How the cookie crumbles
Guatemalan couple’s Austin bakery becomes overnight success with 5 million cookies sold
It turns out there is such a thing as too many cookies. In the case of Wunderkeks, it was 25,000. The new Austin bakery had prepared for a South By Southwest popup in 2020, the year that countless other plans fell flatter than a cookie without baking powder. Guatemalan owners and life partners Luis Gramajo and Hans Schrei had to make a hard pivot before tens of thousands of cookies became unbakeable and unsellable during the lockdown.
Wunderkeks had only been in Austin for a year and a winter by then, and was subsisting mostly on farmers market sales. It had a website that wasn’t pulling its weight at all. Who orders cookies online? The answer: During a pandemic, lots of people.
Gramajo and Schrei took to social media to try to offload the SXSW excess. A retweet by actress Busy Philipps in California brought Wunderkeks attention as a heartwarming small business in need (really not a hard sell, since cookies are involved), and catapulted online sales from roughly three online orders a month to 800 — in two hours.
On a Sunday night, Gramajo recounts, the partners scrambled through the chaos of suddenly launching an e-commerce business and preparing to ship food goods out of state. By Monday at noon, the first orders went out. Wunderkeks sold 35,000 cookies in three weeks.
“It’s funny because back in Guatemala, the post office exists, but no one uses it,” says Gramajo. “Shipping wasn’t even in our system.”
Wunderkeks, in a cosmic sense, was made to be an Austin business. Everything about it, from the cookies to the graphic design, targets the inner child. It is joyful, kitschy, and oddly polished. The cookies, reviewers on the website rave, are exceptional: dense, chewy, and in improbably many cases, the best they’ve ever tried.
The recipe was adapted from Schrei’s Austrian grandfather, leading to a claim many may not realize is actually true: cookies just like Grandma — or in this case, Grandpa — used to make. A few other sales pitches make the cookies more attractive to an online shopper who, surely, has a favorite bakery nearby with guaranteed great results. The cookies are all-natural (“made in a kitchen, not a factory”), yet because of their individual packaging, have a shelf life of three weeks.
Technically, Wunderkeks’ cookies should be a little better than Grandma’s, factoring in all the recipe tweaking Shrei has done since the company’s inception in 2010. Shrei had been working alone on the baking business in Guatemala until he met Gramajo on Tinder. The business was popular, and did feature a lot of pink, but was toned down dramatically in personality. Now, Shrei’s parents own and operate the original Wunderkeks, with Shrei’s mother acting as a more logical source of the brand’s femininity, in many Guatemalans’ minds.
“We always say that Wunderkeks from Guatemala is like the the closeted version of Wunderkeks, and here is the out-of-the-closet version,” says Gramajo.
Gramajo and Shrei decided it was time to leave after visiting California and seeing married gay couples with families and happy, public-facing lives. Here, the brand identity is like a confetti cannon of gay expression, with a dinosaur mascot often seen in a pink tutu, and frequent marketing images including flexing, shirtless men holding the product.
Even in the U.S., not everyone has been receptive to the company’s loud and proud rainbow identity. When Wunderkeks paired with the LOVELOUD Foundation — headed by Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds and supporting LGBTQ-plus youth with grants and a music festival — Gramajo says 10 percent of the Wunderkeks email list unsubscribed that same day. Gramajo and Schrei were peppered with threats and on the receiving end of rumors and insults for the first two weeks of June. They turned to actor and head of talent at media-monitoring org GLAAD, Anthony Ramos, for advice.
“This is what you need. This is who you are, and you just need to get it out there,” paraphrases Gramajo of Ramos’ advice. “The people you’re losing right now, you didn’t want them anyway. And you are going to make out better bonding with the people that are staying just because of this.”
The shift Wunderkeks saw after embracing this angle was “180 degrees” by the end of June. Parents wrote in to thank the company for a simple, low-key way to show kids they are loved and accepted no matter who they love. The initiative raised $15,000. Ramos remains a friend of the bake shop, and will lead an anniversary conversation with the founders on Instagram Live on Monday, January 24 at 7 pm.
“Because of everything that happened to us … everything started going from zero to 100 in 30 seconds, and we didn’t even have time to communicate,” says Gramajo. “We want to get our story out there. I think that it should help somebody or inspire somebody, and make a change.”
Wunderkeks’ success is bolstered by marketing that is fervently in touch with its target demographic. The cookies come with instructions, something seemingly unnecessary that audiences have demonstrated a great love for in recent years, with an explosion of gratuitous self-help media.
“It should be like a ritual, like a self-care kind of thing,” explains Gramajo in a way that mirrors another hot topic: intuitive or mindful eating. “Heat the cookie up, let it sit for a while, then eat it and actually enjoy the cookie. We’ve all done it before. ... You’re like, ‘Oh my god, I just finished the bag and I didn’t even think about the flavor or anything.’ Enjoy them. Don’t feel guilty. It’s a time that you’re dedicated to yourself.”
He points out the special benefit to millennial moms who may want their kids to experience legitimately great homemade cookies — without having to make them. Influencers, too, have had a major impact on the word-of-mouth virality, convincing people nationwide to give an unknown e-commerce cookie seller a shot. By the beginning of 2022, Wunderkeks had shipped over 5 million cookies.
“Basically, we want people to know our story, that not everything is rainbows and unicorns,” says Gramajo. “It’s tough — especially these times with everything that’s going on in the world — but you need to keep going. Being a minority … you have to make it your superpower.”
Wunderkeks sells 15-cookie packages (starting at $17.95), three types of irresistible brownies, and even T-shirts on its website at wunderkeks.com. Tune in on Instagram live on Monday, January 24 at 7 pm, to learn more about Wunderkeks’ story.