Growing up, Erica King was fascinated by the ornate tins of shortbread cookies she would find in the homes of friends and family. However, she usually found sewing or first aid kits inside instead of the tasty treats. When she finally got to try one, her anticipation was met with sweet approval. “I thought it was such a delicious yet simple cookie,” she says. Now, King is putting her own spin on her love of shortbread with a new business, Shorty Mix Gourmet Cookies.
A St. Louis native, King grew up near Grand Center and attended Metro Academic and Classical High School. “The area is full of music and culture; I love it,” she says. As the oldest of her siblings, she started cooking and baking with her mother at a young age. “I remember the smells and waiting by the oven to carefully make sure the cake didn’t fall,” King recalls. “She always made it special and exciting. That was my introduction to baking.”
King’s grandmother also was a major culinary influence in her life. “I remember how good she was at cooking and how her food brought everyone together,” she says. “There always was somebody knocking at her door and food going around. Seeing her so joyous and ready to serve others, it resonated with me.” King’s grandmother worked for years preparing the inflight meals for Lambert Airport. Unlike with her mother, however, King did not often join her grandmother in the kitchen. “I just watched,” she explains. “She was a professional; she didn’t have time for a kid in her kitchen.”
While her baking interest was sparked early, King initially opted to go into the business world. She attended college in Chicago and opted to stay and work in the city. In 2016, she found herself debating her next steps and decided to return to St. Louis. “My coming home was a journey back to myself,” she notes. King quickly found herself back in her mother’s kitchen and discovered she enjoyed cooking for her family. While she did find another corporate position, something still wasn’t clicking. “I felt like life was pushing me in a different direction,” she says. “I finally wised up that there was something about cooking that kept pulling me back.”
Creating a baking-based business was a new challenge for King. “I didn’t go to culinary school, so I figured I’d be starting at the bottom,” she says. However, she recalled the shortbread tins of her youth and how special they felt to her. The simple butter cookies would make the perfect canvas to show her culinary creativity. She also decided to incorporate her travels and experiences studying abroad in Spain. “I got to learn how others eat and cook,” she notes. “I absorbed it all. It was such a unique way to see how other people live.” The geographic impact can be seen in her cookie flavors like Spanish Sangria, Moroccan Snickerdoodle and Chicago Cheddar Caramel.
With no experience in the food industry, King turned to local resources to learn the ropes. She started with Square One and then was connected with the STL Foodworks culinary incubator. She moved into the latter’s kitchen in City Foundry, putting her new business just a short walk away from her old high school. “Both programs have shown me just how tight knit and supportive the food and beverage community is in St. Louis,” she notes. “It was really inspiring because it’s one of the toughest industries to work in. Many times, I wondered what I was getting myself into, but they opened the door to so many resources for me.”
Launching a business in a pandemic was a daunting prospect, but King was able to put her past experience in marketing to good use. She wasn’t able to launch Shorty Mix Gourmet Cookies with an in-person component, but she took advantage of virtual options. “I’ve always had my eyes on online sales, and I also often was the person responsible for sending out corporate gifts, so I understood the process,” she says. “It may seem simple at first, but once you look at the logistics, you can see how complicated it is.” King focused on developing her website and determining the best way to ship her cookies.
Now, the company does have that personal connection King initially wanted. Shorty Mix Gourmet Cookies sells its wares at both the Tower Groves Farmers Market and Schlafly’s Maplewood Market. King is working on creating new flavors, including a gooey butter cookie bar as an homage to the StL. She’s also hopeful to one day have a storefront: “I would love to be a bakery where people walk by for the free smells and can’t help but come in and get a snack.”
tequila chocolate chip shortbread cookies
3 sticks of butter
¾ c brown sugar
¼ c pure cane sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp tequila reposado
1 tsp kosher salt
3 ½ c flour
¾ – 1 c chocolate chips
- Mix room temperature butter and sugar until combined. Add vanilla and tequila into butter and sugar mixture until combined.
- Mix salt and flour in a separate container, then add the mixture in parts to the butter and sugar mixture until dough forms.
- Stir in chocolate chips.
- Refrigerate dough for 15 minutes. Measure by weight, scoop or roll and cut, and shape each cookie.
- Bake at 300 degrees for around 25 minutes. Baking time may vary depending on your oven.
Tip: Create more variety and flavor profiles by adding caramel candies or dried fruit, or sprinkling with sea salt or cinnamon sugar fresh out of the oven
Photos: Bill Barrett