The Otterbein's Family Bakery has changed a lot since it opened in Baltimore in 1881, from a modest storefront pastry shop to a factory operation that churned out about 7 million cookies last year for grocery stores and vending machines. But one thing hasn't changed: The sweet contents of Otterbein's red-and-white bags still are shepherded to market by the family that started it all.
Mark Otterbein, who runs the Windsor Mill-based operation, represents the fourth generation of his family to run the bakery, which celebrated its 125th anniversary this month.
Though as a young man Otterbein set out to do something different, the signature Otterbein cookies - in flavors like lemon, sugar and ginger, so crisp and wafer-thin that their cutout shapes can easily turn to shards by the time the package is opened - kept calling him back.
Adam Otterbein, who descendants say came from Bad Salzschlirf near the Black Forest region in Germany, started the bakery as a small retail shop in Locust Point.
There was a baking area in the basement, a storefront on the first floor and a home for the family above. Otterbein would hire immigrants newly arrived from his home country, even letting them sleep in the shop, which sold cakes, rolls, pastries and German cheesecake. But the cookies were the most popular item, especially during the holiday season.
The Otterbein family recipe passed from Adam to his son August and on to his son Joseph. In 1965, Mark's father, Joseph, moved the family business to Northeast Baltimore.
Mark Otterbein recalls seeing lines 30-people deep for the cookies during Christmastime, especially for the sugar cookies. To anticipate the December demand, the family would start preparing in September. Still, the Otterbeins rushed to keep up.
Ronald J. Lewis, who worked with two generations of Otterbeins until the 1990s, says the warm cookies straight from the oven wouldn't cool fast enough to be placed in the usual plastic bags, so employees used paper bags to get the cookies out to waiting customers.
As a teen, Mark Otterbein says, he was the fastest sugar cookie cutter in the bakery. He offered $100 to anyone who could beat him. No one did. But he didn't like the hours or the pay, and no teenager wants to cut sugar cookies on a Saturday night, he says.
He even joined the Navy in 1972 to avoid ending up at the family business. But one day in 1979, his father called him up to help out a little during the holiday rush. "And the rest," Otterbein says, "is history."
In the mid-1990s, Mark Otterbein closed the retail bakery and opened the wholesale business, which sells only cookies. Though he didn't want to tinker too much with success, Otterbein did come up with a new formula for chocolate-chip cookies, which he says are the company's most popular offering. "We wanted to get it just right," he says. (As for the recipe? He's not sharing.)
Two years ago, the company moved to its present location in Windsor Mill and last year the company branched into the vending-machine market, introducing a smaller package of cookies now sold from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.
Family members, who often arrive at the factory as the sun comes up, still make the cookies. A light, buttery smell wafts through the air as some of the 15 employees get to work. Among them are Jenny Otterbein, Mark's wife, and his sister Joan Kilduff, who organizes cookie orders.
"It's a family business; we all work really hard," Jenny Otterbein says as she carefully places batches of chocolate-chip cookies into the bags.
Chef Shirley Coleman, a chef instructor at Baltimore International College, says the Otterbein cookies have retained a homemade look and taste.
"They look like they were made with love," she says. "It wasn't thrown together." Coleman says she can taste butter as the primary fat in the cookies, instead of shortening. "I could tell someone took a little bit of extra time making them."
Chef Faith Kling, another chef instructor at the college, says the key to the thin Otterbein cookie is to bake it just the right amount of time - long enough to let the moisture evaporate and make the cookies crisp without burning them.
Packaging in extra air works as a buffer to keep the cookies from fracturing. Kilduff says the bakery's delivery drivers take extra care to make sure their fragile cargo arrives intact. Despite their best efforts, though, the cookies sometimes crack into pieces before the bags are opened.
For the future, Mark Otterbein looks to his 17-year-old son, Ben, who's about to graduate from high school, as a possible successor. Ben, who's mulling over the idea, has been a part of the business ever since he can remember. As a child, he would run around stealing doughnuts from the bakery counter and get odd looks from people. Then, he says, they would realize: He was an Otterbein.