The Untold Truth Of Great American Cookies

Americans who love cookies are likely familiar with mall staple Great American Cookies. For years it's been nearly impossible to walk through a food court in America without seeing their storefront or smelling their merchandise. And for good reason — Great American Cookies makes amazing cookies.

Cookies are only a small part of their history, though. Although the company is centered around the tasty round treat, there's much more to their story than an iconic recipe and franchises in local malls. From the beginning of the business to their current owners, and everything in between, we've gathered all the interesting information that's made this purveyor of sweets what it is today: a legendary American restaurant. Okay, so it's a chain that sells only dessert. What could be more American than that?

After years in business, Great American Cookies has served countless people, but we have the dish on what even the most loyal customers don't know. Without further ado, here's the untold truth of Great American Cookies.

Great American Cookies started in a strip mall under a different name

Like many large companies in the United States, Great American Cookies has a storied past and humble beginnings. The first Great American Cookies opened in Perimeter Mall, a strip mall in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1977, per The Franchise Mall.

Great American Cookies wasn't always called Great American Cookies, though. In fact, when it began in 1977, its sign at the Perimeter Mall read Original Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Company. Co-founder Michael Coles noted in his book "Time To Get Tough: How Cookies, Coffee, and a Crash Led to Success in Business and Life," "Our name – the Original Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Company – was cute at first, but it had become a liability. What might work for a small, local company did not have national cachet."  In 1985, the name was officially changed.

Thanks to the founders' foresight, the name change helped Great American Cookies spread across the nation, and today there are hundreds of locations, per their website.

The brand uses a family recipe

Great American Cookies' cookies are unique. They're flat, yet soft and chewy. It's rare to find such a cookie, but thanks to a family member of one of the co-founders, millions of people have been able to enjoy them.

Per Bison, co-founder Arthur Karp's grandmother created the recipe they still use today. Karp shared a chocolate chip cookie with co-founder Michael Coles, and the two went into business together, putting up $8,000 for start-up costs. Despite having a stellar recipe, opening a business was incredibly risky in 1977, as Coles noted on his website. "Interest rates were high, inflation was soarting, and new businesses were closing in 1977 almost as fast as they could open their doors. We had every reason not to do this, but we did."

And thank goodness they did. What started with a chocolate chip cookie has expanded into multiple delicious flavors, including double fudge, birthday cake, and strawberry crinkle, to name a few.

Great American Cookies was acquired by another company

Arthur Karp and Michael Coles co-founded Great American Cookies, but they are no longer the owners. Like many smaller food chains, Great American Cookies has been acquired by a conglomerate, and more than once. Currently, FAT Brands Inc., a publicly-traded company now owns the cookie company, along with other food brands like Fatburger, Hot Dog on a Stick, and Round Table Pizza.

In June 2021, in a deal worth $442.5 million, FAT Brands purchased Global Franchise Group, which previously owned all the aforementioned restaurants, along with a couple of others, per GlobeNewswire. Andy Wiederhorn, President and CEO of FAT Brands, said of the acquisition, "The five new restaurant concepts have been very resilient coming out of the pandemic and will complement our existing brands." Even amid a global health crisis, people want cookies.

Another one of FAT Brand's restaurants, Marble Slab, has been particularly close to Great American Cookies — in proximity, that is. Even before being purchased by FAT Brands, the two restaurants were opening as joint locations, like in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, offering customers ice cream and cookies in one convenient location.

One of its co-founders was the once CEO of Caribou Coffee

Great American Cookies Co-founder Michael Coles is no stranger to fast food chains. In addition to starting one of the most famous cookie companies in the United States, he's also been the CEO of Minnesota-born coffee chain Caribou Coffee, per MPR News. Looking at his success in the food industry, it's surprising to learn his work experience beforehand was actually in clothing, not food.

Coles also tried to make it in politics, running against Newt Gingrich in 1996, and Paul Coverdell in 1998, but he lost both bids. In a speech, Coles noted that due to promising poll numbers early in the race, he thought he was going to become a Senator, and subsequently sold Great American Cookies. When he lost, he had to find another job, which eventually led him to Caribou Coffee. During his time with Caribou Coffee, Coles helped to more than double the coffee chain's footprint, expanding it from 207 locations to 473 stores, before stepping down as CEO in 2007. 

Coles has had a very successful career in business, and he's made a lot of money. In 1998, the Associated Press estimated his net worth to be between $30 and $60 million. 

Traditional cookies aren't the only thing on the menu

Anyone who's been to Great American Cookies knows just how delicious their cookies are, but they've also probably noticed the menu goes beyond cookies. Great American Cookies serves multiple delicious desserts, most notably, their cookie cake. Great American Cookie cakes are delectable treats. They're just like their classic chocolate chip cookies, but bigger and a little thicker. And who doesn't want more cookie? Great American Cookie cakes also come frosted, adding more sweetness to the mix.

Customers with a sweet tooth who aren't in the mood for cookies, may be tempted to try one of Great American Cookies' Deep Dish Brownies, or they can attempt decorating with one of their decoration kits. For customers who are in the mood for cookies, though, nothing is more enticing than their signature Double Doozie, which features icing sandwiched between two cookies. It's like a personal cookie cake, which is a cookie lover's dream.

The chain has expanded beyond malls and will ship cookies to customers

Although there are hundreds of Great American Cookies, not everyone lives near one. The company has remedied that issue, though, as their cookies, brownies, and decorating kits can be shipped anywhere in the United States, per its website. And to make things sweeter, shipping is free.

