Eli Vedral of Kookaburra Cookies on Nebraska Cottage Food Opportunities
Eli Vedral, a student-athlete at Creighton University, joins Jim to discuss how a change in Nebraska legislation enabled him to start a home-based baking business, Kookaburra Cookies. A transcript of this episode is available below.
Jim Vokal: Nebraska is one of the country’s top food-producing states. But until just a couple years ago, Nebraska was behind the pack nationally for its laws encouraging small food-producing businesses. Nebraskans who wanted to sell baked goods or other shelf-stable foods made from home could only peddle their products at farmers markets—kind of hard to do in a lot of Nebraska communities in the middle of winter, or if you don’t have a local farmers market.
But in 2019, the Unicameral expanded Nebraska’s cottage food law, allowing home-based producers to register with the Department of Agriculture and sell a wide selection of products year-round from home or even online. Best of all, unlike some states, there’s no limit on how much Nebraska cottage food producers can earn with these microbusinesses.
My guest today is one of about 800 cottage food operators who have now registered with the state. Eli Vedral runs Kookaburra Cookies in Wahoo, Nebraska, and this business was recently frontpage news in the Omaha World-Werald. Let’s find out why. Eli, welcome to Nebraskanomics.
Eli Vedral: Hi, thank you, glad to be here.
Jim Vokal: All right, let’s dig in here. How did you find out about the opportunity to run a home-based cookie business and how has the expanded law allowing online sales helped Kookaburra Cookies?
Eli Vedral: Yeah, so the thing is, I really knew nothing about running a cottage food business until I decided, like, “Hey, I’m to try to go to a few farmers markets.” And I almost had to work backwards, figuring out I want to do this—what are the rules and regulations about it. And it was awesome to find out how much I was able to do. And then potentially—your second part of your question—the expanded law has really just allowed my business to be more than just a farmers market business. Like, I’m able to operate year-round, I’m able to have a website and take online sales, so it really just allowed me to be more than just, like, something you go to four hours a week during the summertime. So that has been amazing.
Jim Vokal: Now, the Kookaburra is an Australian bird that makes a very distinct sound, and the Kookaburra Cookies have a very distinct style of cookie called the Strumble cookie. What is a Strumble cookie and where did you take your inspiration for your recipes?
Eli Vedral: So, Strumble is my pride and joy. My life’s work. Strumble is a riff on the streusel crumble topping that you find on muffins and cakes and breads, which is my favorite part. I took that element, that concept, upgraded it and put it onto my favorite dessert—which are cookies, obviously. So each of my cookies has a Strumble or streusel crumble-esque topping. I liked that you mentioned the Kookaburra because it has a very distinct sound, and that was a conscious decision when naming Strumble and picking a bird to head my logo. I took the inspiration for my recipes from the semester that I spent in Australia. I lived and studied in downtown Sydney and was a student at the University of Sydney in Australia. And while I was there, my view of food and how I looked at food flipped upside down, right to left, all over the place.
Because, I mean, there was just everything you could think of. Some of the examples I give, like there was a restaurant dedicated to sushi cheeseburgers—like beef and cheese wrapped in rice and seaweed. There’s one restaurant where they served banana and chili gelato. All these foods, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, these do not go together at all, these would never make it in, like, the U.S.” But it just kind of introduced the concept of fusion to me and how you can take things that do not traditionally go together and really merge them. And so, when I got back to the U.S., I kind of applied that food fusion mindset to foods that I loved, which was the streusel crumble topping that are the best part of all muffins, and my favorite dessert, the chocolate chip cookie.
Jim Vokal: All right, Eli, you and I share a couple things in common besides the fact that you like to make cookies and I love to eat them. We’re both Creighton Bluejays, and you’re currently a student-athlete at Creighton, which is often a serious time commitment. Is there any particular advantage to being a cottage food entrepreneur given everything that’s on your plate?
Eli Vedral: Absolutely. So, the funny thing is, I’ve actually looked at commercial locations while still being in school, but there’s just been this kind of, like, some subconscious part of the back of my brain that knows that if I take on a commercial location right now, that everything else is going to come to a halt—that I will always be there, I’ll never work on homework again, I’ll never want to go to practice again, and so I’ve kind of kept pushing that back. And for what you just mentioned—allowing Kookaburra to exist as a cottage food bakery while I’m still in school has been everything for me, because my family’s been great. I’m in my home, and there’s a shelf of our pantry that’s dedicated just to me, there’s a freezer in our garage that’s dedicated just for me, like I have a closet with all my packaging supplies, and it’s right down the hall from where I sleep. So, I’m still able to do my schoolwork, and go to practice, and then come home and work. And in a storefront, you need to staff it, and you need to have consistent hours for your customers, and right now that is not the case at all. I mean, a lot of times, I’m baking at 6 a.m., or just last week with the rush orders from the World-Herald article, I was baking at 3 a.m., and that would not really be a viable option if I had a commercial location, but because I’m able to operate out of my home, I can have a lot more flexibility in my schedule.
