “throw everything I had at the company,” she said, but Hannah’s involvement has helped her slow down. Now Debra handles product development, bakery operations and local business relationships.

“Our priority was to make a good shortbread product that we were proud of; Hannah’s priority was to do this in a way that allowed us to find balance in our lives,” she said. The schedule offers more opportunities to travel – a necessity for Debra, whose children all live in different countries and whose first grandchild was just born in Portugal.

click to enlarge Douglas Sweets Products - COURTESY OF WINTER CAPLANSON/NEW ENGLAND FOOD AND FARM

  • Courtesy of Winter Calanson/New England Food And Farm
  • Douglas Sweets products

Despite scaling and automation, the Townsends insist they have not sacrificed the quality of their product. On the contrary, Debra said the shortbread cookies are even better now than when she made everything by hand. Rolling out the dough over and over made it denser, she explained. Now, with the help of a machine called a depositor that cuts the cookies, they are handled much less and retain that ethereal, airy crunch.

“It looks more like my mother’s recipe now than ever before,” she said.

Hannah noted that the imprint of each generation of her family is evident in the evolution of Douglas Sweets packaging. Although her grandmother never made shortbread cookies to sell, she said, the first version of the design reflected her influence: “It had bows in it, and it was quirky and cute.”

“A few years later, it was my mom who really took the reins, and the packaging was very modern, sleek and cool,” she continued, before teasing that another change was coming. “Now I feel like it’s my turn, my chance to take it to the next stage,” she said. “And I’m lucky because I have so many brothers and sisters that I can help.”

Debra has relinquished control of the new look and says it will be a surprise to both her and the customers, but she trusts Hannah to get it right. As a testament to their close family bond, she said, the children have always been there when she needed them most.

“I would have quit a long time ago because business is so hard, especially when you’re alone,” she said. “As soon as the kids stepped in, especially Hannah, it all got better because I wasn’t just doing it for me, but for them too.”