Along with the aforementioned treats, Double Doozie kits are available, as are gift boxes, and subscription boxes. Customers can enjoy a shipment of cookies monthly on a recurring basis, or for three, six, or 12-month time periods. While nobody needs a monthly shipment of cookies, it's difficult not to see the sweet appeal of such a subscription. 

Unfortunately, Great American Cookies does not ship outside the United States, according to its website, so international citizens can't order. But for those lucky enough to be able to receive a shipment, the company has made the process easier by developing a mobile app to manage rewards and place orders. It also includes a map to show users the nearest locations.

Colleges have used the cookies as a recruiting tool

Anyone who's spent time on a college campus knows the officials love to entice impressionable potential students with free items they'll never use, like branded highlighters and lanyards, but the clever ones know the real way to bribe a teenager is with food. Some campuses have caught on, including the University of Toledo.

According to ESPN, the college uses Great American Cookies cookie cakes to welcome recruits for on-campus visits. Toledo's defensive coordinator Tom Amstultz told the outlet, "My thoughts were, we wanted to make the recruits feel a part of our family, and who do you share cookies with but your family?" Clemson University has also used cookie cakes to entice new players.

Fortunately for those of us who are better at eating than playing football, joining a college team isn't the only way to obtain free Great American Cookies treats. The company also offers free cookies on special days as they did on Tax Day in 2021, and National Cookie Day in 2020. The announcements are usually made just a few days before the event, so keep a watchful eye for a chance to get free cookies.

Opening a Great American Cookies franchise isn't cheap

Starting a business isn't cheap, especially today. While Arthur Karp and Michael Coles started the entire operation back in 1977 with just under 10 grand, it's much, much more expensive to join the Great American Cookies franchise in the 21st century. While the price looks different for everyone depending on the location, investors interested in getting into this cookie business should expect to spend anywhere from $277,400 to $403,150, according to the chain's website.

It's expensive and hard work to open a shop, and Great American Cookies does not want their franchisees to fail, so they provide resources to ensure they stay afloat. The company offers books available for download that give location owners information on franchising, co-branding, and the menu, among other things.

Because of the brand's ownership, it's also possible to franchise another FAT Brands restaurant in conjunction with Great American Cookies, and it's not uncommon to see cookie locations paired up with Marble Slab. Why own just one restaurant when it's possible to own two?

The exact ingredients of cookie recipes are not revealed to employees

Great American Cookie has been using many of the same recipes since its inception, and they remain tight-lipped about their secret. Although countless copycat recipes flood the internet, no one has been able to truly replicate the signature cookie style. While the company is secretive about its cookies, Great American Cookies is open to sharing details about the icing, revealing information to those curious about how to mimic its iconic decorations.

To learn the cookie maker's secrets, the brains behind The Southern Source blog visited her local Great American Cookies, gathering all the information fans of the franchise have been longing to know. The blogger noted that not even the employees know the cookie recipe — the dough is sent to its locations daily — it isn't made onsite.

The manager of this particular Great American Cookies location assured the blogger that baking experience is not necessary to join the team. Adequate training is provided so anyone can make a good looking cookie cake. Great American Cookies's website has noted, too, that training is provided for all franchisees. From the training and shipped cookie dough, a great cookie can be expected from any Great American Cookies location.

Great American Cookies has had some legal drama

For long-standing successful businesses, it's nearly impossible to have gone decades without receiving some sort of lawsuit, especially a nationwide chain. Great American Cookies is just another in a long list of companies that have been involved in legal proceedings. And as a company that works with franchisees, further complications sometimes abound.

Back in 1997, nine Great American Cookies franchisees filed lawsuits against the company, per Atlanta Business Chronicle. The multiple parties claimed Great American Cookies had violated several laws and breached contracts, all regarding the potential acquisition of shares by Mrs. Fields Original Cookies Inc. Great American Cookies responded saying there was no basis for these claims.

One of the company's co-founders, Michael Coles, faced lawsuits at another company he worked for, Caribou Coffee. In 2003, the company was sued by former employees who claimed to be sexually harassed while working, as reported by Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. Coles assured the public that Caribou Coffee would investigate the claims, and respond according to the law.

The decline of shopping malls has not slowed the brand down

There are hundreds of Great American Cookies locations throughout the United States, but not all have stood the test of time. One prior location owner opened up about the reasons for shutting its doors, as the failure of a franchise location is typically a local issue, not a symptom of company-wide problems.

In 2015, an Atlanta-based Great American Cookies location closed after operating for over 10 years. The former owner told Atlanta Tomorrow's News Today, "We were unable to come to terms on a new lease ... the mall did not want a cookie store in that location," adding that new stores in the mall did not affect their closing. Franchising is a tough business to be in, as evidenced by various closures, including that of some Great American Cookies locations. Restaurant Business has detailed the difficulties franchisees face, noting that franchisees are receiving the bulk of the income. Despite many malls around the country biting the dust, Great American Cookies has managed to keep most of its doors open.

Not only is the popular brand staying afloat, but Great American Cookies is growing. In November 2021, the company announced they'll have 300 stores in operation by the end of 2022, as 31 new locations are slated to open. With this news, cookie lovers can rest knowing they'll be able to enjoy Great American Cookies for a long time to come.