December 01, 2000 Features & Images » Feature Story


The way the Cookie Co. crumbles

The word "legendary" is bandied about Whistler all too frequently for a town that’s only 25 years old. It’s regularly grafted on to events and "traditions" that have only a three or four year history as part of a marketing effort to inflate importance through the use of adjectives.

If there are few true legends in Whistler, there are some institutions. However, there is now one less institution, following the closure of the Whistler Cookie Co. last week.

The Cookie Co. was started by Pearl Barnard in 1987, about the time Whistler was starting to claw its way out of the recession. Back when the space behind the Keg building was still a parking lot, quad chairs were brand new on Blackcomb and a destination visitor was someone from Seattle, Barnard opened a little coffee shop in the St. Andrew’s Building. She didn’t have to compete too hard for the space, as pretty well the only people willing to go into business in Whistler were people who already lived here.

The Cookie Co. was a hangout. Slightly off the main pedestrian routes in the village, people rode their bikes to the Cookie Co. – and as Whistler grew, they rolled their baby strollers to the Cookie Co. – to drink coffee, eat Pearl’s muffins and chew the fat.

One of the regulars was Neil Collins. Like Victor Kayam, Collins enjoyed the Cookie Co. so much that, a little over four years ago, he bought the company. The Cookie Co. had – throughout its 13 year history – a loyal customer base that kept the business profitable. But as the village had doubled in size and the coffee shop chains had moved in since Barnard first opened, things were a little tougher. After nearly nine years, Barnard was ready for a change. Collins was ready for a new challenge, so they made a deal.

About a year and a half ago, Collins moved the Cookie Co. to a space in the Westbrook building. His customers followed. In fact, last year SKI magazine did a story on places at the major ski resorts that are locals’ hangouts, and the Whistler Cookie Co. was mentioned.

The business has continued to be profitable, according to Collins, but he decided about three months ago to wind things down. There were a number of factors: Collins has to have surgery on a knee next spring and he will be out of action for at least six months after the operation; getting staff has become more of a problem this year; his rent was going to go up next year; and he got a good offer for his space.

"Nobody wanted to purchase it as the Cookie Co.," Collins said. "The space is the valuable commodity."

His landlord has been fair, he added. "It’s just the way the market is going."

He looked at changing the business, to generate more profit from the space. He says an Internet café would have worked, "but then it wouldn’t have been the Cookie Co."

Collins says it’s not impossible for independent businesses to survive in Whistler, but the days of the Ma and Pa shops are gone. A business needs to be a certain size and more diversified than just one store-front operation in order to survive.

There are many who would point out that the Cookie Co. story is just a fact of life in Whistler today, that rents are established by the market and you have to adjust your business accordingly to stay in business. While that’s true, there are other factors in Whistler that make it difficult for small businesses to survive. The people who closed the successful Creekside Pharmacy because they couldn’t find a pharmacist willing to put up with the cost of living in Whistler come to mind.

We note again the efforts in places like Basalt and Telluride, Colorado, where those communities have extended the employee housing approach to business in order to keep rents affordable for local business owners.

Perhaps there is no municipally-imposed policy or program that can be applied to Whistler to maintain the character that locally owned businesses provide. After all, business is a competition.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised there are so few legends or institutions in Whistler.

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