Thursday, February 4, 2021

Flashback 1998: What a way to make dough

The Cohen Brothers (Sun-Times file photo)

     Many years ago I was a card-carrying member of the Division Street Russian Baths. While taking the heat, men tended to converse, and I found myself talking with Terry Cohen.
     "What do you do?" I asked. He said he owns the Maurice Lenell Cooky Company.
     "Oh," I said. "I'd love to visit."
     "You can't," he said. I asked why.
     "The machine we use to make pinwheels, it's proprietary. We wouldn't want our competitors to find out how it works."
     "How about this," I suggested. "I'll come visit. You don't show me the machine, and I'll promise not to describe it in any way, and between my not seeing it, and not writing anything about it, your secret will be safe."
     That worked, and I got to visit, and taste a pinwheel warm off the line, surely a highlight of my career. The story, which came to mind earlier in the week, when Carl Swede wrote complaining that I'd dissed his native land, hasn't been posted before today. But with Lenell out of business since 2008, and everyone trapped in an eternal present, I figure we could all use a visit to a cookie factory.

     Like a liberating army, they come.
     Relentless. Unstoppable. Up to 10 million a day.
     As many as five production lines sending forth neat, geometric rows, 16 to a row, marching from the giant ovens at the rate of one row per second into a world hungry for their arrival. Hungry for their comfort. Hungry for cookies.
     You know their names: Pinwheel. Jelly Star. Almonettes. And those are just the most popular of some two dozen varieties of cookies baked each day, two shifts a day, at Harlem and Montrose in Norridge, at the Maurice Lenell Cooky Co. plant.
     Yes, that's "cooky" with a "y," for reasons obscure. "That's the way they spelled it on the incorporation papers," says Wayne Cohen, Maurice Lenell president, whose father, Sonny, bought the company in 1987.
     Like many cookies, the distinctive small, hard, sugary Maurice Lenell cookies originated in Scandinavia.
     Many of the recipes used at Maurice Lenell today were brought to Chicago by a trio of Swedish bakers—Gunnar Lenell, his brother Eric Maurice Lenell and their partner, Agaard Billing—who started the company at 3352 N. Milwaukee in 1937. The company moved to West Belmont Avenue in 1940 and built the current Harlem Avenue plant in 1956.
     A big moment for Maurice Lenell came in 1954, when its advertising firm, Isker & Adajian, designed the company's distinctive logo of a boy in a cookie jar. The cost was $150.
     Maurice Lenell doesn't advertise much anymore, though the company was featured in a local Chevrolet commercial in 1996. It advertised more in the 1950s and 1960s, sponsoring early TV shows from Chicago, and its radio ads, with folk singer Win Stracke, were familiar to many Chicagoans.
     By the 1980s, however, the company was sagging. The Stracke jingle was gone. Sales were flat, and the third generation of Maurice Lenell owners was shopping for a buyer.
     "They weren't too interested in running the company," says Cohen, who was raised in Skokie and went to Niles High School. "We grew up in the bakery business. I grew up with these cookies; there are a lot of positive memories. It is our responsibility to carry on the line the way we remember them so other people can enjoy it."
     The cookies are made in 1,500-pound batches, in massive Peerless mixers with rotating paddles. Bulk ingredients such as flour and sugar are piped automatically into the mixers; other ingredients—baking soda, salt—that kitchen cooks add by the pinch are added at Maurice Lenell with big scoops.
     After mixing for 10 minutes, the three-quarter-ton clump of dough is forced through strips of die cutters—outlined like stars or circles or crescents—and onto a conveyer belt. Adornments— sprinkles of sugar, the red jelly center of the stars—are added just before the cookies roll through the 100-foot-long ovens.
     The jelly sits in a long, rectangular trough that rocks above the conveyer line as the raw cookies pass underneath. The jelly-application process is surprisingly loud; BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! the device goes, the gallons of jelly jiggling and undulating as neat gobs of crimson are placed at the center of each star-shaped cookie.
     The raw dough takes about 20 minutes to become a finished cookie. The conveyor belt has occasional gaps to let crumbs fall through.
     A stroll through the factory plunges visitors into and out of wonderful smells: zones of almond, areas of hot sugariness, whiffs of vanilla and complex aromas that defy description.
     Cohen has owned the company with his older brother, Terry, since their father died in June. The Cohen brothers—and there is no way to say this politely—both have prominent bellies, a fact not entirely unrelated to their business. Asked about quality control, Terry Cohen merely pats his stomach and smiles.
     "Everybody is involved in quality control," says Wayne, who adds that the cookie that really catches people's interest is the Pinwheel. Unlike most mass-produced cookies, the Pinwheels differ from cookie to cookie. In some, the chocolate and vanilla doughs are loosely swirled, much like a yin-yang sign. In others, they are tightly swirled like, well, a pinwheel.
     "Making them is very labor-intensive," says Wayne, who stopped a photographer from taking pictures of the Pinwheel manufacturing. "It's a secret process. We had to have the machinery custom-made."
     About 200 people work at the company, many of them hand-packing the cookies in little corrugated paper cups. "It keeps the cookies from breaking and makes a nice presentation," Wayne says.
     "Our job is to make sure products are the same today as yesterday and past generations," Wayne says.
     The only innovation on the horizon is a 2-ounce pack of cookies, which will be introduced early this year.
     A decade after going through hard times, business is booming.
     "In the last six years we've gone from predominantly a Chicago company to shipping all over the United States to now shipping all over the world," Terry says. "We're one of the largest family-owned bakeries in the U.S."
     Spread of Maurice Lenell cookies over the globe might someday end one of the more distinctive Chicago traditions.
     "People stop by to pick up cookies on their way to the airport to visit relatives," says Terry, referring to the popular Maurice Lenell factory store where prices are rock-bottom. "When you leave home, it's like getting a piece of Chicago brought to you.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 1, 1998


