Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Nina’s Cookies co-owner Maryann Whitehead. If you don’t know Nina’s Cookies, you should. Nina’s, located in Feeding Hills, MA, specializes in Italian cookies but also offers a wide array of other baked goods made from scratch, including scones, cupcakes, sugar cookies, and pies. Nina’s is the kind of bakery I love to visit: knowledgeable, kind staff; a friendly, unpretentious atmosphere; and undeniably good sweets (including the best darn rainbow cookies in the whole Pioneer Valley). Additionally, it’s owned and staffed by women—an inspiration for someone (me!) who dreams of future small business ownership.
Though my mom has been buying Italian cookies from Nina’s since it opened, I didn’t visit the bakery until last fall when I fell in love with the aforementioned rainbow cookies. I’ve since bought Italian cookies and a special order of personalized, hand-decorated sugar cookies. I continue to frequent the bakery whenever I’m in my hometown.
Maryann and I chatted about everything from biscotti to Facebook to childhood memories.* I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did and that it inspires you to stop by Nina’s next time you’re in Agawam!
Noelle Serafino: When did you open the bakery?
Maryann Whitehead: 7 years ago in April 2009
NS: What inspired you to open a bakery with a specialty in Italian cookies?
MW: I used to do baking out of my home. I would bake and people would call me and I’d bake all of my Italian cookies. At the time I only had a few varieties; now we carry around 20-something varieties of Italian cookies. And we do variations of those. It just got to be too much at the house. I was a stay at home mom and I used to do it at night when the kids would go to bed. I was up until almost two in the morning some nights especially during the holidays—that’s when I had a lot of energy. Our business was growing and we said “do we want to take the plunge?” I talked to my sister [co-owner Lucille Mazza] and we made the decision to do it. That was really how it got started.
NS: What’s your sister’s role in the business?
MW: She doesn’t bake but she does everything else; keeps the books, marketing. The other side of it. She pitches in and helps with everything here.
NS: Was it difficult to find this space [located at 541 Springfield Street, Feeding Hills]?
MW: We looked for a while. It was hard to find the space.
NS: Are you from Agawam?
MW: Originally from Springfield. I moved to Agawam many years ago—over 30 years ago now.
NS: Was it an issue opening the business in 2009 [during the height of the recession]?
MW: We seemed to do okay—it wasn’t great. When we opened, the Italian cookies would do good…but that’s all we sold. All of a sudden, for some reason, we made these sugar cookies one day. I had an intern that worked with me. And I said, “Do you know how to do these?” and so she started doing them. I didn’t know anything about doing sugar cookies. I started looking into what it would take to do it [sugar cookies] and then [head decorator] Rebecca came to my doorstep looking for a job. I’m so thankful each day that she came because she does phenomenal work. I’m so grateful to have her.
NS: What was Rebecca’s experience before she came here?
MW: She went to culinary school and she also interned at a bakery in Vermont that specifically does cakes.
NS: How long has she been here at Nina’s?
MW: 4 years
NS: How large is the staff at Nina’s?
MW: Five people: Rebecca (decorator), Rene (baker), Emily (decorator’s assistant), my sister, and me
NS: Are you self-taught?
MW: Yes. Looking back on this, I think to myself [laughs]… to take a plunge like this!
NS: I think it’s amazing—it’s really brave! Did you have moments of doubt in the beginning?
MW: Of course, oh yeah. Because you’re intimidated by all the other bakeries around because they’ve been in business a long time. But, you know, the way we look at it is, we’re not in competition with them. We just do different things than them.
NS: I agree. I love going to bakeries and I’m happy to patronize them all because everybody does something different.
MW: I agree. You go to one place to get one thing, and one place to get another thing. I wish other places would look at it that way.
NS: And it all helps; to have a vibrant community and a good economy you need to have small, local businesses. So it’s all a good thing for everybody I think.
NS: Being self-taught, did you learn Italian recipes from family?
MW: It started with my mother’s cookie—the ‘S’ shaped cookie. She made those when we were babies; she made them all our life. There wasn’t a time when she didn’t have a little bag of those in her pocketbook when we were kids. She carried them everywhere. And everyone loved them. And I thought, I should start making them. I thought that could be the center [of the business] and I could work around it. And I started finding recipes and collecting recipes that could be multiplied easily, made easily.
