Photo courtesy of South by Southwest

Wunderkeks, a gay and immigrant-owned cookie company with a staggering amount of depth for something that could be sold on sugar content alone, has been showered with praise in the last three years. And it’s fundraising for another push into the stratosphere.

To recap, this brand almost folded the year South by Southwest (SXSW) got canceled out of concern for the pandemic. They made some famous friends, and won audiences over with earnest branding (and to-die-for chocolate chip cookies). They went to the Oscars, partnered with an increasingly impactful music festival, created a recipe with actress Tori Spelling, won a prestigious award from the Austin LGBT Chamber of Commerce, and still had time to produce tons of cookies. Luis Gramajo and Hans Schrei, co-founders and recipe developers, are among the Pastry Chef of the Year nominees for CultureMap's 2023 Tastemaker Awards.

This year the brand came full-circle with a panel at SXSW 2023 discussing safe spaces with VP of Communications at Virgin Atlantic Laura Brander, lead singer of Neon Trees Tyler Glenn, and the first openly gay statewide officer in Pennsylvania, Brian Sims. This topic has been central to Wunderkeks’ impact, and has elevated the company beyond a snack brand.

It turns out, not even the sky’s the limit for this married duo, whose cookies are soon to be warmed up and passed out on all outbound Virgin Atlantic flights (making these, unofficially, the best airplane snacks anyone has tasted) — if they can get the funding. Despite Wunderkeks’ meteoric success, it’ll take a little more than some careful planning to increase production and distribution by 100,000 cookies per month.

That’s the initial volume needed to get the partnership off the ground. Wunderkeks also hopes to offer a similar partnership to Delta, Virgin Atlantic’s U.S. partner, which the founders say would add up to "millions of people daily being touched by our message of building Safe Spaces."

Virgin Atlantic made news in 2022 for allowing cabin crew to choose the uniforms that best suit their gender identities. This made the company a great example for the panel — mostly building on ideas about making staff feel at home and enabling them to redirect their energy from suppressing self-expression to supporting guests — but also a corporate soulmate for the young retailers.

Gramajo, who moderated the panel, passed along the goodwill of Virgin Atlantic employees he interviewed when considering the partnership. Those employees had nothing to gain, he pointed out, in speaking highly of the company in private. They just felt seen.

Gramajo pointed out the similarities between this approach and the cookie brand’s, in all its pink glory. None of it was intentionally queer signaling. It wasn’t that Wunderkeks, itself, was queer.

“It’s that it’s us,” he concluded. “It’s amazing the energy that we waste when we code switch.”

Preserving that energy is also the purview of the Loveloud Festival, which another panelist, Tyler Glenn, founded with Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons to uplift LGBTQ+ youth in Utah. As a defected Mormon, Glenn was specifically pushing the boundaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Although he found the church much more powerful than he ever realized, the first years’ trials and tribulations paid off in an effusive show of love, support, and safe space for both the youth and their parents. Wunderkeks preaches the gospel of the tangible supportive atmosphere at the festival, and has previously partnered with Loveloud for joint branding on cookie boxes during pride month. A dollar from every box sold went to the foundation.

The third panelist did not represent any business partnerships, but he did articulate some of the day's most empowering messages from a perspective formerly inside the political beast. Brian Sims (D), now retired as a legislator, discussed largely Republican-led motivations of building momentum in transphobic attacks. Sims attributed an influx of trans-critical bills to a desire to separate the least vocally-supported and often the most politically-active portion of the gender and sexuality-diverse movement from the rest (the "T" from the "LGB").

Sims also shared a conversation he says he had with a Republican legislator about a similar effort, in which the legislator admitted he did not think the bill would ever pass. The panelist pointed out that such bills are often more about the showmanship than a desire to effect real change, but hopes that this chaos will lead to a strong pushback in the form of codifying protections that will put an end to copycat bills.

Wunderkeks needs $100,000 in this round of funding, lasting about two more weeks. This will get its cookies on flights and in the hands of cookie lovers and safe space champions in the air by April. The company is using Wefunder to sell future equity starting as low as $100-investments. In addition to the equity, there are tiered perks including a 10 percent discount, team T-shirt, and free cookies for a year. As of this writing, the current round has already reached $51,650 from a total of 30 investors.

More information about Wunderks, its business plan, and the terms of the future equity investments are available at wefunder.com.

Courtesy photo

Texas ranks among best states to start a business

We're No. 3

For years, Texas has been lauded for its business climate being welcoming for new businesses and startups. This year's study shows that the Lone Star State has yet again made the list.

