Zack Weiss Shares His Experience Building Gnarly Mountain Cookies | Westword

It's Not Easy to Bake Up a Successful Cookie Business, but It Is Sweet

Zack Weiss shares his experience building the Gnarly Mountain Cookies brand.
Zack Weiss is the owner of Gnarly Mountain Cookies.
Zack Weiss is the owner of Gnarly Mountain Cookies. Courtesy of Gnarly Mountain Cookies
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The word “entrepreneur” has always rubbed me the wrong way. It's something about the way it sounds so pretentious coming off the tongue, and that it seems to contradict the process it represents. I suppose it's also possible that my contention toward the word has to do with the amount of tries it takes me to spell it correctly. Either way, it makes me cringe every time someone asks, “What’s it like to be an entrepreneur?"

A much, much grittier-sounding word would be more appropriate for the long journey it takes to make a dollar from your own LLC.

I bought my first restaurant with a friend, borrowing a little of my parents' hard-earned money in my late twenties. The independent pizzeria needed a ton of cleaning up and more capital than I could find. It wasn’t my first business.

Earlier in my life, there had been some attempts at starting “something." Around the age of 24, I learned how to officially begin a company, with a less-than-successful bartender at-home platform. Before that, I created a product called Coffee Kites, which enhanced gas station coffee. (I still believe it was just too ahead of its time.)

And even before that, in my college dorm room, my first invention was the Lawn Net. It was a nylon, cross-patterned device to save people from having to rake leaves. Though it got a ton of attention from anyone walking by, it never amounted to anything except a ton of scrutiny and laughter at my expense.

In between working every possible restaurant job you can imagine, I put together ideas to start something new. Restaurant work alone is extremely difficult, but throw in running three of your own lunch salad QSRs during the day to your six-night-a-week bar job, and sometimes you find yourself in some type of Christopher Nolan world, unable to identify what level of consciousness you need to wake up from.
click to enlarge cookies in plastic wrappers
You can find Gnarly Mountain cookies in restaurants and local markets around Colorado.
Gnarly Mountain
When I finally created Gnarly Mountain Cookies in 2020, I knew I had something that could last. It's much easier to identify a concept that works after closing so many others. Failure truly is an amazing teacher.

The work that goes into growing a consumer packaged goods (CPG) concept is very similar to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. There are long hours with tons of trial and error, marketing, staffing, paperwork and licensing, combined with problems you never even thought were possible.

It’s incredibly fun, too. Being able to create something that people pull off the shelf and put into their shopping cart is satisfying and a bit addictive.

The biggest difference between creating, making, marketing and selling a packaged good versus putting together a restaurant is that you get to spend a significant amount of time outside of those four walls. Building a place, instead of an item, requires being stuck at a single location hour after hour, after hour, after hour. It's enough to drive a person that’s crazy enough to open a restaurant even crazier. Neither is an easy task — both have their ups and downs and a ton of hair-pulling stress — but being able to be outside the four walls has been the best part.

It has allowed me to meet all those small-business owners doing similar steps to grow recognition and sales with their own brands such as Rocky Mountain Soda Co., Homeslice Potato Chips, Kream Kimchi and Lost Sauces.

There is an incredible CPG community in Colorado, where people go out of their way to share ideas, production spaces, ingredients and shelf space to help one another out. The camaraderie is both beneficial and essential. It goes beyond the farmers' markets and food shows into Instagram collaborations and product giveaways.

I have no doubt that there is mutual respect among members in most hardworking industries, but there seems to be something especially respectful in the world of food entrepreneurship. It’s more than trying to get our items into Whole Foods and Costco. It’s more than watching Shark Tank and listening to How I Built This. It’s something else that connects. Maybe it's just that we all love what we do.

Setting up demos, searching for affordable ingredients, pleading with distributors, nights of production and driving hours every day gives us all something to discuss and even laugh about, when time allows.

Regardless of the brand name on the labels, the common goal seems to be to produce a product we’re proud of, in a way that holds true to our own values, and, if we’re lucky enough, find a little balance between our own lives and the cookies we’re baking.
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