One year ago, Jen and Ray Ezenbacher decided to turn their favorite late night snack into a Jacksonville Beach small business, having never anticipated the challenges coming their way. Despite dealing with a global pandemic, the couple credits devotion to improvement and a supportive local community as to what has helped them survive.
Back in 2019, the Ezenbachers were simply thinking about how much they loved cookies, especially Jen’s. She grew up in a family that loved to bake, and was constantly testing recipes from friends. After meeting Ray, it turned out he didn’t mind being a taste-tester. As a married couple, homemade cookies with ice cream became their go-to treat. This mutual love of sweets got them thinking, why couldn’t they bake and sell their own cookies at the beach? Yet, as fate would have it, one day Jen passed by what appeared to be an empty shop on a corner of 13th Ave. N. Curious, she returned with Ray and a ‘for sale’ sign appeared out front. Before the property had even been officially listed online, they decided to pursue renting the storefront and Cookies and Creme was born.
“We had been talking about this idea, and it was like the very next day the big real estate sign was outside ” Jen said. “It happened so fast.” “We’ve let the business grow very organically since then. We didn’t force anything,” Ray added.
Once acquainted with their new space, locals began flocking in to check out the newest dessert spot in town. The response was great, but customers began asking if the ice cream was homemade in addition to the cookies. While it wasn’t at first, Ray decided he was going to learn the art of ice cream making – and not just from Google. Instead, he found a former ice cream shop owner to mentor him for a month. “He taught me the process of putting the ice cream together, building flavors and how you work the machine. Now all of our recipes are literally ones I’ve made up myself,” Ray said. “To be quite honest, most of the ice cream flavors I make from scratch are made on a whim based on what sounds good.”
Now able to sell both homemade cookies and ice cream, Cookies and Creme has developed a long list of repeat customers. Their most popular flavor is Cookies and Creme Extreme, made with ground up frozen cookies from the day before. Delicious and sustainable. Jen and Ray say they have worked hard to create a place where all ages can go, enjoy their products and “just be.” “The response has been overwhelming,” Jen said. “People have been so encouraging and supportive. They’ll even stop by just to check on us and ask how we’re doing if they’re next door getting gas.”
Although Cookies and Creme anticipated business picking up during the spring and summer months, the spread of coronavirus rapidly changed day-to-day business operations. Once bustling with playful kids and hungry patrons, the Ezenbachers say they were forced to use the virus as an opportunity to elevate their standards and ensure they could deliver their products in the safest way possible.
“It’s been scary and nerve wracking, but at the same time it’s comforting to know how unbelievably supportive the local community has been,” Ray said. “We have locals that come here fi ve to six times a week, buy gift certificates just to get them and genuinely support us. That’s incredible to me.” Since they already wore gloves and hairnets in the kitchen area, the onset of the coronavirus mostly meant shifting service to the door rather than from behind the counter. Everyone wears masks, everything is constantly wiped and sanitized and any employee who feels uncomfortable performing certain tasks is accommodated. Why? Because they say their shop is about more than just making a dollar, but about proving that they are a part of the community that truly cares.
“I think we just do a lot of things that are different from other ice cream-type places,” Jen said. “We wake up in the morning trying to just catch up with what happened overnight. We want to know what people are thinking, talking about and what they want.” Heading into their second year of business, Ray says that he and Jen are assessing business operations daily. Along with staying on top of all coronavirus- related mandates, they use a suggestion box and use online feedback to ensure that they’re doing all they can to promote happy customers and continued success.
“When we first opened I took on the motto ‘all you’re trying to do is get a little bit better everyday,’” Ray said. “Focusing on getting a little better each day is how everything has grown into what it has. Our business is growing and it’s cool to watch, but it’s even cooler to be a part of.” Through these efforts, Cookies and Creme has survived a pandemic in its fi rst year. Whatever comes the business’s way during year two, Jen and Ray are ready with the support of Jacksonville Beach.
“We appreciate the community more than they’ll ever know,” Ray said. “What you put out you always get back.”