Sol Orwell's love of cookies is so renowned people mail him their favorite sweets. This isn't just two or three fans online; over the past few years, he's gotten 175 (and counting) sent his way. Now, the entrepreneur behind nutrition database Examine.com has launched full-fledged Cookie-Offs, where bakers throughout the U.S. and Canada compete in a blind taste test to see who truly has the world's - or, okay, North America's - best chocolate chip cookie.
Orwell's obsession started innocently enough. "When I started meeting people after moving back to Toronto, instead of saying, 'hey, let's grab coffee,' I'd say, 'let's have the best chocolate chip cookie you'll ever eat,' because I truly believed this place made the best one," he said. "Over the years, I've brought 400 or 500 people there."
A friend posted to his Facebook wall that she'd found a better place, and as they started bantering in the comments, other people started piling on, all arguing in favor of different places.
"So I decided the only way we could figure this out was to do a blind taste test," Orwell reasoned.
In January 2016, he held his first Cookie-Off, inviting 18 bakers to compete. When he posted the pictures, he was flooded with more comments, so this November, he upped the ante, taking his Cookie-Off to the heart of New York City. He sold 100 tickets to the general public for $250 apiece, recruiting the nation's top professional bakers to vie for ultimate chocolate chip cookie bragging rights.
New York mainstays like Levain, Jacques Torres, and Maman all agreed to participate, as well as the reigning champion from Toronto's Cookie-Off, and Los Angeles bakery Milk Jar Cookies. Each bakery agreed to bring 100 of their best chocolate chip cookies, and all proceeds would benefit She's The First, an organization that funds girls' education in developing countries.
Within 11 days, all 100 tickets were sold out. That's how much people love cookies. And what a savvy marketer Orwell is, who attributes some of the lightning-fast sales to his reputation for being focused on entrepreneurship but not actively trying to sell people on every aspect of running a business. "There's a lot of people trying to sell you shit. I've carved out a niche where I make fun of that," he said. "My companies are pretty successful on their own, which allows me to make great friendships without people feeling like I'm always trying to sell them stuff."
With 33 professional bakeries on the roster, each attendee had almost 3 dozen flavors to try - and rank - over the course of the night, which also included guest speakers and a modern twist on networking, where everyone was given 1-3 names of other people there to meet that night.
In the end, the votes were tallied, the leftovers were donated to food shelters, and the winner was crowned: Culture Espresso's cookie reigned supreme. Second place went to Milk and Cookies Bakery, with its potato chip-studded chocolate chip cookie, then Zenobia's Sweet Tooth for its banana pudding chocolate chip cookie. Levain, which perennially makes New York's must-try lists, came in fourth, and Danny Macaroons took fifth with its chocolate chip macaroon cookie.
Here's Culture Espresso's cookie, in case you're curious:
Still, after trying them all, Orwell stands by his Toronto bakery, Le Gourmand, no matter what the masses may think.
"I like my cookies rich and fudgy, which basically means buttery, so I like any place that drenches theirs in butter," he laughs.
Already, he's getting requests for a rematch - one that's even bigger than before. In 2018, he's planning three Cookie-Offs: one in Toronto, one in New York, and one in San Francisco. To find out about the next one, check out SJO.com or follow Sol Orwell on Facebook.
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