Jessica Nelson didn’t bake her first cookie until 2017. Five years later, “Millie’s Mama” has built a thriving business with a customer base that’s growing well beyond Sanford. And during the holiday season, the demand is even bigger for her well-designed cookie creations.
By Billy Liggett
There’s still 30 minutes to go until Jessica Nelson officially unlocks the entrance to her thriving downtown cookie business, and already the customers are here. It’s two women, both mostly unfamiliar with Sanford and its downtown area, but they know Millie’s Mama Bakes. And they’re here not just for a few cookies or even just a few boxes.
They’re here for several boxes. Enough that they have to make several trips to the SUV parked out front.
The order isn’t for them. The boxes — filled with flavors like Key lime pie and melted hot chocolate, as well as several holiday-themed creations — are for several lucky business clients. Christmas gifts. An investment that’s well worth the duo’s drive from Cary that morning.
Not all the boxes are loaded into the trunk, of course. The two stick around a few minutes to browse the goods to sample for the ride home.
“It just smells too good in here,” one says. “There’s no way I was leaving without one. Or two.”
The story of Millie’s Mama Bakes began just five years ago when Nelson decorated her first sugar cookie at a Christmas “cookie swap” party. The recipe was from Pinterest, and the icing mix was store bought, but the spark was lit. Nelson found something that at least could be a fun hobby.
“My daughter was in pre-school at the time, so for Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and Easter, I made cookies for her class and began posting pictures of them on Facebook,” she says. “By the summer, people were asking me to make them for their kids’ birthday parties. Once I finally agreed, it snowballed rapidly.”
Her daughter, Amelia (or “Millie”) inspired the name of Nelson’s new business, since the bulk of those early batches went to her school events or friends’ birthdays. By 2018, Millie’s Mama Bakes was born — mostly because she needed a Facebook site to post her cookie photos instead of over-populating her personal page with them.
Although she always enjoyed baking, Nelson never thought of herself as someone who was necessarily good at it or passionate about it. What she did love was the creative side of it. She was previously a corporate meeting planner in RTP, a career that lost its luster after 13 years. During that stretch, she dabbled in three or four “side jobs” to break the monotony.
“But none of them ever gave me the joy that cookies do,” she says.
“I think it was actually more about ‘creating’ than baking in the beginning. I was not happy at my job anymore, so I was staying up all hours, spending all my free time doing cookies. I just knew I could fill my days with cookie orders if I took the leap and gave up all the security of a 9-to-5. Whether it would be successful or not, I had no idea. But I knew I was going to do all I could to not have to go back to a traditional job.”
Millies’ Mama Bakes began as an online-only business – her headquarters was the kitchen in her Sanford home. By the end of 2019, life was good.
“Sitting in my PJs, listening to Taylor Swift on Spotify and dreaming up and creating beautiful cookies for my customers, I was living the dream,” she says. “But when the world shuts down three months after you leave your cushy job, you have to pivot.”
The arrival of the COVID pandemic in March 2020 meant that very suddenly, nobody needed birthday cookies, wedding cookies and retirement party cookies, because nobody was having gatherings. That summer, her friend Anna Stinson invited Nelson to her community swimming pool next to a food truck so her neighbors could have dessert with their dinner.
“My dream shifted, and my business changed completely,” Nelson says. “I kept experimenting with recipes and going to other neighborhoods, we bought a 10-by-10 concession trailer to be more ‘official’ that summer, and that’s when the business Sanford knows today came to be.”
One year later, Millie’s Mama Bakes opened a storefront at 223 Wicker St. in downtown Sanford, sharing an entrance with a dry cleaning business and roof with Hugger Mugger Brewing. Having the store meant Nelson no longer had to rely on events to sell her cookies (though the tent still makes appearances).
“The store has meant meeting new people, having consistent times to be open, no more picking up cookies in my carport at 8 p.m. and just getting to be an official part of this community,” she says. “And especially being in downtown, it’s such a blessing.”
Christmas is obviously a busy time for Millie’s Mama Bakes, as the holidays and cookies go hand in hand. But Nelson says in the past two years, the uptick in business has actually begun in October with downtown Sanford’s StreetFest. For the last three months of the year, it’s “foot on the gas” all the way up to Dec. 23.
The next 23 days means new holiday flavors — Nelson’s favorite is peppermint mocha, and other December specials include chewy molasses, caramel apple cider, orange cardamom and maple walnut, to name a few. Five new flavors rotate each week, so every seven days in December will bring in something new.
The holidays also mean special events. On Dec. 3, Millie’s will host a “Visit with Santa” event from 10 a.m. to noon — a free opportunity to bring the kids to get their photos made with Santa (BYOC) and see the specials in the cookie display. Onc Dec. 11, Nelson will host “Christmas Cookie Decorating Classes” from 1-3 p.m. for teens and adults and 4 to 5:15 p.m. for kids ages 6-11. Cost will be $60 for the adult class and $50 for the kids.
“We used to hire Santa to come to our house, and we would invite a handful of our friends and their kids, and it was always so magical,” Nelson says. “So when we got the shop, I was like, ‘We have to have Santa.’ This is a cookie shop, afterall.”
The last year and a half have been a whirlwind for Jessica Nelson, her husband Jason and their daughter, Millie. But as they enter their second Christmas season, Nelson is getting the hang of things.
“This year, we have branched out and gone to lots of offsite Christmas shows and shopping events as well,” she says. “Last year, we didn’t get that chance, because it was our first year navigating the holiday season. Let’s just say we have learned a lot about time management over that first year.”