Sweet Revenge

If you’ve ever savored a locally baked chocolate chip cookie, chances are it was a Kathleen’s cookie years ago, and now it is a Tate’s. You see Tate’s in many airports across the country, just about every gourmet store in every state, and many places around the world. You will certainly find them in every supermarket and every farm stand on the East End of Long Island, where Kathleen King grew up and still lives today.

King was raised on her parent’s farm on Noyac Road, North Sea Farms. She and her older siblings, Karin, Kevin, and Richie, worked as soon as they could walk. At the tender age of eleven, King took up baking cookies and selling them to the farm’s customers — after all, she had to come up with the money to buy her own school clothes.

Even at such a young age, King was a stickler for quality. If her mother purchased some lesser-quality ingredients, cheaper chocolate chips for instance, to save money, little Kathleen would send her back to the store for the real deal.

King began with the basic Toll House cookie recipe printed on the back of bags of Nestle’s chocolate chips. But her recipe evolved from the somewhat soft and chewy original formula to a thinner, crisper version. By high school she was baking all summer, working 10 to 12 hours a day.

“When you grow up on a farm there’s no meal ticket,” she said in a recent interview. “You pay for your own car, clothes, college. It stokes a different fire.”

It’s very clear where she got her work ethic. Her mother, Millicent (Millie), was a nurse for more than 30 years and took night shifts on private duty so she could be home in the mornings to get her four children ready for school. Kathleen’s father, Richard (Tate) King, farmed the land the family now owns which he took over from his father, Stanley, in 1957.

Kathleen King’s brother, Richie, still operates North Sea Farms.

After graduating from the State University at Cobleskill, Kathleen found a building near the railroad tracks in Southampton that had already been a bakery. So, at the age of 21, she opened Kathleen’s Bake Shop and expanded her line of goods to included more “traditional Americana” items, as she calls them, such as oatmeal-raisin cookies and pies. By 23, she was able to move to another building a few doors down.

King would drive an old van in and out of the city, carting shopping bags of cookies to Dean and Deluca, Balducci’s, and Zabar’s. Just about everyone who tasted her cookies wanted to buy them. Kathleen’s Cookies became a household name in the New York area.

By the time she was 40, King thought maybe it was time to take a break, relax a little. Besides running the bakery full time, she had also published her first of three cookbooks, Kathleen’s Bake Shop. Her bookkeeper suggested they partner with his brother. Each would own a third of the company, and she would remain as chief executive. She agreed.

The brothers, now owning a controlling interest, moved the cookie production to Richmond, Va., and started cutting corners to save money. “Nobody will be able to tell the difference,” they assured King.

“I’ll be able to tell the difference,” she replied and proved it when they did a blind tasting.

Now, if you recall, even at the age of 11, she had known that ingredients matter. Or, as her father would say: “If you start with shit, you end up with shit.”

Inferior ingredients turned out to be the least of her problems. Soon, the company that bore her name but was controlled by partners stopped paying its bills. Vendors started going directly to the shop, and King would pay them with cash from the register. Employees’ checks started bouncing, according to press accounts of ensuing legal battles.

And then, having built her namesake company for 23 years, she was fired. The partners accused her of theft, locked her out of the bake shop, hired an armed security guard to sit outside, and filed a restraining order against her. One more thing: The company was now $600,000 in debt.

The news got out, and little Southampton turned out big time for the hometown girl. Family and friends picketed at the shop. “No Kathleen, no cookies!”

When the dispute went to court, she recalls, she looked around the crowded courtroom and wondered, “What kinds of crimes did all of these people commit?” only to realize that most of the people in the courtroom had come to support her.

King admits now that she was naive.

“I grew up on a farm, I spent all of my youth baking. My parents didn’t raise a victim, but I’d never met people like this before. The whole experience was revealing in a good way and in a bad way… It could have made me distrustful and bitter. It didn’t. But it was frightening.”

It gets a bit worse before it gets better.

King owned the property, but the partners had the lease. There was a clause in the contract that said they could use the equity from the business to buy the building. The case went to the New York State Supreme Court, and the judge ruled that the partners could keep the name, her name, Kathleen’s Bake Shop, and continue to expand the brand nationally. But the court also ruled that King could get the deed to her bake shop. She couldn’t use her own name, however. She would have to remortgage the building in order to repay her third of the company’s debt.