Texas ranked as the third best state to start a business in personal finance website WalletHub's recent list, 2023's Best & Worst States to Start a Business, with a score of 56.85 points. Texas ranked behind Utah, No. 1, and Florida, No. 2, and just ahead of Colorado. Idaho, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma, and California make up the rest of the top 10, respectively.

The study looked at 27 key indicators of startup success across all 50 states. Texas was recognized for these factors in particular:

  • No. 10 – average growth in number of small businesses
  • No. 30 – labor costs
  • No. 10 – availability of human capital
  • No. 4 – average length of work week (in hours)
  • No. 14 – cost of living
  • No. 13 – industry variety
  • No. 31 – percentage of residents who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19

Source: WalletHub

Richard Ryffel, professor of finance practice at Washington University in St. Louis, noted the importance of policy in making a state a good place to start a business.

"Established businesses looking to expand might expand or relocate entirely based on the relative favorability of the local business climate," Ryffel says. "Recently, Texas, for example, has been the beneficiary of some significant business relocations based on its business-friendly policies."

The methodology of the study focused on three key dimensions — business environment, access to resources, and business costs — and 27 relevant metrics. Each metric was graded on a 100-point scale, and then each state’s average across all metrics was used to calculate its overall score.

In 2021, Texas ranked in the top position of WalletHub's study. Last year, the personal finance website looked at which cities were ideal spots for business launching, finding that Georgetown was the best small city in Texas for starting a business.

Other Austin suburbs that managed to crack the top 200 include Pflugerville, which landed at No. 150 nationally, and San Marcos, which came in at No. 181.

When it came to big cities, Austin ranked as No. 11.


This article originally appeared on our sister site InnovationMap.

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NASCAR driver Ross Chastain aims for 3rd career win at Circuit of the Americas


After his first-ever Cup victory at Circuit of the Americas in 2022, this eighth generation Central Florida watermelon farmer turned NASCAR driver is looking to nab his third career win at the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix in Austin on March 26.

Trackhouse Racing star Ross Chastain is currently third in the points heading into the race weekend; just four points behind Christopher Bell (second), and five behind Joey Logano (current leader). Chastain finished second behind Logano in the 2022 Cup Series Championship.

The tight standings make for a thrilling weekend at COTA, where Chastain earned his first career win just last year. He says driving on the 3.41-mile road course feels “opposite” to him than what he’s used to with a typical 1.5-mile oval track. He's been making left-only turns since he was 12 years old, and even on his Florida farm he would navigate the grids of watermelons and turn left at the end of every row. Learning to navigate a road course meant seeking help from others who might have better experience.

“I went to driving schools [and] I went to older and other drivers to teach me and give me advice on the simple art of driving a race car at its limit to the right, and COTA’s no different,” he tells CultureMap. “It’s – to me – very ironic that we got our first Cup Series win at a road course.”

Many race car drivers have raised concerns about the bumpy surface of the track, even after parts of it were resurfaced in 2022. For Chastain, he thinks there’s a couple different perspectives a driver can take when it comes to blemished track surfaces. On the one hand, part of him loves the idea of a perfectly smooth track with "symmetrical corners" for him to put down a perfect lap. But the “racing purist” in him also wants to drive on the “worst track possible.”

“I want bumps and cracks, different corners. I want to turn left and right...and just have variety, and COTA is getting that more and more," he says. "Our cars, they bottom out [and] slide...that’s what makes our racing so great is that we are out of control a lot."

Unlike F1 drivers, who tend to be more precise on track, NASCAR drivers use anything and everything to their advantage to get a win, much like Chastain’s straight-from-a-video-game wall-ride move that subsequently got banned at the beginning of January.

COTA might not have a wall to ride, but it does have a 133-foot first turn elevation change. While it can be a challenge for some, it isn’t for Chastain. The high elevation allows him to charge into the corner hard, let gravity slow him down while going uphill, then let the car slide down while heading into turn two.

“I love it. I wish more tracks had more elevation change like [COTA]. It makes the racing more dynamic, and being behind the wheel in the driver’s seat makes it more fun,” he says.

When considering the momentum it will take to score another win, Chastain admits it will be the biggest challenge he’s ever faced, but he’s confident in his ability to carry over that drive and motivation after his 2022 second-place Cup Series finish.

In line with the car’s continuing evolution, as he puts it, a recent aerodynamics change is expected to shake up who ends up at the top of the leaderboard. But his calm demeanor shows he isn’t phased by the changes.

