Peter Zinn used to spend his days making New Orleans-style sandwiches and spicy gumbo at Po’ Boys & Pickles, a popular fast casual restaurant on Forest Avenue that serves food from the Big Easy. This week, three years after he sold the restaurant, he’s spending every day making coconut macaroons that will start hitting the shelves of Hannaford next month and be in 170 stores by November. Hannaford has ordered 416 cases, which works out to 20,384 cookies.

Zinn adds coconut to a batch of macaroons. In one of several arrangements he set up, Zinn has helped Portland Pie/It’ll Be Pizza with its pizza dough projects in exchange for use of the gluten-free room in the company’s commercial kitchen in Scarborough.

It takes a passionate baker to churn out that many macaroons all by himself, and Zinn is nothing if not passionate about his product. He’s been focusing on these cookies for nearly five years – lightening the recipe, changing the packaging and doing anything else he needed to do to get them just right. He even went through a phase where he didn’t like his own product anymore.

But now all of his hard work is finally starting to pay off. It’s been a long and difficult journey, and the story of how he got from there to here is a lesson in perseverance and passion for good, clean food.

“I didn’t really know anything about grocery store products,” the 39-year-old Portland resident said. “I just thought, if something works in a restaurant, it can work in a grocery store.”

There are other restaurant owners who have dreamed of turning one of their customers’ favorite dishes into a product they can sell to the masses, but not enough to be considered a trend, says Christine Cummings, executive director of the Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association.

“In some circumstances, it’s a natural progression or an extension of their business line to private label or value-added products,” she said. “… I think a lot of it boils down to the perfect storm of an amazing product and passion.”

Peter Zinn packages Choomis in Scarborough on Sept. 7. Hannaford has ordered 416 cases, which works out to 20,384 cookies. The Choomis will begin to appear on Hannaford shelves next month, and be in 170 Hannaford stores by November.

GOODS COMPANY

Chef Michael Gagne’s decadent cream cheese biscuits became so popular with diners at the Robinhood Free Meetinghouse restaurant in Georgetown that Gagne eventually gave up the restaurant to develop a version to sell in grocery stores. He ended up founding a family baking business, Gagne Foods, and now the company’s product line includes cinnamon rolls, sticky buns, scones and other baked goods. Last year, the Napolitano family, owners of Bruno’s Restaurant & Tavern in Portland, launched a line of frozen ravioli that is now in 12 to 15 local stores, and they are working on a contract with Hannaford that would put the product into about a dozen of its locations.

The ravioli, made in a commercial kitchen on Read Street, comes in flavors such as cheese, spinach and butternut squash, and as the company grows, Dan Napolitano says, the family hopes to add dressings and sauces.”These are some of our top-selling menu items that we figured would do well in the marketplace,” Napolitano said.

Napolitano said he can identify with some of Zinn’s bumps in the road from restaurant to grocery shelf. Napolitano had to invest in new equipment to scale up production, which changed his recipes a bit. And he’s had to learn how to balance working in the restaurant and at the commercial kitchen, in part by delegating some of his responsibilities to others.

But macaroons are not ravioli.

CRACKING THE COOKIE

Zinn moves boxes of Choomis in Scarborough.

The story of Zinn’s macaroons begins at Veritas, a New York City restaurant where he used to work. Veritas made a version of the cookie – more like a petit four, Zinn says – and he began tweaking it, changing proportions and bake times, to make it his own. After living for a while in New Orleans, Zinn moved back to Maine and opened Po’ Boys & Pickles in 2009. Eventually his big, dome-shaped coconut macaroons ended up in their own case on the counter, one cookie for $1. Browned and a little crunchy on the outside, they were sweet and creamy on the inside. They usually sold out before lunch.

“People were just gaga for them,” Zinn said. “People would come in and they’d be like, ‘I want a dozen macaroons.’ Meanwhile, I’m thinking these things are so sweet and sugary and buttery, how are you eating these? But I guess I also didn’t put together that they were eating them about an hour after they came out of the oven. They were eating them after a good, salty sandwich, so they were already indulging and why not throw a macaroon on top of that?”

Shannon Tallman, specialty cheese buyer at Whole Foods Market in Portland, was an early fan of Zinn’s restaurant and his cookies. She and her wife bought them regularly to take to concerts at the State Theater, calling them their “show macaroons.”

“What I loved the most about them was they were sugary good,” she said. “They were creamy on the inside. The coconut wasn’t bitter. It was perfect.”

Zinn saw opportunity in the popularity of his cookies. Around 2013, he decided to try to get them into grocery stores. At first, he signed on with a few small co-packers; Gagne Foods was one of the early ones. He named the cookies “Desert Island Coconut,” packaged them in shiny blue bags under the brand name “Choomi,” and sold them to his fan base at Po’ Boys and a few local grocers, including the Portland Food Co-op and Lois’ Natural Marketplace. The cookies were a bit smaller than the originals, and shaped like pucks instead of domes. But they were still a hit with customers like Tallman, who confesses she’s “eaten a bag of Choomis on my couch without thinking twice.”

Zinn immediately started expanding the brand by adding more flavors – the first was Rainforest Coconut, made with banana, chocolate and almonds, followed by chocolate sea salt, then maple raisin – but it wasn’t long before he realized he was getting in over his head.

