Ben Clark may be uniquely qualified to predict the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. He is not a pollster or a political strategist. He makes cookie cutters.
Metal baking tools are an amazing cultural touchstone, said Clark, who directs Ana Clark, the largest cookie cutter manufacturer in the United States. Just after the 2016 election, he noticed that the sales percentage of his Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump cutters roughly aligned with the vote.
Last spring, shapes of guitars and musical notes began selling at a rapid pace, just as Taylor Swift began her eras tour. In July, lipstick-shaped cookie cutters and convertible cars gained traction, thanks to barbie mania.
A recent morning at the Rutland factory. Vermont, Clark was puzzled about next year's election, specifically, how to create an image of President Biden, whose silhouette is not as recognizable. Suddenly, he hit him.
You may not know Ann Clark's name, but whether you buy a cookie cutter at Williams-Sonoma or Amazon, it's probably hers. The company, founded in 1989 by Ann and John Clark, Clark's parents, says it accounts for about 65 percent of all original product sales in the country, about $12 million a year.
Its strategy is twofold: launch a wide variety of cookie cutters on the market (about five million a year, in 750 shapes) to see what sells. And respond quickly to new fashions and trends: a winning move in an industry dominated by companies that are not as agile because they import their products from China.
Ann Clark sells classic cutters like The Gingerbread Man and the heartBut their best-selling products tend to have more unconventional shapes: a glass jar (the big hit of 2015), a flame (huge in 2019). This year's breakout star is a gnome; The company attributes its popularity to the success of cabina spirit that embraces rustic life.
With nostalgia on the rise, the company predicts that next year there will be more interest in '60s and '70s psychedelia, with shapes like mushrooms and peace signs. Given the post-pandemic surge in travel, globes and stacks of suitcases may become fashionable.
While cookie cutters are closely associated with Christmas (and Ann Clark generates 40 percent of its sales this time of year), a large part of the company's success is because it recognizes that cookie decorating is an activity that takes place throughout the year and serves legions of devoted customers that cry out for new and unusual forms.
“Cookie cutter collectors are part of a cult,” said Arlene Chua, a banker and cookie decorator in Staten Island who owns about 5,000 cookie cutters. She recently turned a coat closet into classic storage, with bins sorted by themes like Christmas, fashion and baby showers.
Cookie cutters connect her to memories. Her high-heeled shoe cutter reminds him of her shopping in Manhattan; she associates his church-like church with her mother, a devout Catholic.
A cookie cutter “is almost like an extension of our personality,” Chua said. Many collectors have shapes that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Given all this, you might expect the Clark family and their company to be the birthplace of Christmas cheer. But on a Monday in December, the factory, a gray building in an industrial park, looked more like a welding plant than Santa's workshop. Inside were a bunch of power tools, sheet metal, cardboard boxes, and conveyor belts.
Some festive decorations stood out: a wreath at the entrance, painted gingerbread men in cubicles and doors as little surprises. Mrs. Clark, 83, with her long white hair and bright eyes, could easily pass for Mrs. Claus.
His start in the business did not come through baking, but through art. Ms. Clark was painting ornaments and other objects to sell at craft shows in 1989 when she drew a pig and depicted the image on various items, such as a coaster, cutting board and cookie cutter. The cutters sold more than everything and her husband convinced her to bet on them. She (she Died in 2000).
His son Ben, now 59, joined the company in 1998 simply because he wanted to return home from Maryland.
The cookie cutter, he said, “is a widget to me.”
Like any good gadget, it must meet rigorous specifications. “It has to be very resilient,” Clark said. The bottom should be sharp enough to cut cold dough, but not so sharp that it hurts the baker. The shape should be instantly recognizable (although some require thorough inspection). That reindeer can't have thin legs, which can easily break when baked.
The cutters themselves are also manufactured with great precision. Strips of bright tinned steel are cut to the precise length of each cookie cutter and welded into circles. Those circles are placed on top of heavy metal dies and, with the push of a button, a set of arms pushes the metal into specific positions to form the shape.
The machines can make between 600 and 1,000 cutters per hour and allow the company to develop new shapes quickly without relying on an outside supplier, as most of its competitors do.
Despite all the automation, the cookie cutter remains one of the few timeless and economical tools in an increasingly mechanized world of baking, said Kay Johnson, curator of the Cookie Cutter National Historical Museum in Joplin, Missouri.
Cookie cutters are also mirrors of American culture through the ages, he said. For example, one way historians know that colonists In the 19th century, cards were played with cookie cutters in the shape of the four suits. In the 20th century, many of the most popular children's songs were those, like “Humpty Dumpty” and “Hickory Dickory Dock,” whose characters had become cookie cutters.
Mr. Clark keeps up with current fashions by checking online search data. While anyone can submit an idea for a shape, search interest in particular shapes generally determines which ones are produced. One inspired by Barbie doll head received an immediate green light, while a proposal to make a Covid-era surgical mask was rejected. And some ideas don't work: Two years ago, the company stopped production of a gun-shaped cookie cutter because employees objected.
“I've abandoned my predictions on this,” Mr. Clark said.
Suddenly random shapes will appear and he will try to find an explanation. Why sales hexagons jump in the spring? Because people are doing hamantasche for the Jewish holiday of Purim. and the rise in moons almost at the same time? Ramadan.
The future of the business is harder to imagine. The rise of 3D printing could threaten the Clarks giant; Some companies are using technology to print plastic cookie cutters on demand in highly personalized ways.
It's also unclear how long Americans will remain interested in cookie cutters. Sales were stable from November 2022 to October 2023, according to market research company Circana.
Eliminating cookies takes time and patience, Clark said, but “now we're looking for instant gratification.”
Still, there is a larger potential audience. Ann Clark began expanding internationally in 2018 and its cutters are now available throughout Europe and in countries such as Japan and Brazil.
Mr. Clark considered researching the specific traditions of each country and developing forms accordingly. Instead, he launched the 750 shapes overseas and saw what sold well.
The rise in the number of teddy bear cutters in the UK taught the importance of stuffed animals, which many Britons keep childhood past. The popularity of goose-shaped cookie cutters in Germany introduced him to St. Martin's Day, a holiday. whose centerpiece is a roast goose.
The experience cemented a valuable lesson, Clark said. What better way to learn about the world than through your cookie cutters?
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