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Sunday, Feb 25, 2024

Ex-Boeing Staffer Engineers Sweet Enterprise

Shahira Marei jumped from managing projects at Boeing to serving cookie-enveloped milk shots. The career switch was rather drastic, but it was her ties to the aerospace giant that made her Dirty Cookie business a possibility.

Dominique Ansel, the star chef behind the Cronut pastry sensation, is credited with developing the cookie shot—a chocolate-lined cookie cup filled with cold milk that his Los Angeles and New York bakeries serve in the evenings. Marei adopted his concept but also figured out how to simplify the labor-intensive process.

“What everybody was doing, even Dominique, it’s not scalable,” she said, adding that the capacity of the baking molds available at the time was limited, so “there’s no way you could really grow it into a main business … and take it nationwide and worldwide like what I want to do.”

An aerospace engineer friend of Marei’s—“outside of work hours”—created baking molds that can produce hundreds of cookie cups at a time.

“I told him, ‘When I make it big, I’ll write you a check for a million dollars,’” she said. “He’s holding me to that.”

Marei found a commercial kitchen in Huntington Beach, and in January 2015 leased a store at Union Market at The District at Tustin Legacy. Cookie cup options there include chocolate chip, cookies n’ cream, red velvet, matcha green tea, peanut butter and chocolate mint. They can be filled with organic milk, vanilla almond milk, chocolate and vanilla creams, coconut cold-brew, soft-serve ice cream and toasted marshmallow. Shot prices range from $5 to $7 each, in line with that of a large Starbucks’ Frappuccino.

The Dough

The Boeing engineer who helped her make the molds may wait a bit for the payout.

Dirty Cookie—she chose the name for its punch—is officially still a startup, with 15 full- and part-time employees, and breaking even. Anything that’s left over after covering expenses, Marei is putting back into the business.

Catering orders bring in more than half of sales, which inspired her to rethink the brick-and-mortar concept and focus on bigger clients.

“Opening other locations is going to be the last thing I do, because right now we’ve already started wholesaling to hotels, like the Four Seasons, the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, and Balboa Bay Resort in Newport Beach.”

Plans also call for serving the vegan community by year-end.

“We’re really growing our vegan and gluten-free assortment,” she said. “We’re actually going to probably turn it into more like a sister company, a sister line or something.”

Innovation Legacy

Marei said she dreamed of running her own business since she was a child. She was inspired by her father, also an entrepreneur, whose company in Egypt specialized in aluminum manufacturing and ultrasonic inspections.

“He always told me, ‘If you really want to change the world and change lives, you need to become an entrepreneur, because that’s what you do as a business. You can help societies and communities, give people jobs,’” she said. “I was really motivated to being my own boss.”

Quitting her job made no sense to anyone she talked to about the possibility. She had a 5-month-old daughter to support at the time, and though Boeing was frequently laying off workers, she said her job security wasn’t in question.

“People were freaking out, saying, ‘Nobody’s leaving Boeing—what are you doing?’” she said. “I was the youngest one of the people there, and I wasn’t overly paid like other people that have been there for a long time that they had to lay off.”

But she quit anyway, bringing along her best friend and a fellow project manager at Boeing, Sally Elgamil.

“I told her, ‘I really wanted to do this,’ and I knew she’d support me through anything,” Marei said.

About a year into their adventure, Elgamil returned to corporate life.

“She couldn’t really handle the life of entrepreneurship—it’s very stressful, and the sacrifice is big,” Marei said. “So we kind of just went our own ways, and she’s still my best friend.”

Riding solo has so far been working out for Marei, but to grow the business, she said she’ll need more support on the financial side.

“I’m looking for investors right now.”

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