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Building a Muffin Empire

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Most mornings around 8 at Little Miss Muffin headquarters on North Rockwell, the ovens fire up and a staff of some 38 bakers goes to work. "We bake for about 12 hours a day," says Staci Munic Mintz, who runs the operation with her brother Kenny. As the sun goes down, the company's seven muffinmobiles hit the streets, making overnight deliveries of muffins, doughnuts, scones, brownies, croissants, cookies, and bars to coffeehouses, restaurants, and hotels throughout Chicago and beyond.

It all started one night in 1993, when the Munic family was sitting around the dinner table. Patriarch Herman, longtime owner of the Ronny's restaurants and some of the original West Egg Cafes, commented on how many people he saw walking through the Loop carrying expensive coffee drinks. He suggested that someone should start a muffin company to give the numerous coffee bars something decent to serve with their pricey joe.

The muffin idea couldn't have been better timed for his son and daughter. Staci had gone straight from college with a degree in hotel restaurant management into a corporate job with Levy Restaurants, working at properties including Spiaggia, Bistro 110, and the Blackhawk Lodge. After nearly five years with Levy she had taken some time off to travel, including a three-week stint volunteering with the Israeli army. Recently she'd returned home, and she couldn't decide what to do next.

Her younger brother, who had worked in kitchens from the time he was 13, had decided he didn't want to go to a full-blown cooking school. Instead he'd attended a shorter program at the Ritz Escoffier in Paris, graduating with top honors. Then he'd come back to Chicago and started working with his father.

Staci came up with the idea of focusing on low-fat muffins, and the two went to work. "Our dad had had a full-size commercial baking setup in one of his restaurants, and we rented space in the basement," says Kenny. "Our first generation of muffins was very standard--blueberry, lemon poppy seed, cranberry--but our customers wanted new things."

Their brother Robert, a film writer in LA, came up with the idea for what's still their best-seller: the low-fat peach blueberry cobbler muffin. Over time the lineup grew to include flavors like mocha (made with decaf coffee), s'more, raspberry poached pear, and black cherry oatmeal. "We used to eat out a lot and got ideas that way," says Kenny. "If something tasted good, we tried to make it into a muffin, and we'd know real fast if it worked or not." They experimented with blueberry ginseng, sesame green tea, and tutti-frutti, he says: "They all sounded great, but tasted absolutely horrible."

In February 1997--by which time Little Miss Muffin was producing more than 40 low-fat flavors--the Munics introduced a full-fat line, Big Shoulders Baking, in response to requests from customers. It started with a dozen muffin flavors and one or two cookies. "Now we have 120 different flavors, including black cherry sour cream coffee cake, chocolate chip cannoli, malted milk ball, pumpkin pie, peanut butter and jelly, and turtle, among others," says Staci. The new line also allowed them to branch out into brownies, croissants, scones, and even rugalach.

After a year at their dad's place, they'd moved to a 5,000-square-foot location at 711 W. Grand. But shortly after the launch of Big Shoulders Baking they outgrew that space and moved the operation to its current location on Rockwell near Irving Park, complete with its own ovens, equipment, trucks, and drivers. In 1998 they launched Donut Boy, a line of cake and raised doughnuts, bismarcks, and Long Johns in flavors like French toast, rocky road, and strawberry banana split. "Our customers were saying that they could really use a couple dozen doughnuts a day," says Kenny. "We didn't want to invest a lot in doughnut equipment or have hot flowing grease in our bakery, so we contracted with another company to supply the doughnut base, and we finish them off with the toppings and fillings."

Coffeehouses and hotels make up the majority of their clientele. "We supply all of the Caribou Coffees in Chicago and probably 150 independent cafes and espresso bars in the greater Chicago area--up to the Wisconsin state line, south to Orland Park, and west to Naperville," says Kenny. Ennui Cafe in Rogers Park and the Perfect Cup in Ravenswood are clients, as are the on-campus food services at Northwestern and the University of Chicago. (They also have a mail-order retail business; see www.littlemissmuffin.com or call 800-4LOWFAT.)

As Little Miss Muffin approaches its tenth anniversary, the siblings are still thinking up ways to expand their business. In early November the bakery launched a line called Karma Cookies. Each one has a different Asian symbol on it, says Staci, with translations printed on the package--family, prosperity, joy, or happiness.

And still in the works is a high-fiber line called Mighty Muffins, which might be ready to go sometime next year. "They're sort of in response to Weight Watchers, their point system," says Staci. "Turns out Mighty Muffins are two points."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kevin Weinstein.

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