Starting a Family Cookie Business in Charlottesville
Laura and Anwar Allen of Allens Scottish Shortbread are pursuing a goal started by Laura’s grandmother, Jessie Rabbit, from their tiny commercial kitchen. In the 1980s, Scottish immigrant Grandma Rabbit, an early mompreneur herself, managed a bed & breakfast in the Berkshires and prepared and served shortbread cookies the same way her family had always done: as a “wee nibble” that was suitable for any time of day, especially after a cup of tea. Laura recalls seeing shortbread cookies on the table, similar to how hard candies or flowers are kept. Grandma Rabbit decided to sell the burgeoning cookie business to spend more time with her family.
Beginning a Cookie Business
Laura and Anwar met at the University of Virginia. After Laura told him these tales of her Grandmother, Anwar—a first-generation American himself—saw the entrepreneurial possibilities. The Allens made the decision to take a chance on starting the family business after earning degrees in African American Studies and English Literature, and after briefly operating a digital media and marketing firm. Now, twenty years later they are the proud parents of three girls and proprietors of the popular cookie company, Allen’s Scottish Shortbread.
To get started, Grandma Rabbit gave them a little loan in 2014, and they began producing just enough goods to meet demand at the Charlottesville City Market. With placements in Charlottesville area shops, a wider migration onto the shelves at Whole Foods stores throughout the region, and even through the QVC shopping channel, the Allens’ skills and relationships from their marketing days started to pay off. Dadpreneur Anwar remarks, “We’ve been fortunate to have so many excellent business partners.”
The Original Mompreneur
Laura’s Scottish Grandma was the first woman in America to sell a million dollars’ worth of life insurance, saw great success with her shortbread business, & owned deeply beloved Bed & Breakfasts. Her mom, another successful mompreneur, co-owned and operated the largest Arabian Horse farm on the East Coast, and also raised Laura in and out of her and Grandma’s shortbread bakery & B&Bs, so she has always known women entrepreneurs. It’s all Laura and her daughters have ever known!
As a daughter of family business owners, Laura knows that the children of such parents have a high likelihood of ending up with business acumen simply through osmosis.
What it is Like to Have a Family Business
The illustrations on the shortbread gift boxes represent each one of the Allen family as rabbits. “I love that our daughters grow up alongside this sweetness, and I receive Mommy Paychecks when I hear queries from their car seats such as “Oh, Mommy! Those are the Blue Mountains from the time we did ballet on top of pumpkins as rabbits, right?!” A shared imagination weaves effortlessly into our conversations,” shares Laura, mompreneur extraordinaire.
As a daughter of family business owners, Laura knows that the children of such parents have a high likelihood of ending up with business acumen simply through osmosis. Laura loves hearing the girls’ perspectives on a cookie business problem that knock her over/ Sometimes one of them casually lays out a full strategy to a challenge they overhear their parents discussing while doing something else in the background. As parents, Laura and Anwar take these moments to make a massive fuss over them, encouraging them to think like leaders and innovators! (Another Mommy Paycheck!!)
What it is Like to be a Mompreneur
When Laura finds herself thinking, “I could accomplish so much more in this cookie business if I had more time apart from my children,” she immediately stops it as a joy-killing lie. She reminds herself of the deeply rewarding truth that she has an extremely small window of time to radically multiply her impact on this world, if she pour herself into the formation of her three brilliant and energetic girls. Everything she hopes to achieve to make the world a better place gets multiplied by the degree to which she spends herself on her daughters. The business must always bow to the girls, as far as her personal priority list goes. Laura shares that she would much rather be the first person my teenager comes to when she messes up because I have so much relational collateral with her than hit any business goal.
Homeschooling and Being a Mompreneur
Laura says, “I recently read that a large percentage of entrepreneurs homeschool their children. This makes perfect sense to me, because the same individual that dares to leave what everyone else does because of a fiery passion to build their own vision, would likely have an idea of what family life could look like that they just cannot shake. I think the covid lockdowns probably revealed that to many entrepreneurs. We really loved owning our own clock, and having more time with our children, during that forced time of sudden home education.
I would not want to live my life sitting quietly at a desk, bored, for money. Why would I do that to my babies? We have structure, community, and rigorous academic goals with a high standard for personal excellence, and we have a wild freedom to our life.
Laura Shares Her Typical Mompreneur Day
I wake up at 5 am, and make sure that within that still block of time before the girls join us, every thought pertaining to the cookie business gets recorded in my planner. Something about early morning, prayer and copious amounts of cold brew coffee that ushers in a fleeting brilliance that I have come to recognize as gold. Ideas pop in like popcorn, and my brain moves them into priorities, and then I talk them over with my business partner/husband, and we figure out where the items land in our day. Honestly, what I just described serves as 90% of my contribution. I do my best to give my girls 90% of my 8-5 (with a 10% wiggle room for sending an invoice or tidying up a display while hoping desperately they don’t take all of the other displays down when I turn my head!). Anwar takes over the evening routine after dinner when my intelligence seems like a distant memory.
