White quartz countertops. Sterile touchscreens. Millennial pink branding. This isn’t a makeup counter or a West Hollywood boutique; this is Crumbl Cookies — the fastest-growing cookie franchise in the nation.
I tried Crumbl for the first time a few years ago, and although I don’t remember which flavor cookies I had, or even if I particularly liked them, I do remember the box they came in: a bubblegum pink, slender rectangle that fits four enormous Crumbl cookies in a tidy row.
Crumbl has taken one simple idea — flour, sugar, eggs, along with that proprietary pink box — and, in less than five years, expanded exponentially from one location to 478 in 45 states with plans for 600 by the end of the year. Fans of the brand may not realize that before Crumbl could take over suburban strip malls nationwide, it first had to conquer the cookie landscape of its home state, Utah.
The great Utah cookie war began as a land war fought on two fronts. To the south, there was the battle of the pink frosted sugar cookie. Most Utah cookie connoisseurs would associate this pastel pastry with Swig, the soda shop that started in the southern Utah town of St. George, near Zion National Park. Swig originally sourced its now-famous pink sugar cookies from Dutchman’s Market just down the road in Santa Clara.
After a couple of years, Swig tweaked Dutchman’s recipe and started baking its own version of the cookie. Now, it’s hard to imagine Swig’s popularity or relevance without the boost from that pink frosted delight. (I’m looking at you, Olivia Rodrigo.) The “soda and treat” concept has spurred an infamous war of its own between rival Utah soda shops, Swig and Sodalicious, as well as other iterations like Thirst; and lest we forget, a “dirty soda” national TikTok trend with everyone from teens to celebrities spiking their Diet Cokes with coconut creamer and a squeeze of fresh lime.
Crumbl seemingly perfected the concept of a marketing company that also sells cookies.
Even Crumbl had its own take on the Utahn pink frosted sugar cookie. It was a staple on the weekly menu for four years, but the company announced with melodramatics that on April 23, 2022, the pink frosted cookie would be retired from its permanent menu spot at Crumbl. There was even a (kinda, sorta, hopefully) tongue-in-cheek memorial service for the flavor.
In northern Utah, the battle of the giant chocolate chip cookie was a fierce one that led to the inception and eventual dominance of Crumbl. In 2016, Chip Cookies opened its first location in a college town, Provo. The only cookie on the menu was a big ol’ chocolate chip cookie. The company website declares: “the original gourmet cookie delivery company.” Of course, Chip didn’t invent cookie delivery, and it didn’t invent gourmet chocolate chip cookies, but it is entirely possible it was the first to blend these two ideas.
Soon after Chip debuted, Crumbl Cookies opened its doors in 2017 at its first location in another college town, Logan. Like Chip, the first and only thing on the menu was its take on a giant, indulgent chocolate chip cookie. Before Crumbl could prove itself a worthy statewide competitor (and the ultimate champion), there was a skirmish for Logan’s cookie turf between Crumbl and Baked; swiftly, Crumbl won out. (RIP Baked.)
The defeat over Baked was a harbinger of what was to come. Although Chip came first in the land of milk and cookies, Crumbl must have realized the great Utah cookie war wasn’t about who had the better cookie — it was about which cookie looked better on a phone screen. Crumbl seemingly perfected the concept of a marketing company that also sells cookies.
Crumbl says of its famous pink box: “Recognizable and Instagrammable, perfect for posting that sweet Crumbl review, boomerang, or photo on social media!” This emphasis on viral social media marketing is at the heart of Crumbl’s business plan. Crumbl releases a “flavor drop” every Sunday night with a weekly menu starring its chocolate chip cookie that started it all and rounded out by one-of-a-kind flavors. Rabid fans across YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit then discuss and review the limited edition cookies throughout the week ... until the next Sunday and the next flavor drop.
At least in some ways, Crumbl’s virality feels like a mirror of the virality of the virus that’s dominated the last 21⁄2 years — the exact time frame of Crumbl’s accelerating success. In a time when people have sought creature comforts, they’ve found them in Crumbl’s cookie comforts. When we have lacked so much control, walking into a Crumbl or logging onto the app with its clean lines, simple color scheme and san serif font can feel like a welcome reprieve. There are six cookie options and contactless pay. That’s it.
It’s worth noting the restraint of the actual experience in a Crumbl contrasts with the excess that dominates its growth and marketing models. Crumbl’s cookies are known for their over-the-top frosting and decadent flavors like Caramel Popcorn, Funfetti Milkshake and Chocolate Strawberry Cheesecake, not to mention their actual 41⁄2-inch-diameter size. Every week the new Crumbl menu debuts on its website and social media with shiny, creamy, slo-mo videos of each new cookie filmed like a hot girl in a music video. It’s a lot.
Crumbl must have realized the great Utah cookie war wasn’t about who had the better cookie — it was about which cookie looked better on a phone screen.
Crumbl has tapped into the aspiration to communicate aesthetics and world view through consumer choice. It’s not about eating a Crumbl cookie. It’s about showing that if I’m going to eat a cookie, I have the cultural cachet and the five bucks to buy a gourmet cookie that will be beautiful, desirable and exclusive. And calorie free.
Across its marketing and social media channels, Crumbl makes it clear that it cares about selling “the best cookie in the world.” The bravado of that statement is perhaps what has made it such a salient business. Believing in what one sells is at the root of at least some measures of success.
Does Crumbl truly sell the best cookies in the world? It can’t. What about artisanal chocolatiers, pastry chefs with years of French training, and home cooks who have perfected a chocolate-chip cookie passed down from scribbled recipe card to recipe card? And sometimes a classic Toll House chocolate chip cookie really does hit just right.
That same bravado could have led the two founders at the head of Crumbl, CEO Jason McGowan and Chief Operating Officer Sawyer Hemsley, to have the tenacity and foresight to realize that Crumbl isn’t about the cookies anyway. It’s about creating a “cookie hype cycle” with limited-edition flavors. It’s about cracking open that beautiful pink box; and really, it’s about posting that box and those cookies on social media.
The great Utah cookie war and the ongoing national cookie trend that Crumbl has created is a reflection of our hunger for content as much as it is a hunger for cookies. And for that, Crumbl reigns victorious, for now.
Crumbl did not respond to a request for comment.
A version of this story was originally published on thebeehive.com