SAN LORENZO -- The seasonal shop at Too Good Gourmet in San Lorenzo was packed this past Saturday afternoon, as cookie connoisseurs came hungry for bargains and gifts at the company's annual holiday sale and sampling.
"We will be open every day through Dec. 24," said the wholesaler's co-founder and president Jennifer Finlay, who lives in Crocker Highlands. "Five years ago, we decided to open to the public in December -- it took off like crazy and it's really fun every year."
Customer Julia Drake carried a shopping basket overflowing with Christmas-tide holiday treats, including traditional shortbread cookies wrapped up in a lime green bow, a ceramic holiday mug filled with cocoa mix and a penguin-shaped holiday tower stacked with three different flavors of cookies.
"I've been coming to the sale since I heard about it a couple of years ago," Drake said. "It's a great deal and the cookies are delicious and beautifully packaged."
Finlay began Too Good Gourmet in 1998 with her mother Amie Watson, who retired from the business five years ago.
"We always wanted to start a business together," Finlay said. "My dream was to do something in the food industry."
After earning her MBA in marketing from UC Berkeley, she took a job as director of merchandising for Peet's Coffee and Tea.
"I met a lot of people there who had started their own business and it gave me the courage to do it," said Finlay, who now runs a $9 million per year enterprise.
From modest beginnings, Too Good Gourmet expanded seven years ago into a 50,000-square-foot production and packaging facility in the industrial sector of San Lorenzo, employing between 50 and 100 people, depending on the season.
A giant mixer packs 1,200 pounds of dough at a time, which calculates to nine tons of dough mixed per day. A 100-foot tunnel oven runs 24/7 during peak season, baking some 45 different kinds of cookies in big batches.
"We've been working 24 hours a day since August on our Christmas cookies and merchandise," said Finlay, who also creates seasonal treats for Valentine's Day, Easter, Halloween and Mother's Day.
"We started out with the concept that we'd be selling mainly to kids," Finlay said. "But we've discovered that our seasonal packages are purchased mostly by women in the 30-plus age bracket who are giving gifts to other women."
She said she and her mother began with the idea of using creative packaging to set the company apart.
"Our original idea was to go one better than Animal Crackers," Finlay said. "Nobody else was doing it at the time, so we branched into decorative packaging."
Nowadays that includes two graphic artists who design all kinds of intricate, multi-dimensional boxes with Santa, snowman and sleigh motifs -- to name just a few.
Finlay's 10-year-old daughter Morgan, who attends Bentley School in Oakland, loves to help her mom in the business.
"I love to stuff the shelves and help customers to their cars," said Morgan, who sported a pink T-shirt with pictures of a holiday jar and chocolate chip cookie -- with the slogan "BFFS."
Morgan also bakes cookies, pies and cakes at home.
"She's our chief taster," Finlay said. "Her own creation -- Chocolate Ganache Cookies -- has been one of our company's most successful cookies and is now stocked in Target stores."
During the recent downturn in the economy, Finlay said the company struggled along with everyone else.
"The gift business, in general, has been challenging, but we stayed successful by branching out into making everyday cookies that are now marketed under the Target, Safeway and Trader Joe's brand, using all our recipes," she said.
Too Good Gourmet has gone in savory directions too, creating sellout sun-dried tomato and artichoke dips that Finlay said are hugely popular. Another "flavor trend," according to Finlay, is a salty and sweet combo cookie.
They've even branched out into dog treats.
"We taste test all the treats on our dogs Jelly Bean and Max," Morgan said.
Too Good Gourmet uses all natural ingredients, but Finlay has learned how to tweak the ingredients so that cookies taste good for the long term.
"It's easy to make a cookie that tastes good with all natural ingredients," Finlay said. "It's more difficult to make a cookie with a longer shelf life, that still has natural ingredients and tastes really good."
What: Too Good Gourmet Holiday Sale and Sampling
Where: 2380 Grant Ave., San Lorenzo
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., every day through Dec. 24
Products available locally: Piedmont Grocery and Village Market, Oakland
8150 or www.TooGood-