  1. Oh, my... Where to begin?

    I left Chicago in 1992, but I still miss those cookies SO MUCH. I was bummed when I heard they went out of business. A piece of Chicago that was no more. But I guess that's the way the cooky crumbles.

    I think the word was originally spelled that way, and didn't change until the Twenties or the Thirties. I've seen it with a "y" in old editions of childrens' books, along with other spellings like "base-ball" and even "to-day."

    Back in the day (the Eighties) my Norwegian first wife and I would stop at their factory outlet store on Harlem, and buy what must have been "seconds"...cookies that weren't exactly perfect. They came in yellow plastic buckets, the kind kids take to the beach. You could buy a WHOLE BUCKET of favorite.

    I'd put two of them over my eyes and sing the opening notes from the old "Twilight Zone" TV series...they used pinwheels to start the show at one point. My first wife was least the first few hundred times, anyway. Second wife, not so much.

    Win Stracke founded the old Town School of Folk Music, I believe. Had a TV show in the early Fifties, with another pinko, Studs Terkel, until the McCarthy days and the blacklist. "Uncle Win" also had his own kiddie show--with live animals.

    That radio spot of his has never left my head. Here, I'll sing it for you...

    Oh, come along, children...a story I'll tell...
    About a fine baker...Mister Maurice Lenell...

    He came here from bake and to sell...
    Those wonderful cookies...from Maurice Lenell...

    One thing you'll tell...that Maurice Lenell...
    Are just simply...

    Oh, my...I'd kill for even the smell of a Maurice Lenell pinwheel right now. Those ersatz knock-offs by all the wannabees, who came along later? Not even close.

    1. Well done, Grizz!
      I remember these cookies, although not as well as you.

  2. Miss those cookies and other Lenell flavors, like the one with the dried jelly in the middle.

  3. Yes, loved those cookies!!! Thanks for the info Neil and enjoyed the comments.

  4. I think the cookies one can get at any Mexican panaderia are as good as Maurice Lenell, but I do not have a discerning palate. I looked the company up on line and found that there is a store at 4701 N. Cumberland that purports to sell Maurice Lewell cookies (in 2020 anyway). My nephew lives right across the street; I'll ask him if the store is still there.


  5. I played summer Ball at the HS field right behind that factory for several years . I remember being on the mound and that smell , that fresh baked cooky smell would come wafting over the field when the wind was right.

    One day I stopped before the game and bought a bucket. They were gone before the second inning !

  6. I guess it's just me, but I never cared for their cookies. Glad so many others enjoyed them!

  7. The Brits would call them biscuits. And for some reason they are now invisible things that infest our computers.


  8. My grandfather was their accountant and growing up we would get boxes of them every Friday night when we came over for Shabbas dinner. I still miss those cookies...a lot.

  9. Smell cookies baking while driving down Harlem, stop in for some samples and leave with a few boxes of delicious treats. Locally produced, akin to stopping at a roadside diner on Route 66 rather than a cookie cutter fast food franchise.


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