…And for sharing smiles. In the early 1960’s in the home kitchen at the age of eight, Michael Eskenazi was already wearing a chef’s hat, cooking up lavish 5 course meals for his family, always finished off with a lavish chocolatey dessert. Yummy chocolate was already his passion, all day long and even in his dreams. Growing up, he had aspirations of becoming a great chef, but it remained simply a hobby while he worked for a variety clothing retailers. The inspiration to follow his dreams came during a trip to Manhattan where he discovered gourmet cookie boutiques on every corner, which was followed just days later by an incredible stroke of fortune - his employer fired him from his job. It was time to do what he was meant to do- Make people smile by baking the best cookies in the world!
Long story short (spoiler alert!)- He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. After many highs and almost as many lows, his cookies and his unique gourmet desserts have tickled millions of taste buds and are now found from coast to coast in Canada and even overseas. Wow!
And you can also savour the longer version of the history of Félix & Norton, after over 35 years of existence, there is a lot to chew on!
Back from New York, and supported by his wife and a close friend, Michael began the most important challenge, creating the cookie recipes. Simple research showed him that multiple chocolate chip cookie recipes consisted of all the same ingredients in varying quantities. If he was to sell only cookies, they would have to be the best cookies anywhere, so it would have to start with finding the best of each of the main ingredients. For almost a year, his home kitchen became a lab. Different flours, different butters and of course different chocolates were tested hundreds of times. Family and friends were invited and forced to eat and give ratings for multiple versions of each recipe gaining a few pounds and lots of happiness, in order to create the recipes that are still used today.
On April 24, 1985, the first Monsieur Félix & Mr. Norton cookie shop opened on Queen Mary Road in Montreal. In order to be sure that some customers showed up the first day, cookies were brought early in the morning to various radio stations. Hopefully one or two of the eight selected stations would say something nice. They all did. By 9 am, there was a line up stretching down the block with hundreds of cookie connoisseurs waiting to sample these new creations. It was love at first bite, the fan base was starting to be built.
During the first four years, 8 boutiques were opened. Félix & Norton cookies became well-known throughout Montreal. Michael and Félix & Norton became local celebrities, cover stories in magazines and newspapers, radio and TV appearances. The creative gift packaging-Cookie Bouquets, Magnummm of Cookies and more, became everyone’s favorite gift, always filled with lots of freshly baked cookies of course. More and more cookies. Got to make more and more cookies. Let’s build a (too big) bakery to supply everyone, we’ll grow into it. We’ll open a new store in Ottawa as we start our national growth plan. OK, if so many people want to buy a franchise, we’ll sell franchises too. By 1993, there are 25 stores in Quebec and Ontario. Isn’t life sweet?
But like so many stories of success, when things are going too well, they take a turn for the worse. Since Félix & Norton was built on a story of intense passion without compromise, the twists and turns downhill were truly severe. Not to take away your appetite, but the abridged version was that after some very poor choices of partners and new store locations as well as changing market conditions, financial pressures that couldn’t paid off with cookies led the retail division to bankruptcy proceedings in 1998.
All that was left was the factory, the recipes and the trademarks. With the help of Sweet Factory candy stores, the retail division was relaunched. But destiny was even more bitter than the darkest of chocolates, and every time an opportunity to rebuild presented itself, another huge setback occurred, from the burst of the stock market bubble in 2000 that wiped out a planned major investment, to the sudden death in an auto accident of a partner and investor just days before the contract was to be signed. Wounded, frustrated, and exhausted, Michael needed a break.
Michael had been a dessert specialist all his life. He knew he had to find a way to end this story with something sweet. He knew that after years of mismanagement by the successors at Sweet Factory, the Félix & Norton love brand had faded and was being forgotten. But he knew that so much goodwill was created by years of sharing smiles with millions of cookie lovers. And he knew that he still had the power of seducing them again with cookies baked and served warm like they always were when he had his stores. But how? How to get warm cookies to the customers? Well before food trucks were all the rage, Michael decided that he would relaunch the brand by driving a pink truck that would deliver smiles (and cookies) wherever he would stop. An ecologically friendly, propane—powered truck with a full kitchen inside, ready to bake cookies at any time.
As passionate about this idea as he was when he opened his first boutique in 1985, Michael excitedly put his business plan together. Finding the affordable truck online in Portland, Oregon, he took a one-way flight there and crossed the continent behind the wheel of a truck for the first time in his life, driving through the cornfields as he kept asking himself, “If I build it, will they come?” 5,000 km. later he was home and converting this crazy idea into Montreal’s first food truck.
And it was a huge success! Everywhere the truck went, it was true love again. Nostalgics were thrilled to see Félix & Norton again, newbies were immediately seduced. The magic of a freshly baked cookie warm from the oven. Word of mouth attracted new partners. Supermarket chains wanted superior cookies, and wanted a quality brand with an immense following. And that is why today you can find Félix & Norton cookie dough and their other new dessert creations in stores like Loblaws, Metro, Longos, Provigo, IGA and many more… and even in Dubai and Qatar. Even though Michael had always resisted returning to franchising despite receiving requests virtually every week, he was convinced by the ambition and business skills of his Middle Eastern associate, who needed quality cookies and a Canadian love brand to share with his compatriots. And now, containers filled with cookie dough set sail across the ocean for 40 days and 40 nights…
So does this story have a happy ending? It is still being written, one smile at a time!