I likely first heard of Tate’s Bake Shop — the cookie company Oreo maker Mondelez International just bought for a cool $500 million — because either Martha Stewart or Ina Garten, harbingers of great taste both, mentioned the brand on TV. I grew up on Chips Ahoy! (another Mondelez product), and as a kid was otherwise totally unfamiliar with the flat, crisp, not-at-all-photogenic cookies from Tate’s Bake Shop in Southhampton, New York. When I finally tasted them as an adult, I didn’t get them: Why would anyone want a chocolate chip cracker? I was team Nestle Toll House chocolate chip all the way, specifically the under-baked variety with a gooey center. But then, years later as an adult, a friend passed me an open bag of Tate’s chocolate chip and walnut cookies and a cold glass of milk. With a Seinfeld rerun on in the background — “The Pledge Drive” — I suddenly understood: This cookie is designed to be dunked.
Tate’s chocolate chip holds its own against a glass of milk or tea or coffee; it softens, but doesn’t break after a five-second dip. With or without a dunk, the cookie has a pleasing and not-too-sweet balance of butter, brown sugar, and dark chocolate chips. It needs neither glaze nor drizzle nor fancy sea salt flakes. It doesn’t require a creme filling or a marketing campaign.
It’s always a little worrisome when a favorite homespun brand gets gobbled up by a big corporation, especially when that brand makes a truly great grocery-store chocolate chip cookie. On paper, it makes sense for Mondelez, a conglomerate that reported 2017 revenues of over $26 billion (it also owns snack brands like Ritz, Toblerone, and Cadbury): With Tate’s, Mondelez gets what the industry calls a “premium brand,” or one that sells for a higher price point than most of its other offerings. A package of Oreos generally costs around $3, while a package of Tate’s, which contains far fewer cookies, might cost more than $6. But in Big Food, quality is trending up over quantity, so with the purchase, Mondelez can capture those consumers who check the ingredients list on every package and are willing to pay more for a product that’s minimally processed.
Mondelez says it doesn’t plan to change anything about Tate’s, except for increasing its distribution, according to Bloomberg. The brand will continue to function “as a separate standalone business,” per a press release. But the corporation also wants to put more of the bakery’s signature items, which are not available in as many markets — shortbread, brownies — on more grocery-store shelves. If all of Tate’s products will continue to be made at its current manufacturing facility, as the announcement promises, I worry that might eventually become untenable, leading to recipe changes or other shortcuts that will feed demand while shorting the cookie eater on quality.
Tate’s original recipe is important because its plain-Jane reputation belies a brilliant set of achievements. It’s impossible to make a packaged, shelf-stable thing taste fresh, even using sophisticated chemical tricks. Tate’s threw out the premise that a chocolate chip cookie must be fresh-out-of-the-oven soft in order to be good. The ingredients in a Tate’s chocolate chip cookie — exactly what most home recipes contain — produce a sweet snack with wonderful balance and no heft. Really, it’s more of a tan chocolate chip wafer than a picture-perfect chocolate chip with those shiny, money shot chocolate pulls — and that’s a feature of the Tate’s style, not a bug.
Mondelez should also curb its tendencies, as it’s currently doing with Oreo (birthday cake Oreos! Blueberry pie Oreos!), to create too many new flavors or offshoots. A few years back, Tate’s launched a gluten-free line to a targeted audience; it still has a strong following among those looking for a cookie sans wheat. Aside from that specialty line, Tate’s has fewer than a dozen other flavors: The vanilla cookie makes a great last minute strawberry shortcake base. The coconut crisps are good crumbled over chocolate ice cream. I have two friends that swear by the white chocolate and macadamia nut variety, though it’s a bit too sweet for my tastes. Tate’s idea of a special, limited-time flavor is far tamer than Oreo’s: Currently on the market are packages of Tate’s Key Lime Coconut and an orange-scented vanilla cookie. Too many more options would muddle the brand’s image, and could dilute its quality.
Ultimately, my hope is that Mondelez remembers Tate’s Hamptons’ cottage roots, and its true fans like Ina. It should support the company’s current and clearly successful mission — and not try to fix a cookie that’s not broken.
Daniela Galarza is Eater’s senior editor.