NS: Was that difficult when you were working from your house and still learning the business, to know how to scale the recipes up?
MW: Well not so much scaling them up, [but] getting the ingredients in bulk—the way you need to purchase things in order to get a good price.
NS: Would vendors give you the prices they would give a [more established] bakery?
MW: Not so much. There used to be a place out in Chicopee called OK Baker’s Supply and they were in business for a long time. I used to get a lot of my supplies there. They have since gone out of business. I would go there and buy a lot of my products. Costco right now is the place I go for things, believe it or not. Costco, Restaurant Depot…
NS: How many years did you work from your house?
MW: A lot, about ten. A long time.
NS: So by the time you opened Nina’s you already had loyal customers who followed you here [to Nina’s]?
MW: Yes, I already had a bit of a base. People knew me. And then I just started adding the biscotti.
NS: I love biscotti! Although I never really liked them until I started making them. About a year and a half ago I did a biscotti recipe test [for Leite’s Culinaria]. It’s not traditional. It has almond, coconut flakes, and chocolate chips so it has a lot going on.
MW: I like things like that.
NS: Yeah, I do too. It has great crunch and texture. And my husband, who doesn’t like sweets, loves my biscotti. At least I have one thing that he’ll eat!
(Interview continued below)
NS: What’s your favorite product at Nina’s?
MW: I love the biscotti. That’s my go-to. With a cup of tea.
NS: They’re not too sweet, that’s also what I like about them.
MW: If I want a snack that’s usually where I go. Though I’ve been known to take a cupcake.
NS: I think my mom likes those here. I think she likes the scones and the cupcakes.
MW: Our scones we make from scratch with fresh fruit. We make everything here. Really, we do. People think we’re crazy. That’s why we don’t carry a lot because we make everything here. It’s so much. It’s hard to keep up.
NS: I really respect that. That’s what I look for in a good bakery. And you’re right, there’s some people who would be like, “Why don’t you have this or that?” Because all of the ingredients that go into just one things—it takes a lot.
MW: It takes a lot—like I said, I only have one baker—so it takes a lot to keep a daily flow of all of this stuff every day.
NS: What time does the baker come in?
MW: She comes in at 8 [a.m.] believe it or not. We don’t have a lot of people that come in early morning. There are too many other places in the morning. Dunkin’ Donuts is right down the street.
NS: But I’d so much rather come here!
MW: I know but I can’t compete with the Dunkin’ Donuts of the world.
NS: I know; it’s fast and cheap and I understand the appeal and I occasionally will go to Dunkin’ Donuts too. But I live in Northampton and there are endless options for coffee, for everything, so I’d much rather try all that out than go to Dunkin’ Donuts. But I understand the convenience factor.
NS: What’s the hardest part about owning a bakery?
MW: I think the hardest part of this business for me is all the marketing and media stuff that you have to do; the endless emails. It’s really the marketing.
NS: You and your sister both handle that?
MW: Yes, and I hate it.
NS: And it’s always changing too. I’m sure it’s different now than when you first opened.
MW: I have a routine. Whatever we make, I try to take a picture of it. And I try to post it either on Instagram or Facebook and the website. I probably spend two hours doing that. It’s endless. And that’s the part that I hate about the business—I’m just not a marketing person.
NS: I work in communications for nonprofits and the thing that I find frustrating is that it [social media/technology] changes so fast…they change their algorithms.
MW: Yes. Now I’ve noticed I used to get tons of people that would share and like [social media posts on Facebook]. And now they want me to pay and I refuse to pay and so I noticed I’m not getting a tons of the likes and shares I used to get.
NS: It’s really annoying.
MW: It’s very annoying. So now I upload them on Instagram.
NS: I think Instagram is great. I prefer it, personally. I like the visual aspect and I think for something like a bakery it probably works even better than Facebook.
NS: What’s your favorite part of owning a bakery?
MW: The baking. I do love baking. Making things, especially new things. Seeing how they come out. I like waiting on the customers too.
NS: How often do you experiment with new recipes?
MW: Not much. Hah.
NS: Well you know what works for you so…
MW: We’d love to do more. We’re actually going to try to make pastry tarts next week. We’ve made them before. Next week is going to be the week. Fresh fruit is starting to come out; better fruit.
