PARKCHESTER — When artist Audra Moore, a vegan, couldn’t find any non-dairy sweets near her apartment in Washington Heights, she decided to bake her own.
And when her husband, fellow artist George Goss, a non-vegan, tasted her cookies and loved them, the two decided that the dairy-free treats could have crossover appeal.
So they began to bake their vegan, organic, gluten-free and eventually kosher cookies by the dozen, and soon found a host of wholesale buyers, including Whole Foods Market and the Harlem Children’s Zone.
But after a series of setbacks, including a personal tragedy and scarce financing, the couple’s rising cookie company seemed set to crumble.
Now, though, they appear poised for a comeback.
They have lined up several interested investors and potential distributors and, most importantly, they are in negotiations on the lease for a 20,000-square-foot warehouse in Parkchester — a space many times larger than any they’ve baked in before.
“This place gives us the opportunity to expand,” said Goss, 51. "Over the next three years, this whole place should be hopping.”
The pair began selling their cookies in the late 1990s alongside their artwork at the many conventions and art fairs they traveled to around the country. They called them Munchie’s Cookies, after Moore’s childhood nickname “Munch,” itself shorthand for “Munchkin.”
Moore only baked oatmeal cookies, but she infused them with dozens of different flavors — sweet potato, peanut butter, lemon coconut, cranberry lemon, banana coconut.
“People think that if you’re a vegan you’re going to have to eat stuff that tastes like cardboard — but that’s not true,” said Moore, 45, whose baking, she added, “is based on her taste buds.”
By 2004, they were selling so many cookies they decided to become full-time bakers.
Moore made the cookies in their home kitchen, while Goss trekked from café to coffee shop to specialty grocer shopping for wholesale buyers.
As demand picked up, the couple converted their apartment into a makeshift bakery.
A spare bedroom became a walk-in refrigerator, piled with buckets of dough and an air conditioner cranked to full-blast. The living room was transformed into a cookie-cooling center, with stacks of trays five feet high.
Goss delivered the cookies himself — first with a pushcart that he wheeled onto the subway, and later with a rental car.
In 2007, Whole Foods Market agreed to carry Munchie’s at 15 locations. Within two weeks of the deal, the couple had moved their operation to an incubator kitchen in The Bronx.
But just as the business appeared to be taking off, tragedy struck.
Goss and Moore have no children of their own, but they had always treated Daniel Brandt, the son of one of Goss’s oldest friends, as if he were their own child.
In August 2008, when 24-year-old Brandt went to meet a woman in Coney Island, he was approached by two men, robbed and fatally shot in the head.
Goss, an ex-cop, was devastated. For a while after, he said, he would break down into tears in the middle of cookie deliveries.
“For all intents and purposes,” Goss said, “Danny was my son.”
The business continued and soon sealed a breakthrough deal to deliver hundreds of cookies weekly to the Harlem Children’s Zone, the charter school and social service network.
But the couple struggled to keep up with demand — they were often short on funds to pay for basic operating costs, such as rent and labor, much less to expand to a larger space or purchase new equipment.
“We were just severely overworked and understaffed and under-machined,” said Goss.
Goss said he applied to more than a dozen banks and other lenders for loans, but was denied. The company eventually had to drop more than 50 clients, Goss said, and focus just on the largest orders.
Over the past two years, the couple tried sharing space with other bakeries. But they ran into contamination problems, since few other bakers adhere to such strict ingredient guidelines.
After filling a 500-case order last Christmas Eve, Munchie’s production has slowed to a standstill.
Now, the couple has invested their hopes in the vacant warehouse, a former Verizon facility nestled between a baseball diamond and train tracks.
Without revealing any details, they say the landlord, Ciminello Properties, has been very “flexible” in setting the terms of the lease.
Goss estimates they will need $350,000 to get up and running in the facility, and from $750,000 to $1 million to convert the warehouse into a full-fledged Munchie’s factory, complete with offices, a test kitchen and a sealed “secret ingredient” chamber.
If they secure the space, then the couple may be able to raise capital by showing investors they can now produce large, high-value orders at the factory, said Frank Randazzo, Bronx Empowerment Zone director at the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, which has provided extensive support to Munchie’s, including $100,000 in loans.
“They get those two things,” the warehouse and capital, said Randazzo, “then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be a household specialty brand.”
For his part, the property owner, Emanuel Ciminello III, emphasized that the lease has yet to be signed, and that with small businesses, “nine out of 10 deals fall through.”
Still, he said, something sets Munchie’s apart.
“These cookies are unbelievable,” said Ciminello. “I’m telling you, they’re going to be the next Famous Amos.”