They call her The Cookie Lady. She has a name — Debbie Kuehn — and so does her hidden cookie shop: Santa Fe Cookie Co, an underground storefront in the shadow of the Republic Plaza building on the 16th Street Mall. But the business-casual clientele coming through the shop, pressing their tightly folded dollar bills into the jug and walking away with paper bundles of fresh cookies? They just know to pay a visit to the Cookie Lady, the woman working in the back, tossing fresh batches of cookies to supply regulars and the curious. It's a business based on trust, but Kuehn says her numbers always work out — and woe befall anyone who would try to upset the system. "If someone steals a cookie? From the Cookie Lady?" Kuehn says with a giggle. "There would be karmic trouble."
August 15, 2015 marks the thirty-year anniversary of Kuehn's life in cookies. She opened the Santa Fe Cookie Co in 1985 at the Tivoli, before its conversion into a student union for the Auraria Campus. From there, her business moved to a space that became Pizza Colore, then in 2008 to its current spot at 16th and Tremont, across from the recently shuttered Republic Plaza food court. The closing of that twentieth-century relic, formerly home of Chick-fil-A, Chinja and more, raised concerns about the humble bakery next door.
Even Kuehn had questions, since the complex had brought a significant after-lunch and after-dinner business to her shop. "I'm still a little concerned; we don’t know what's going to happen with the foot traffic," she says. Most of its tenants are gone, and the space converted to a fitness center and "relaxed collaborative space" accessible only to denizens of the tower. Will gym bunnies hop over for a post-workout dessert? Hard to say, but Kuehn feels ready to weather the changes. "I would say the reason I'm still in business is because of my loyal customers," she attests.
And they keep coming back for those cookies — $1 for a bag of three, same price it's always been. The cookies have remained the same, too. Hot and gooey in the morning and still lively later in the day, they're not sickly sweet, bland or doughy, and they're displayed on the shelf in a variety of dependable flavors. There are the basics: chocolate chip, oatmeal and peanut butter, whose recipes date back to when the Santa Fe Cookie Co. was a small New Mexico chain. The rest are Kuehn's own recipes, specialties like pecan praline and the mysterious space chip (candy-coated chocolate chunks), along with brownies and the occasional cupcake. And the almond crisps rarely stay on the shelf for long.
The dollar-deal cookies are her bread and butter, but Kuehn also has a long-standing wholesale business with Copper Mountain Resort — grab one of the cookies by the register at the ski area's cafeteria, and it probably comes from the Cookie Lady. And the White Whale food truck uses Santa Fe cookies to envelop Sweet Action Ice Cream for a satisfying mobile treat. "They find every event they can and they pull up their truck and sell lots of cookies," Kuehn says of the White Whale's entrepreneurial spirit. "They remind me of me thirty years ago."
That's the spirit that's kept her baking for decades — and will keep her baking for many more years. With any luck, she'll do it right at this spot.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.