I also take the occasional weekend alone to vision cast and strategize the year for the shortbread cookie business, and right now Anwar’s out with the girls while I sit in a nice quiet UVA library to answer these questions! When I need more time to work on the business, we just make sure the girls have a present parent interacting with them while I step out.
I have grown in my confidence in my choices as a woman. I don’t fit in with the homeschool moms completely, and I don’t fit in with the female entrepreneurs, or working moms, completely. I have come to viva la difference! I no longer place a high precedence on having others understand and approve of me, and much heart freedom comes with that!
Marriage, Parenting & Entrepreneurship for the Allens
Laura and Anwar attribute the success of their family business to the longevity of their marriage (going on 18 years!). “When we struggle in our marriage, our shared passion has always stuck us back on the same team. When we did this photoshoot at The Happy Cook we’d been having a really tough week”, shared mompreneur Laura. “But, we had to show up for this big beautiful dream we worked so tirelessly to build together. The talented photographer Jen Fariello had us looking into one another’s eyes and we fell back in like (I don’t think we have ever once fallen out of love!) answering your questions about our story and showing up to build the next piece together.”
The greatest skill Laura has honed in this experience of life is intentionally recognizing the gift that Anwar is, and thanking him. She shared that sometimes she can go into function mode and overlook his contributions. A well placed thank you can go a long way. That is advice everyone in every relationship can use!
Expanding a Charlottesville Family Business
Charlottesville’s Allen family offers twelve shortbread cookie varieties that are influenced by the changing of the seasons as well as their history of working with Harney & Sons Fine Teas, which dates back to Laura’s childhood when she helped founder John Harney distribute samples. The Allens make nearly 60,000 boxes of shortbread a year using the same shortbread cutters that Grandma Rabbit used forty years ago, together with specially made shortbread pans. Japan is the next expansion of territory where the Allen’s are collaborating with Harney & Sons Fine Teas.
Laura says that she is “weaving a tapestry of culture for a culture-specific product” and introducing Americans to the Scottish tradition of a “wee nibble” of shortbread, which is appropriate anytime, especially with a spot of tea. She does this with her lively narrative, whimsical craftsmanship, and devotion to her roots.
A Cookie Q&A With the Allen Family, Founders of Allens Scottish Shortbread
Do you think you might like to have a business someday?
Daughter Willow: “Yes!”
Daughter Skye: “yes! I want to help with shortbread!”
Willow: “Me too!”
What do you like best about making cookies?
Skye: “I like all of the different flavors”
Willow: “I like that it has sugar on top, and that they are fancy.”
Do you ever make cookies at home just for fun?
Mompreneur Laura: Absolutely not! I’m sorry to shatter the illusion! Anwar cannot live without shortbread in reach (he actually BOUGHT a box from Wegmans last month, because he forgot to bring some home from the bakery!) We are massive fans of the incredible bakeries in Charlottesville, and very occasionally buy the pull apart cookies that you find in the refrigerator section. We do looooooove to cook! All 5 of us get lost in culinary art! It’s so colorful and free! Baking is a science, cooking is an art. We like art at home!
What is your first cookie memory?
Willow: “being a baby Willow Rabbit on the box of the lemon shortbread”
Skye: “The earl grey and lavender shortbreads are my favourites, because they are the ones you thought of when I was born.”
What is hard about having a family business?
Skye: “sometimes I don’t get to spend as much time with Dad.”
Willow: “Dad, you need to focus more on me than on the business.”
Dadpreneur Anwar: “I just took you on a daddy daughter date yesterday.”
Willow: “Oh yeah, you’re right.”
What is best about having a family business?
Skye: “That we get to taste test!”
Willow: “You get to spend time with your family.”
What is your favorite cookie?
Skye: Chocolate Chip and Birthday
For more local stories, recipes, etc. visit the Food & Home section of our site. Recipes include Greek Easter Bread and Strawberry Shortcake with Blueberry Sauce. If you enjoyed this story, you may also like The Importance of Cooking With Kids and Trends in Family Kitchen Remodels.
CharlottesvilleFamily.com, a collection of local resources including a popular calendar of events, family services guides and features on education, health and family day trips for parents and teachers in Charlottesville, as well as Virginia Wine & Country Life, a semi-annual life & style magazine, and Wine & Country Weddings, an annual art book celebrating elegant Virginia weddings.