NS: Any rhubarb perhaps? I love rhubarb.
MW: Oh you do? I’ve never done a fresh fruit tart with rhubarb.
NS: I’ve never done it with a tart. I’ve made strawberry rhubarb pie a few times.
MW: We haven’t done a strawberry rhubarb pie. We do apple, all the traditional pies. I do make a great apple. It’s from scratch.
NS: Do you do pies around the holidays?
MW: Yes. I will start making them as soon as the apples come out though.
NS: What’s your typical routine when you come to work?
MW: I try to get here by 8 but it’s typically 8:30. It’s not because I’m home sleeping—it’s because I’m out running errands or picking up product or supplies. I come in and I will see what the girls are up to. If they need my help, if not, I go back and do my own thing. [I] typically make things that they don’t do, like the biscotti. I just pitch in wherever I’m needed. The past couple of days I’ve been helping Rebecca decorate.
NS: Is it busy this time of year with specialty cookie orders?
MW: We’ve been really busy. We haven’t stopped. We also supply Randall’s Farm in Ludlow. First they started with our sugar cookies. Then they started taking our Italian cookies in boxed form.
NS: And that’s a weekly thing?
MW: Lately it’s been weekly. Weekly or every other week; it depends on how well they sell. They keep us busy.
NS: How did that come about? Did they reach out to you?
MW: Yes, she [the owner] did. She saw us at the West Springfield bridal show and approached me.
NS: Is that something you’d like to do more of [supply to stores etc.]?
MW: I would love to if I could find another decorator [to keep up with demand].
NS: What other bakeries in the area do you like to visit?
MW: I’ve been to all the bakeries locally. When I’m out of town I visit other bakeries. I like to go in and see what they’re doing, what’s going on, what’s trending. I was in Florida recently and I went into a bakery and I noticed all she sold were cookie bars.
NS: Depending on where you are, especially in a big city, you can home in on that one thing; like donuts, or cupcakes, etc.
MW: Renee [the baker] is new to us; when she’s acclimated she’s going to start experimenting with other things. We have a lot of other things coming up that we want to try.
NS: I read on your website that your parents came here from Italy. What did they teach you about Italian food?
MW: My father was a good cook. He used to cook on occasion; my mother did most of the cooking. But when he did cook, he made the best veal cutlets. Once in a blue moon, when we could afford it, he’d get some [veal], and pound them so paper thin, they were so delicious. He would do a lot of things from scratch. And my mother, she did a lot of baking. She had a sweet tooth. There were always cakes and cookies, always something in the house. But her ‘S’ cookies were a staple—she never ran out, they were always there.
NS: What’s the best memory you have as a kid, related to food?
MW: Christmas. We had a big family so Christmases were a big deal. There were probably 30 people at a table. Those are my fondest memories.
NS: Did you start learning to cook and bake from a young age or did you start when you were older?
MW: Probably when I was a little bit older. I really didn’t do a lot of it at home—my mother controlled the kitchen. It wasn’t until I was on my own.
NS: Same with me. First it was out of necessity, like, “I need to cook!” and then I got really into it. But I actually learned to bake before I learned to cook everyday things and then I said, “I can’t just eat cake and cookies. I should learn to roast a chicken and all that other stuff.” But I still prefer baking because I like how precise you have to be. My husband loves to cook because he just throws everything in there but I like being specific and following directions.
MW: Me too. I like making an abundance of things. I always liked making a lot of something.
NS: My last question is: what’s your favorite Italian food (it doesn’t have to be a sweet)?
MW: I do love pasta.
NS: Me too! Any particular kind?
MW: No, not really. [laughter] I can’t say there’s one over the other. I love all kinds of pasta dishes.
NS: Have you ever made fresh pasta?
NS: Me too. I wish I could do it more often but it is a little time consuming.
NS: Great. I think that’s everything I wanted to ask. Did you have anything else you’d like to add?
MW: I can’t believe I did it! [opened a bakery]
NS: Yeah, you should be proud. This is awesome.
MW: It’s a work in progress, always. We’re always working hard. Trying to make it better.
~Thank you Maryann for a great interview! And thank you to Rebecca for setting it up.~
*The interview is lightly edited for the sake of brevity and clarity.