Photo Gallery | Made in the Berkshires: Klara's Gourmet Cookies
LEE — Christmas was always a festive occasion in Klara Sotonova's family when she grew up in what is now the Czech Republic.
In her hometown of Charest, a small village two hours southeast of the national capitol of Prague, all of the women in Sotonova's family would gather two weeks before the holiday to begin baking.
Under the Communist regime at the time, it was difficult to buy goods in stores. Sotonova said most people baked and cooked at home, especially during the holidays.
"We made 14 to 15 types of cookies at Christmastime," Sotonova said.
Some of those cookie recipes had been handed down through several generations in Sotonova's family. Now they're here in the Berkshires.
Sotonova, who emigrated to the United States 17 years ago, has turned those old family recipes into a thriving Berkshire business.
She co-owns Klara's Gourmet Cookies with her husband, South County native Jefferson Diller.
The couple makes eight types of Eastern European-style cookies from Sotonova's family recipes and sells them wholesale to grocery stores and speciality retailers locally, regionally and nationally.
Klara's six employees — Sotonova, Diller and four others — run the entire operation — baking, packaging, refrigerating and shipping — from a five-room, 1,400-square-foot space on the first floor of a small commercially zoned building on Railroad Street, directly behind Lee's main commercial strip. The couple live on the second floor. The small first-floor office is filled with cookie boxes.
"We do a lot of scrambling in here," Diller said.
Klara's retail sales are done strictly online over the company's website. Since Klara's does not have a brick-and-mortar retail outlet, Sotonova said the town does not require the company to post a sign in front of their business. So Klara's can be a little hard for a visitor to find.
But operating slightly under the radar hasn't hurt Klara's sales any. Klara's did close to $400,000 in total sales in 2015, some 15 percent more than the previous year, according to Sotonova Business has gone so well that Klara's is in the early stages of an expansion plan that includes the addition of a 5,000-square-foot bakery, Sotonova said. The company plans to stay in the Berkshires, she said.
Locally, Klara's sells to Berkshire entities like Guido's Fresh Marketplace, the Berkshire Co-op Market and Berkshire Organics, and to regional grocery store chains in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Why is her cookie business so successful?
"It's a quality product, and the consistency is the same," said Sotonova. "The consistency is extremely important.
"We consider our product to be an everyday high quality cookie," she continued. "We use the best ingredients that we can."
Berkshire Organics in Dalton has sold Klara's cookies for seven years, said co-owner Brian Gibbons.
"They're quite popular," said Gibbons, who is also Diller's cousin. "We have them in larger packages and smaller, single servings. We use them in gift baskets during the holidays. They have a really good following and do a really good job."
Klara's products also sell well at Guido's.
"Huge," said Guido's deli manager Tom Burger. "The public is really into their stuff. They're probably one of the biggest selling cookies among the locally made products that come in here."
Klara's cookies are made with natural ingredients. Non-GMO (genetically modified) verified ingredients are used whenever possible, Sotonova said. Klara's coconut macaroons and chocolate coconut macaroons are both dairy- and gluten-free.
At 19, Sotonova came to the United States to work at the Great Barrington-based URJ Eisner Camp, which is run by the Union for Reform Judaism. The Czech economy was struggling following the switch from a one-party system to a parliamentary republic following the Velvet Revolution, the name given to the non-violent transition of power that took place in 1989. Jobs were hard to come by.
"After the Velvet Revolution happened, there was a lot of changes going on," Sotonova said. "There simply wasn't a lot of work for kids right out of high school. So my friend said, 'I'm going to America to work in a summer camp, do you want to come?' That's how I ended up in the beautiful Berkshires."
Sotonova decided to remain in Great Barrington, which reminded her of her hometown of Charest. "It's very similar to where I am from, the surroundings, the nature," she said. "I'm not a city girl."
She eventually became involved in the food service business, working for a time as an assistant restaurant manager. She met Diller, a chef, when the two worked together at an eatery in Hillsdale, N.Y.
Sotonova began Klara's in 2006, originally baking cookies in her kitchen and selling them out of her apartment in Great Barrington.
"I always wanted to have my own business," she said. "When me and Jeff were dating, I made him Vanilla Walnut Crescents and he ate the whole box by the time he got home.
"He was like, 'Wow, these are very good, we should make these," Sotonova said. "So I said, 'OK, wait a minute. That's a good idea.'"
A "self-taught baker," Sotonova said she initially had trouble converting her family's traditional cookie recipes with the ingredients available in the United States.
"The ingredients were different," she said, "so we did have to experiment with the recipes to really get them to taste the way they should."
But one she got the formula down, the business began to grow. In 2009, Sotonova and Diller moved Klara's to its current location in Lee. She said the couple had been looking for a location where they could both bake and live.
"We had been watching this place for about six months," said Sotonova. The Railroad Street building became available during the Great Recession.
Gibbons said Diller and Sotonova have built their business the right way.
"They're really smart about it," he said. "They grew it at the right rate, mechanized when they could. [They] research products and buy in bulk so they can keep their cookies at a reasonable price range."
Would Klara's ever expand by adding a retail store?
"We might, one day," Sotonova said.
But she's clearly satisfied with Klara's current business model.
"With retail, you really have to be there all the time," she said. "You have to have many more employees, and there are a lot more headaches than this. This is by far easier because we just have to deal with the website."
A more immediate goal is to learn more about her family's cookie recipes. They date back to her two great grandmothers, who both lived into their mid-90s.
"I told my mother that I want my great grandma's recipe book," Sotonova said.