Pass Christian sisters taking a bigger bite of cookie market

Opening the door to Cat Island Cookie & Cracker Co. released a rich, buttery and lemony aroma that wafted from a couple of rooms over from the front. An employee rolled a cart loaded with trays of freshly baked delicacies in seashell, turtle, sailboat, fish and crab shapes as another sealed bags.

“This is our depositor,” Leslie Bullock said over the sound of a nearby compressor as she looked almost fondly at a small piece of equipment. “The dough goes in the hopper, and we have custom molds that cut the dough into shapes. We can do four sheet trays in a minute with it. It’s wonderful!”

To fully appreciate the depositor, keep in mind that not too long ago, Bullock and her business partner and sister, Shelly McNair, were cutting cookies by hand, a process that was both time consuming and wasteful.

Cat Island is still a small operation, but two years into business, they’re starting to take off with smaller grocery stores taking notice and shipments going out well beyond the Coast and their operation on Kiln-DeLisle Road.

“We’re pretty much going full steam through Christmas,” Bullock said. “Then around Dec. 20, we’ll stop and start rolling out Mardi Gras.”

That means while trees and snowflakes join the company’s other cookie shapes for the holidays, fleur-de-lis designs and crowns will be a limited-time shape from then to early March.

They had considered hearts for Valentine’s Day and Easter-related shapes, but those aren’t lead-up holidays.

“Easter is just one day. Valentine’s is just one day, but Christmas and Mardi Gras are seasons,” McNair said.

“And people who don’t live around here say ‘What? Mardi Gras is a season?’ ” Bullock added with a laugh.

Cat Island has been in several specialty shops in South Mississippi for a while, supplying Brown Butter, Lemon Butter, Lime Butter, Coffee on the Half Shell, Toffee Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Chip and Pecan Chocolate Chip cookies and Zesty Cheddar Bites and Spicy Asiago Wafers. Chocolate Peppermint is a holiday flavor.

A baking heritage

Bullock and McNair grew up with a mom who regularly baked treats. In adulthood, both enjoyed baking but Bullock made a career out of it, becoming a pastry chef for New York City restaurateur Drew Nieporent. She got married, had children and went through a divorce. She decided to move back to the Pass, considering the Coast a better place than Manhattan to raise a family.

“So I moved back down here, and then I thought, now what? That’s when Shelly and I decided to do the cookies,” Bullock said, adding that McNair has “got the business thing going on.”

A few years earlier, the sisters had paired up for a frozen cookie-dough venture, but difficult pregnancies meant Bullock wasn’t able to continue. In addition, selling refrigerated products would be more complicated.

“We started out with bite-size cookies,” McNair said.

“And we knew we wanted our products to be all natural, with no preservatives,” Bullock said.

They started out in the kitchen of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Long Beach because it was a certified commercial kitchen.

“But we quickly outgrew that,” McNair said.

Then their current location came available in March 2015. Once the home of more than one restaurant, including the post-Katrina Annie’s, it already had a kitchen and plenty of workspace. They recently added a double-decker oven to the single oven already in the kitchen, and a 30-quart mixer easily takes care of the dough.

Through trial and error, McNair said, they found what worked and what didn’t. Brown Butter and Zesty Cheddar were their first flavors, followed by Toffee Chocolate Chip, Lemon Butter and Lime Butter.

“We had an Orange Blossom that was really nice but it didn’t catch on,” Bullock said. “People were expecting a big orange flavor but it was more that delicate orange blossom aroma.”

“It was really nice with tea,” McNair said.

“We ate a lot of our mistakes. Literally,” Bullock said, laughing.

All about natural

Dedication to an all-natural product extends to all their ingredients, McNair and Bullock said, including the butter and the chocolate chips.

“With our Christmas flavor, the Chocolate Peppermint, we use peppermint candies. It’s not easy finding all-natural peppermint candy! But we did,” McNair said.

Natural flavoring oils are used in varieties such as lemon and lime. The dedication to all-natural ingredients, they said, is what sets them apart. It helped them get noticed by Central Market, a gourmet grocery store chain owned by Texas giant H-E-B. This week, a shipment was being sent out to Central Market.

“We did the Mississippi Made Market in June 2015 in Jackson, and we made a lot of good contacts,” McNair said.

“Next year, we’re going to the Sweets and Snacks Expo in Chicago — the big time,” Bullock said.

While the sisters would like to get into larger stores, distribution is their biggest challenge right now. In the meantime, they’re excited about Cat Island spreading into Texas — and educating people about the Coast.

“We were in Texas last week,” Bullock said. “People looked at our name and said, ‘Cat Island? You mean, in the Bahamas?’ No, we told them, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And they would say, ‘Mississippi has a Coast?’ ”

Tammy Smith: 228-896-2130, @Simmiefran1

Where to find them

Cat Island cookies and wafers can be found at the following South Mississippi locations:

Beach Pharmacy, Gulfport

Beau Rivage, Biloxi

Cappy’s Point, Bay St. Louis

Cat Island Coffee House, Pass Christian

Claiborne Hill, Waveland

D&D Gifts, Pass Christian

Dixie Depot, Moss Point

Gourmet Galley, Bay St. Louis

Hillyer House, Ocean Springs

Martin’s Hardware, Pass Christian

Parker’s, Pass Christian

Robin’s Nest, Pass Christian

S.F. Alman, Gulfport

The Radish Loft, Gulfport