Sun. Jul 21st, 2024

Ben Clark may be uniquely qualified to predict the outcome of the next presidential election. He’s not a pollster or political strategist. He makes cookie cutters.

The metal baking tools are an uncanny cultural bellwether, said Mr. Clark, who runs Ann Clark, the largest cookie-cutter manufacturer in the United States. Just after the 2016 election, he noticed that percentage sales of his Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump cutters roughly aligned with the vote.

Last spring, guitar and musical-note shapes began selling at a rapid clip, just as Taylor Swift was starting her Eras tour. In July, cookie cutters shaped like lipsticks and convertible cars picked up steam, thanks to Barbie mania.

On a recent morning at the factory in Rutland. Vt., Mr. Clark was puzzling over next year’s election — specifically, how to create a cookie cutter of President Biden, whose silhouette isn’t all that recognizable. Suddenly, it hit him.

You may not know the name Ann Clark, but whether you’re buying a cookie cutter from Williams-Sonoma or from Amazon, it’s likely hers. The company, founded in 1989 by Ann and John Clark — Mr. Clark’s parents — says it accounts for about 65 percent of all cookie-cutter sales in the country, about $12 million a year.

Its strategy is twofold: Throw a wide variety of cookie cutters (about five million a year, in 750 shapes) into the market to see what sells. And respond quickly to new fads and trends — a winning play in an industry dominated by companies that aren’t as nimble because they import their products from China.

Ann Clark sells classic cutters like the gingerbread man and the heart, but its top sellers tend to be more offbeat shapes: a Mason jar (the big hit in 2015), a llama (huge in 2019). This year’s breakout star is a gnome; the company traces its popularity to the success of Cottagecore, an ethos that embraces rustic living.

With nostalgia on the rise, the company predicts that next year, there will be more interest in 1960s and ’70s psychedelia, with shapes like mushrooms and peace signs. Given the post-pandemic surge in travel, globes and stacks of suitcases may catch on.

While cookie cutters are closely linked to Christmas — and Ann Clark makes 40 percent of its sales this time of year — a large part of the company’s success has come from recognizing that cookie decorating is a year-round activity, and catering to the legions of devoted customers who clamor for new and unusual shapes.

“Cookie-cutter collectors are part of a cult,” said Arlene Chua, a banker and cookie decorator on Staten Island who owns about 5,000 cookie cutters. She recently converted a coat closet into cookie-cutter storage, with bins categorized by themes like Christmas, fashion and baby shower.

Cookie cutters connect her to memories. Her high-heeled-shoe cutter reminds her of shopping in Manhattan; she associates her church-shaped one with her mother, a devout Catholic.

A cookie cutter “is almost like an extension of our personalities,” Ms. Chua said. Many collectors have shapes that have been passed down through generations.

Given all that, you might expect the Clark family and its enterprise to be a cradle of holiday cheer. But on a Monday in December, the factory — a gray building in an industrial park — looked more like a welding plant than Santa’s workshop. Inside was a sprawl of power tools, metal sheets, cardboard boxes and conveyor belts.

A few festive flourishes stood out: a wreath at the entrance, gingerbread men painted on cubbies and doors like little surprises. Ms. Clark, 83, with her white bob and cheery eyes, could easily pass for Mrs. Claus.

Her start in the business came not through baking, but art. Ms. Clark was painting ornaments and other objects to sell at craft shows in 1989 when she drew a pig and rendered the image in various items, like a coaster, a cutting board and a cookie cutter. The cutters outsold everything, and her husband persuaded her to go all in on them. (He died in 2000.)

Their son Ben, now 59, joined the company in 1998 simply because he wanted to move back home from Maryland.

The cookie cutter, he said, “is a widget to me.”

Like any good gadget, it must meet some rigorous specifications. “It has to be very sturdy,” Ms. Clark said. The bottom must be sharp enough to cut through cold dough, but not so sharp that it will injure the baker. The shape should be instantly recognizable (though some require close inspection). That reindeer can’t have skinny legs, which can easily break off when baked.

The cutters themselves are also made with exacting precision. Strips of shiny, tin-plated steel are trimmed to the precise length of each cookie cutter and welded into circles. Those circles are placed on top of weighty metal dies, and with the press of a button, a set of arms nudges the metal at specific positions to form the shape.

The machines can make 600 to 1,000 cutters an hour, and allow the company to develop new shapes quickly without relying on an outside supplier, as most of its competitors do.

Despite all the automation, the cookie cutter remains one of the few timeless and inexpensive tools in an increasingly mechanized baking world, said Kay Johnson, a curator at the National Cookie Cutter Historical Museum in Joplin, Mo.

Cookie cutters are also mirrors of American culture through the ages, she said. For example, one way historians know that homesteaders in the 19th century played cards is that they had cookie cutters in the shapes of the four suits. In the 20th century, many of the most popular nursery rhymes were the ones — like “Humpty Dumpty” and “Hickory Dickory Dock” — whose characters had been turned into cookie cutters.

Mr. Clark keeps abreast of current fads by looking at online search data. While anyone can submit an idea for a shape, search interest in particular cookie-cutter shapes usually determines which ones are produced. A Barbie-inspired doll head received an immediate green light, while a proposal to make a Covid-era surgical mask was rejected. And some ideas don’t work out: Two years ago, the company paused production on a cookie cutter shaped like a pistol because employees objected.

In the company’s warehouse, cookie cutters are arranged from the most popular (graduation cap, unicorn head, bunny) to the least popular (scissors, snail, the state of California).

“My predictions on these, I’ve given up,” Mr. Clark said.

Random shapes will suddenly take off, and he’ll try and find an explanation. Why do sales of hexagons jump in the spring? Because people are making hamantaschen for the Jewish holiday Purim. And the boom in moons around the same time? Ramadan.

The future of the business is harder to figure out. The rise of 3-D printing could threaten the Clarks’ juggernaut; some companies are using the technology to print plastic cookie cutters on demand in highly customized shapes.

It’s also uncertain how long Americans will stay interested in cookie cutters. Sales were flat from November 2022 to October 2023, according to the market research company Circana.

Cutting out cookies takes time and patience, Mr. Clark said, but “we are all about instant gratification now.”

Still, there’s a bigger potential audience out there. Ann Clark began expanding internationally in 2018, and its cutters are now available throughout Europe and in countries like Japan and Brazil.

Mr. Clark considered researching country-specific traditions and developing corresponding shapes. Instead, he just released all 750 shapes abroad and saw what sold well.

The spike in teddy-bear cutters in the United Kingdom taught him about the importance of the stuffed animals, which many Britons keep past childhood. The popularity of geese cookie cutters in Germany introduced him to St. Martin’s Day, a holiday whose centerpiece is a roast goose.

The experience cemented a valuable lesson, Mr. Clark said. What better way to learn about the world than through its cookie cutters?

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