“As simple as it sounds, we race in circles on Sunday afternoons, and this sport is a big circle of teams [and drivers] cycling up, cycling down,” says Chastain. “We’ll have to work harder than ever to try and stay at the top here.”

To kick off the race weekend and initiate some good luck for his Sunday race, Chastain (ever-connected to his roots) will drop watermelons off COTA’s illustrious 251-foot observation tower on Friday, March 24 at 2 pm.

The EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas will run from 2:30-6 pm on Sunday, March 26. More information about the race can be found at circuitoftheamericas.com, and tickets can be purchased at nascaratcota.com.

Former UT football star turns another page in AISD library renovations

Still defending the dream

There’s always more to discover in the world of books, and former Longhorns linebacker Derrick Johnson is making sure there are new places for it, too. The football star, who went on to play for the Chiefs, later created a foundation which has just installed its second “Discovery Den” in Austin at Langford Elementary School, unveiling it on March 23.

Johnson’s Discovery Dens are minor library renovations that include furniture for kids who would like to read together or independently, plus “750 new age-appropriate and culturally relevant books.” Photos also show wall decals of Johnson and encouraging words such as “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.”

“I’m thrilled to continue our work in Austin and transform Langford Elementary’s library into a space that inspires kids to open a book and their minds for a brighter future,” said Derrick Johnson.

Defend the Dream Foundation — now 11 years old, almost as long as Johnson’s 14-year NFL career — prioritizes low-income and inner city youth in Title I schools to encourage success both in and out of school. Kendra Scott, a well-known Austin-based jewelry designer with frequent philanthropic endeavors, matched the foundation’s contribution to the Langford project as a co-funder.

“Education is a key component of our philanthropy pillar at Kendra Scott, and we’re proud to provide ongoing support for the Defend the Dream Foundation and all the good they do” said Kendra Scott CEO Tom Nolan. “The new library at Langford Elementary will provide the right resources to continue to inspire the future leaders of tomorrow.”

It is also thanks to Austin Ed Fund, a nonprofit education foundation through Austin Independent School District (Austin ISD), that the Dens can be created. The first Austin Discovery Den opened at Oak Springs Elementary School in September of 2022. There are 17 Dens in total across the United States, with multiple in the Chiefs' home of Kansas City.

“We are so grateful to DJ and his foundation for caring about our students and impacting schools in our community,” said Austin Ed Fund executive director Michelle Wallis. “We’ve already seen the positive impact that the Discovery Den has made in Oak Springs Elementary School, and we know that students at Langford Elementary will experience the same excitement in having new books to read in their new library space.”

More information about Defend the Dream Foundation is available at visit derrickjohnsonfoundation.org.

5 noteworthy Austin concerts to catch in the SXSW comedown

Music Notes

South by Southwest's domination of Austin may be done, but that doesn’t mean the music has stopped. See here for a handful of noteworthy shows with local artists that are happening over the next couple of weeks.

Aries Zodiac Party at the Far Out Lounge – Friday, March 24
The Aries Zodiac Party, which is exactly what you think it is, will go down at the Far Out Lounge this Friday, March 24. The event will feature performances by Nolan Potter’s Nightmare Band, Shooks, Sleep Well, and DJ Astral Violet, plus the Austin Witches Market. Tickets are $10, but if you’re an Aries, they’re only $5.

Deer Fellow at Radio Coffee & Beer – Saturday, March 25
Unraveling is the title of Deer Fellow’s new EP, and the indie folk-pop duo will be throwing a release show for it at Radio Coffee & Beer this Saturday, March 25. Support for the evening includes Redbud (solo), Aubrey Hays, and Elijah Delgado. This is a free show.

Futon Blonde at Chess Club – Thursday, March 30
Swing by Chess Club on Thursday, March 30, to help indie rockers Futon Blonde ring in the arrival of their new EP, Something That We’ve All Experienced Together Before. San Gabriel and Trumpeter Swan round out the bill. Tickets for the show are $10.

Glasshealer & Felt Out at Hotel Vegas – Friday, March 31
Hotel Vegas is set to host a double release show on Friday, March 31, as both Glasshealer and Felt Out will be celebrating having just put out brand new singles. God Shell will open for the co-headlining alternative acts. Tickets for the show are $10.

Lord Friday The 13th at Feels So Good – Saturday, April 1
Dust off your cassette player and head to Feels So Good on Saturday, April 1 for trash-glam-punk band Lord Friday the 13th’s tape release party for their Disaster Piece EP. Favor and Grocery Bag will kick off the show. Tickets for the show are $8 in advance, $10 the day of.