That buttery lump of chocolate and nuts and dough may not look like much to you, but to David Liederman it's an edible manifestation of the American dream.
Six years ago, Liederman invented David's Cookies, the pricey, caloric creation that now keeps yuppie blood sugar levels elevated in three stores around Washington and 130 around the world. The cookie has spawned a chain of franchised stores with a retail gross of close to $40 million. And, he says, all of this is not just good for David Liederman; it's good for America.
"There's an entrepreneurial message here that's very real," says Liederman at the Pennsylvania Avenue David's, where he, free cookies and some David's tote bags are the attractions at a store promotion. "The cookies taste good," he says, "and you can still make it in America if you're willing to work your butt off."
Which means, according to Liederman, that he has not only contributed to satisfying a nation's sweet tooth, but also made a difference in its economy. When he opens a David's store in Paris (as he soon will) or when he ships off a load of batter to another store abroad (there are 11 in Japan), he is helping reverse the trade deficit. And when you lay out $6.29 for a pound of Macadamia Chocolate Chunk or Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk, you are in your own little way contributing too.
It could make a cookie eater proud.
"The American specialty food business, which I define as an area where people are trying to make the best of any given product, is one of the few remaining exportable entities we have left in this country," says the 36-year-old Liederman. "People around the world want to buy American food products. You walk down the streets of Paris -- if it's not in English, they're not buying it. There are bagel stores opening up in Paris, there are little boutiquey rib stores opening up."
Liederman leans forward, his sizable body looking about to lurch from the stool where it is precariously perched. The direct gaze, the grand claims -- Liederman delivers his cookie doctrine in a manner as intense as the heavy scent of butter and chocolate that fills the shop. After all, this is the man whose company distributes a press release, titled "David Liederman: A Perspective," that claims a child on Long Island "awoke from a coma and the first words out of his mouth were, 'Give me a David's Cookie.' His mother contends that visions of cookies may have kept the child alive. Dramatic as that may be, similar stories abound . . ."
A lapsed lawyer who trained as a chef in a three-star French restaurant, wrote a bestselling cookbook, sold frozen sauces and opened a Manhattan restaurant, Liederman has spent years around food, time enough to develop a lengthy list of gastronomic theories.
There's the Three-Hours-a-Day Theory: "The average American spends three to four hours a day thinking about what they're going to eat, when they're going to eat or eating. Some spend more. Me, I spend about 12."
There's the Cookie-as-Social-Barometer Theory: "Every time the arms race hits the front pages, cookie sales soar. Every time the stock market drops, cookie sales soar because everyone's depressed. We play on the human emotions."
And there's the Muffin Theory: "Most people like muffin tops. They eat the top and throw out the bottom."
Such comments are not mere philosophizing, for when Liederman has a theory, he acts on it. Hence David's Muffin, coming soon to a David's franchise near you.
"It's a very crazy muffin," he says. "We actually invented a pan that's about a half-inch bottom and all the rest is top."
The birth of the chocolate chip cookie craze is generally dated to 1974, when the then not-yet-famous Amos opened the world's first free-standing cookie store in New York to sell his Famous Amos cookies. Liederman and others followed, nostalgia for home-baked grew, and as the trend trickled down from the high-priced shops in Manhattan to the rest of the country, the big-time cookie manufacturers caught on, introducing a dentist's nightmare of soft chocolate chip cookies.
Wally Amos now sells his cookies in grocery stores, a move fresh-baked devotee Liederman says he will not consider, leaving Liederman and Debbi Fields to dominate the cookie-store market. The woman behind Mrs. Fields Chocolate Chippery stores owns about 100 more stores than Liederman's franchise-based operation and, he says with a smile, "we hate each other appropriately because it's good for PR."
But Liederman reserves his true hatred for the soft-and-chewy-cookies-come-lately that the large companies are now producing, cookies he says are softened with chemicals and assorted trickery.
Instead of cooking the things quickly and at high heat as he does, Liederman says, Nabisco ensures the inside will be gooey and the outside crispy by using two different doughs that cook at different temperatures, one wrapped around the other. Liederman describes the process, called "enrobing," in the tones of a disgusted artiste dismissing a hack. To him, this is not what the chocolate chip cookie is all about.
Even in an era of enrobing, however, there remains plenty of room for entrepreneurs like Liederman, although not all ventures are greeted with equal public enthusiasm. Consider David's Light Chocolate Chunk. Nothing worries Liederman as much as what he calls "the whole health issue," so a drastically dietetic cookie with half the sugar, chocolate and butter seemed like a great idea.
"It was fairly awful," he says. "It was a total bomb with the exclusion of the Hamptons, where everyone is fanatical about health."
Liederman is now working on a prototype cookie with 20, rather than 50, percent less of all those good, fattening things. But Liederman doesn't worry that America's quest for fitness will lead to a fitness-crazed ascetism in which there would be no room for macadamia nuts and chocolate.
"They've been eating a lot of chocolate chip cookies since 1930 when the chocolate chip cookie was born somewhere called -- you guessed it -- the Toll House Inn and per capita the numbers grow each year. It's not croissants, which caught on and then faded, or yogurt, which had no basis in Americana.
"I have to believe that chocolate chip cookies will last. The chocolate chip cookie is one of the five most identifiable American foods -- the hamburger, fried chicken, french fries, maybe hot dogs, chocolate chip cookies. You ask, what's the relevance of this? The relevance is that this year it's going to be a 7- to 10-billion-dollar industry, of which I would say 2 to 3 billion is chocolate chip related."
And when the first-generation yuppies give way to yuppettes like his 4-year-old daughter, Liederman has no doubt his cookies will still be popular.
"The kids will have grown up with them. I look at the kids in my daughter's class. They want to eat the right cookie. They don't want a Good Humor bar, they want a Dove Bar."
Sugarphobia may come and sugarphobia may go, but David Liederman knows the upwardly mobile cookie is forever.