“None of (the flavors), I thought, were that stellar, but I was very anxious to expand the line and fill a niche – or what I thought was a niche,” Zinn said. “So I got them into Hannaford just locally – 12 stores – and I was delivering them myself, which was really hard because I was running the restaurant.”

The cookies were stocked in Hannaford’s bakery department, not on the grocery shelves with other cookies.

Peter Zinn’s Choomi Cookies – homemade coconut macaroons – will be sold in 170 Hannaford stores this fall.

Zinn also got Choomis into 15 Whole Foods Market stores in Maine and Massachusetts through a small distributor, and “I thought this was going to be a big deal.”

What he didn’t realize was “there are 50,000 cool, interesting products made by guys like me in Whole Foods, so you do not stand out,” he said. “Even the products in Whole Foods that are made by giant corporations have been re-tweaked in a way to make them look like they’re from small, independent producers, so you can’t even compete on that level. You’re going up against, like, Lara Bar, which is owned by General Mills.”

DRIVING THE CHOOMI

For two years, Zinn drove around to all the Whole Foods stores that carried Choomi cookies and handed out samples, “which was a very depressing situation, but I learned a lot from it.”

When Zinn pushed his samples, he sold out quickly and the store would re-order. But “if I wasn’t there people weren’t buying it,” he said. “Part of the problem was I wasn’t a recognized brand, and other problem was the product had flaws, and I was starting to realize that.”

When Zinn recognized customers who’d bought the cookies before, he’d pull them aside and ask them to be honest. Would they buy the cookies again? And if not, why not?

Unlike Tallman, it turns out that most customers weren’t downing an entire bag at one sitting. Most customers told Zinn the cookies were simply too rich and too dense, and would grow stale before they could finish the bag.

In 2015, Zinn sold Po’ Boys & Pickles to concentrate on the cookies full time. (He still provides Choomis to the restaurant.) He took the money from the sale and invested it, and that’s what he’s been using to live on and develop his new company – that and odd food jobs around town. He worked part-time at Ten Ten Pié, a bakery on Cumberland Avenue, in exchange for the use of its kitchen as a test kitchen and advice from baker/owner Atsuko Fujimoto. He also spent some time at Otto because he’s always been “fascinated by their efficiency” and wanted to learn more about how the business is run. He’s helped Portland Pie/It’ll Be Pizza with its pizza dough projects in exchange for use of the gluten-free room in the company’s commercial kitchen in Scarborough and access to its distribution and broker networks. (That’s where he still does all of his work.)

CHANGE IS GOOD

Zinn, who does all the baking himself except for occasional help from a friend or It’ll Be Pizza employee, began making changes to his cookie recipe and testing it in a few local stores and with distributors.

“My distributors were very loathe to change anything,” Zinn said. “They were like, ‘Listen, dude, we got you in the system, we’ve already got you set up, and now you want to change this? I don’t think so.’ ”

But he did it anyway. He replaced the white sugar with coconut sugar. The original product was gluten-free, but the new one was also dairy-free and soy-free, and made with ingredients with less volatile pricing. (The original contained vanilla, which sold for record prices last year.) The packaging went from bright colors to brown bags with more muted colors that emphasized the ingredients and featured silhouettes of active people hiking and biking.

“This really conveys the image of a healthy cookie,” Zinn said. “It’s not going to make you feel bad after you eat it, but it also really tastes good.”

The new version – at a retail cost of $4.99 a bag – is indeed much less sweet and a bit less creamy inside, but has more depth of flavor. There’s a touch of caramelization and nuttiness that is reminiscent of brown butter. Zinn says that comes from the combination of the coconut sugar and ground flax seed in the cookies.

Zinn’s added just one other flavor to the new line – a version of the macaroon that also contains toasted sunflower seeds and soy-free chocolate chips.

At one point, Zinn stopped doing demos and waited to see if the new cookies would move off the shelves on their own, “and the movement was good.”

In May, Zinn scored a meeting with the cookie buyer from Hannaford, who had the power to get Zinn’s new cookies on the grocery shelves, where they’re almost certain to sell better. Zinn recalls getting tears in his eyes as he pitched the product to the buyer. “I just laid it on the table,” Zinn said. “I said, ‘Man, I’ve been driving these things around in my Subaru for four years. I’ve put so much time and effort into this… and I know this product is going to work.’ ”

A month later, the broker called and broke the news: Choomi cookies were going into 170 Hannaford stores.

“I was on the turnpike and had to pull over,” Zinn said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Zinn’s brother was in the car with him, and the first thing he asked was “How much money are you going to make?” Zinn replied that he didn’t care: “All I want is for these cookies to be in the stores!”

Zinn is still working to build relationships with buyers from other grocery chains, but with a long-term view. He believes that getting into too many stores, too fast, might actually work against him.

“If you do that and you don’t have a strong following, you have problem,” he said.

Zinn wants residents of northern New England to embrace the product first. That way, when he approaches other chains, “not only can I show the data, I can do it with confidence.”

So for now, he’ll focus on selling Choomi 2.0 locally. For a while, Zinn made both versions of the cookie, but he had to stop baking the original ones because “I couldn’t do it. I didn’t like the product anymore. …When I’d go hiking, I didn’t want to bring my own cookies with me.”

That’s not a problem anymore.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

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