By 2000, King had decided to start again. She printed up some new labels for a new company, which she called Tate’s Bake Shop — Tate being the nickname of her father, Richard. It either came from childhood friends or his buddies at the Farmers Guild. “Tate” is short for “little tater” and Kathleen concedes that at 4-foot-10 he also kind of resembled a Tater Tot.

When I started Tate’s in 2000 I was pretty numb from all that had happened,” Kathleen says. “I was focused and in survival mode, operating and executing as quickly as I could. I had no money left and had to remortgage my building to get started. If it were not for the kindness and support of the community and a strong family foundation I could have easily slipped through the cracks and become a victim of my own horrible decisions.”

King was resolute. “I made a foolish and naive business decision and I needed to prove to myself that evil people do exist and that I wasn’t stupid, just naive.”

And the rest of the story, as they say, is history. Tate’s soared.

And what became of the original Kathleen’s Cookies and the former partners? In a tasty and crunchy morsel of schadenfreude, they went out of business.

 In a recent interview, sitting outside her charming shop, I asked a variety of, to my mind, pertinent questions.

“What is your favorite cookie?”

“It’s still the chocolate chip, they have an addictive quality.”

As I prattle on about my favorites, she changes her mind and says she has a new favorite, a yet-to-be-named cayenne-and-black cocoa- powder cookie. King brings me a sample bag. (For a pastry chef — which I am — this is akin to being in the studio with your favorite band as they record a new hit.) The cookie is dark and crisp. The cocoa comes through loud and clear with a hint of cinnamon.

Eventually the cayenne pepper hits your tongue, but subtly. I ask what kind of cocoa powder she uses for this cookie, you know, a bit of shop talk among professionals. Valhrona? She hems and haws, she’s not sure. I don’t believe her, and I make a mental note to never play poker with this woman in charge of the quality control and product development for Tate’s Bake Shop.

A couple of years ago, a man named Alan Peyrat was surfing with his children in Huntington Beach, California. When they got out of the water they snacked on Tate’s chocolate chip cookies. He never forgot how good they were. When he learned in 2014 that Tate’s Bake Shop was for sale, he jumped at the chance, and his company, Riverside (through Riverside Micro-Cap Fund III), purchased Tate’s for a purported $100 million.

What does King like to do with her time since that staggeringly satisfying sale? For the last several years she has remained close to home to take care of her parents. Her mother passed away in May and her father died June 29, at the age of 90.

“My father represented everything to me that the bakery should be about, especially integrity. And tenacity.”

King remains with Tate’s in an advisory capacity, developing new recipes and making sure the quality is up to her standards.

Petite, pretty, and looking much younger than her age, she says that her favorite indulgence is what she calls “cozy adventure travel.” She’s hiked the Canadian Rockies, Patagonia, and Picos de Europa in Spain. Last summershe biked across New York from Niagara to Saratoga. She likes a long day of vigorous outdoor exercise followed by a good meal and a comfortable bed in a nice hotel. She’s not bejeweled; she doesn’t drive a massive S.U.V.

“Whose voice is in your head that is wise?”

“At this stage, my own voice, and it is very low drama. But it all comes from my mother and father. We’re all dealt something, and for me it was losing my business. I wouldn’t be who I am today, and there would be no Tate’s without what happened to Kathleen’s.”

She retired at the age of 55 to enjoy adventures with her husband, Zvi Friedman, and son, Justin, but she’s still a hometown girl. Her business manager told her she should write more cookbooks and have a TV show.

“No, no, no,” she says. “I never wanted to be famous, I wanted my cookies to be famous. And they are.”

King emailed me a few days ago to tell me the new cookie will be named “Cayenne Chocolate.”

Long live the King! 

 

Blueberry Muffins

Throw out all your other blueberry-muffin recipes. This is the only one you will ever need. This recipe is from The Kathleen’s Bake Shop Cookbook by Kathleen King. Published by St. Martin’s Press. Makes 12

3 cups flour

 4 1/2 tsp. baking powder

 1/2 tsp baking soda

 1 1/4 cups sugar

 1/2 tsp salt

 1 cup butter

 1 1/4 cups milk

 2 eggs, lightly beaten

 2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease 12 muffin cups (3-by-1.5-inch). In large bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt. In medium-size saucepan, melt butter. Add milk and lightly beaten egg. Add butter mixture to dry ingredients and mix lightly just until moistened. Fold in blueberries. Spoon mixture evenly into prepared muffin cups. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center of one muffin comes out clean. 

Laura Donnelly