From Concrete to Cookies

By Mikayla Ostendorf

Ed Brubaker pours sugar into a blender, slowly whirring together ingredients. He walks across the kitchen, taking chocolate chip cookies out of the oven. A sweet chocolate-y smell fills The Cookie Jar, Brubaker’s Champaign bakery, located at 712 S. Sixth St. In the warmth of the kitchen, Brubaker bakes, mixes and cools, wearing a sweatshirt and greeting one of his friends and customers, Bruce Smith, as he walks in. 

“Hey, I know what’ll make you feel better,” Brubaker laughs as he hands Smith a fresh snickerdoodle cookie straight from the cooling racks.

Smith, a maintenance worker for Cochrane Enterprises, helps Brubaker with mechanical maintenance at the shop. Smith started as a customer, purchasing a cup of coffee and cookie from the small Campustown bakery. Frequent visits lead to friendship, and Smith now works for Brubaker in return for cookies, as he feels that he does not necessarily need money to help out a friend.

“The best (cookies) are the ones that come right out of the oven when they’re still hot — they’re not dough, yet they’re not a cookie,” Smith said.

Brubaker now prepares for Valentine’s Day by cutting the normally round cookie cakes into heart shapes. The counters are covered in circular sugar cookies, cooling under layers of icing and festive red and pink sprinkles. Pastry bags lay piled to the side filled with fresh butter cream frosting in various bright colors. According to Brubaker, Valentine’s Day is their busiest day of the year.

Several years ago, Brubaker made a big cookie upon request that said “Will you marry me?” with a ring that fit in a hole cut out of the middle. However, Brubaker said Valentine’s Day orders are typically put in by women, with many simpler custom requests for the upcoming holiday, such as “I love you” and “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

“(I tease) the guys because the guys don’t even know its Valentine’s Day until about 2 o’clock on Friday,” Brubaker said. “They’re the most last minute creatures on the face of the earth.”

Before mixing batter, Brubaker poured concrete for a living. His stepdad was the boss of Illinois Concrete Co. and introduced Brubaker to the job between his sophomore and junior year of high school. After 25 years in the union labor business, Brubaker left the job in 2000 to pursue something new.  

“Everybody knew that I needed something to do. I couldn’t just sit around — I was still relatively young,” Brubaker said.

His father-in-law knew the original owner of The Cookie Jar, who opened the bakery in 1980. When The Cookie Jar was available for purchase, Brubaker decided to buy it and begin a new chapter. He has been the running the bakery now for 14 years.

“I was skeptical, believe me. I’m not big into change,” Brubaker said. “I drive to work the same way every day. This is definitely something that was outside my realm.”

Brubaker’s early memories of baking stem back into childhood. Brubaker spent a lot of time with his grandparents picking strawberries and working in the garden. He, his brother and his grandfather would bring home the day’s pickings for their grandmother to turn into cobbler and pies.

At The Cookie Jar, Brubaker continues all of the original cookie recipes, along with one of his own cookie flavors. The triple berry, Brubaker’s creation, combines cherry, blueberry, cranberry and Heath bars into an oatmeal cookie.

Brubaker typically arrives at work around 6 a.m. and makes all the cookies, brownies and muffins by himself. He then is usually out of the shop by 3 p.m.

“I’m not scared to work. I can be here at 4 in the morning if I want, and I can stay until 8 o’clock at night if I have to,” Brubaker said.

Employee Zoe Kaler, sophomore in Media, works as a cashier and often decorates the cakes. She said Brubaker allows employees to do homework when there are no orders to fill or customers to serve, leading to a relaxed work environment. Employees are also allowed to help themselves to a snack — buttercreme sandwiches, in Kaler’s case.

“Ed’s a great guy. He’s a very caring owner,” Smith said. “Ed is kind of like (the employees’) dad away from home.”

Kaler’s family is friends of Brubaker’s, and Kaler has been getting cookie cakes from The Cookie Jar “since (she) was old enough to eat cake.” She has known Brubaker for as long as she can remember, and Brubaker offered her a job at the bakery when she came to the University for school. Kaler, a cheerleader, converses with Brubaker about Illini athletics.

“I’m pretty good friends with him. He’s really easy to joke around with,” Kaler said.

A self-proclaimed people-person, Brubaker likes that his job as a shop owner allows him to talk to people all day long. He meets all different people, including Illini Athletic coaches.

Basketball Coach John Groce often calls up Brubaker in the middle of the afternoon during brainstorming sessions for orders of buttercreme sandwiches, Brubaker said. The whole crew is hooked on them, Brubaker added.

“Ed’s usually baking cookies and getting caught up for the day or getting his big orders done, but yet he takes time to talk to people while he does it,” Smith said.

Campus departments place weekly special cookie orders by the dozen to bring to offices, group meetings and seminars. With a constant stream of regular customers, The Cookie Jar’s batches are always sold within 24 hours, Brubaker said. However, sales can fluctuate day to day.

“You don’t get too low when business is slow, and you don’t get too high when you’re rockin’ and rollin’ because you know that’s not going to last either,” Brubaker said.

Brubaker takes each day as it comes, claiming that there “is not method to (his) madness whatsoever.” The amount of cookies he makes depends on the type of business day. For now, Brubaker predicts that Valentine’s Day will be demanding and is preparing accordingly.

“I can make tons of big cookies, put them in a big freezer and be ready for Valentine’s Day,” Brubaker said. “(Valentine’s Day is) fun. I talk to twice as many people as I do during a normal work day.”

Mikayla can be reached at [email protected]