Jim Vokal: Sounds like you plan to also grow Kookaburra Cookies into a larger business with a storefront or commercial kitchen operation at some point, but right now it’s operating out of your home kitchen in Wahoo, like you just described. What has it meant to you to have that option of starting small and scoping out the market for your business under the cottage food law?
Eli Vedral: What a lot of people don’t know about Kookaburra is that when I started it, I did not have this long-term vision that I do now. I really started during COVID-summer. I was asking around trying to find work anywhere, so I went to my aunt who is actually an entrepreneur in Lincoln, her company’s name is Bulu—and I was like, “Do you have an internship for me, or do you have any entrepreneurial friends who would have an internship for me?” And she was basically like, “With this pandemic, there’s not gonna be a lot of options—try to find something for yourself.” And I took that to heart, and I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna take these next two months and create something for myself.”
And being a graphic design student, I was like, “What’s a project that I can take on that’ll allow me to expand my graphic design portfolio for my real career?” And I’ve always loved to bake, I’ve been baking since, like, elementary school. So, in retrospect, it all kind of fits together. But at the moment, I was not thinking this is going to be long-term. I was just going to do this for summer at the farmers market, see where it takes me, but in doing that I discovered my passion and I figured out with this whole Strumble concept, that there might actually be a business here. If the cottage food laws weren’t in place, I don’t think I ever would have figured that out, because I would never have had the capital or the time to jump out of the nest—which funnily, Kookaburra jumping on the nest—I would have never had the courage to jump that far out of the nest that soon.
Jim Vokal: That makes sense. That’s great—and happy that this law is working out for you. So I sense an entrepreneur’s spirit in you, and as an entrepreneur, your mission is to make a profit, of course, by creating new solutions and added value for consumers like me who like to eat your cookies. I think it’s easy for people sometimes to overlook things like cookies as a way of building a business, but Kookaburra Cookies is definitely in a gourmet segment. Your cookies are individually-wrapped, they weigh about a third of a pound, and so naturally they come at a higher price point than most cookies you will find on the grocery store shelf. Do you have any sense at this stage of who your customer persona is, what makes them different than other people who buy cookies, and how you’ve been able to sell them your product?
Eli Vedral: Yeah, so, all of those are all, like, some of the hurdles of starting a bakery business. Actually, at the very start, I was like, “How do I make sure people don’t just look as at my business like a highschooler’s bake sale?” Part of the area that I think that Kookaburra is different, is one, the Strumble. These cookies are not like cookies people have had before. Also, because I just believe in being creative in the kitchen, and even though I love chocolate chip cookies and oatmeal cookies, you don’t find those on my menu. They’re always their unique flavors that people haven’t had before. On top of that, I pay a lot of attention to the experience of my cookies. If you look on my social media or my website, they all come individually-wrapped, they all come in custom-printed boxes, there’s like crinkle cut paper to make it all like this experience of opening presents, and I just think that cookies—and I hope my cookies—can be more than just butter and sugar, is what I always say. Like, they’re a moment in time. They’re a gift to your best friend, or to your mom, or they’re hopefully making someone’s day. And so, part of the way that I’ve tried to separate my business from just a teenager’s bake sale is really emphasizing that packaging and that experience.
Jim Vokal: Anything else you want to share about being an entrepreneur or the importance of the cottage food law and what that’s meant to your business?
Eli Vedral: Yeah, it’s really like I said earlier, it’s just meant everything. It’s allowed me a pathway to find my career that I’m not sure I would have been able to without it. And so my advice to all other entrepreneurs is to just always show up and try, and see what happens. And that’s pretty much what I did that first summer, kind of. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was just going to follow my passion and see what happened. And with this with this cottage food situation that we have in Nebraska, we’re able to do that.
Jim Vokal: Well, I’m glad the Platte Institute was part of that legislative process. As we said at the outset of this conversation, we have over 800 now cottage food entrepreneurs like you, and that law has been very meaningful for business and people just like you. Eli, where can our listeners find you if they’d like to try the Kookaburra Cookies?
Eli Vedral: They can order online anytime at KookaburraCookies.com. I also really encourage customers or just followers to check out my Instagram page which is @kookaburracookies. That’s where I’ll post specials, and little tidbits and secret tips that you can’t get on the website. So, yeah, you can order online at KookaburraCookies.com or follow us—follow me—@kookaburracookies on social media.
Jim Vokal: Eli Vedral of Kookaburra Cookies, congratulations on your success so far, we wish you all the best, and appreciate you joining us today on Nebraskanomics.
Eli Vedral: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, it’s been fun.