Sarah Zeng and Alice Huang didn’t think they’d become entrepreneurs by the end of the school year, but when the coronavirus hit in March, the texts started to fly.
The 15-year-old founders of Dough Re Mi, a new cookie delivery business, attend different high schools, Zeng at Westwood High and Huang at St. Stephen’s, but they have been friends since sixth grade, when they attended Canyon Vista Middle School.
After one year together, Huang’s family moved to South Austin and she enrolled in a different middle school, and that’s when their across-town friendship started.
They attended the same Chinese dance school, so they saw each other in classes, and they also connected over their shared passions and similar experiences as first-generation Chinese Americans. Their parents let them travel together around the state, including a trip to Houston to visit the American Girl store and to Fort Worth and San Antonio for their first concerts: Shawn Mendes and BTS.
Earlier this year, they were both home for spring break when businesses shuttered and it became clear that nothing about this year would be what they thought it would be.
"As we started thinking about it, we were getting less optimistic about what the future held with everything being canceled," Huang says. "We were sad, but then we realized that there were a lot of people suffering worse from the crisis than we were."
That’s when the idea of starting a cookie business came up. Baking raised their spirits, so couldn’t it raise the spirits of customers while raising money for a cause?
Huang’s mom likes to bake, so when Huang was in elementary school, they started by making cookies, which could be finished after dinner as a weeknight project. The younger Huang eventually baked a few cakes for birthday parties and brownies and banana bread for her classmates.
Zeng also baked at an early age, but she started cooking non-sweets seriously, too. "Sarah is so good at cooking," Huang says on a recent Zoom call with her co-founder. "If you see her Thanksgiving meals, they are immaculate."
One holiday feast had it all: mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie. "She sends me videos, and I’m like, ‘Give me!’" Huang says.
For Zeng, cooking was how she earned her parents’ trust in the kitchen. With each successful dish, they let her have more room to grow, trying new dishes or baking techniques.
When they were in middle school, Zeng used to post photos of her food on Google Plus, a now-shuttered social media site, but by the time they were in high school, homework time started to squeeze out cooking time.
But when the coronavirus forced them to shelter in place, they had more free time than they’d had in years, so they started batting around ideas for how they could use their baking skills for good.
Zeng says that first conversation lasted for four hours. They eventually decided on a name, Dough Re Mi, a riff on the song from "The Sound of Music." (Huang plays the piano and Zeng plays the viola.) They sketched out a business plan and divided up the tasks, but their parents wouldn’t let them start doing anything until they’d taken their AP tests after spring break and stayed on top of their virtual schooling.
By the end of March, the teens were testing cookie recipes, sourcing packaging, photographing the product, building the website (drmcookieco.com) and making business cards.
Huang goes to school with Mikaila Ulmer, the teen founder of Me and the Bees lemonade, so she reached out to ask advice on starting a food business.
Huang’s mom, Weiwei, says she thought her daughter’s cookie business idea was just one of those soon-to-fizzle concoctions that she and Zeng had cooked up.
"I told them, ‘To make cookies to sell, you need a commercial kitchen,’" she says, but the teens were a step ahead of her, telling her about the Texas Cottage Food Law that allows cooks to sell many baked goods from home. The burgeoning entrepreneurs had also already taken the test to get food handler permits online.
"I thought they were just going to talk about it, but when I started to see the labels, the packaging, I saw they were really going to do it. I was really moved by it," she says.
They finally decided on three classic cookies to sell all of the time and three specialty cookies that would rotate every two weeks. They found a nonprofit they wanted to support, All Together ATX, a COVID-19 relief fund. By May, Zeng and Huang were ready to launch, so they published the website, announced the opening on Instagram and waited.
Orders didn’t exactly start flying in on the first day, Huang says, but friends and family members started spreading the word and buying cookies. Customers can buy cookies for delivery to someone else, which quickly proved a popular option.
Each week, the friends split up the cookies that need to be baked and spend Thursday and Friday in the kitchen. On Saturdays, they meet up to exchange the cookies they’ve baked and then head out to deliver them. The teens won’t start learning how to drive until later this summer, so they fulfill deliveries with their parents.
Weiwei Huang says she wasn’t exactly surprised when her daughter asked her "very nicely" if she would help them make the cookie deliveries. At first, it was only a couple of hours a week, but now that orders are increasing, Huang and her mom spend even more time in the car, driving to parts of the city her daughter hadn’t seen before.
"By delivering cookies, she saw a bigger Austin," her mom says, and as her perspective on the city changes, so does how she views herself and her friendship with Zeng.
"They have something between them that is special," Weiwei Huang says.
In recent weeks, the bakers have experimented with a lemon-flavored cookie and a salted dark chocolate cookie, as well as coconut macaroons and a chocolate cookie inspired by rocky road ice cream.
"Neither of us have a big personality," Zeng says, but the company has boosted their confidence, brought them together in new ways and reminded them what they are good at. "I never thought I’d be a businessperson, but it’s been really fun to venture into this world."
Zeng and Huang, who are both also taking classes at Austin Community College this summer, say that although they have enjoyed learning how to start a business this year, they both still have their eyes on medical school after graduation.
Even when the pandemic ends, don’t expect to find them baking together. "We tried to make a cake together last year, and it was chaotic," Zeng says. Huang agreed; they aren’t meant to share a kitchen, she says, but they’ll always share something much deeper.
"Our personalities bounce off each other, and our conversations are so fun," Huang says. "That’s the thing we do well together."