By John Rice
Twisted Cookie refers to the unique variations Joana Fischer creates with the classic American pastry. Twisted could also describe Fischer's career path. It has brought her to 7401 Madison, where she opened her shop on March 3. After a nine-month gestation at this location, she is hosting a Grand Opening on Saturday, Dec. 9, from 2 to 5 p.m., featuring free mini-cupcake cookies. A percentage of the sales will go to Forest Park Little League.
Fischer has embraced Forest Park, but it's a long way from where she started.
She was born in Bucharest, Romania, where her grandmother was an accomplished pastry chef.
"Grandma was a great cook and baker," Fischer recalled. "I loved to watch her." When she was 6, her parents, Alexander and Ana, decided to take their only child to America. "They wanted to give me the benefits they didn't have when they were growing up in a communist country," Fischer said. "They equated education with success."
Attending school in America wasn't easy for her at first. "I didn't speak a word of English," she recalled. "I came home from first grade crying."
Her school was in Rogers Park, where the family first settled. They later moved to River Forest. One of her classmates was David Offermann. Little did she know that David's father, former OPRF High School superintendent Don Offermann, would later be her landlord at 7401 Madison.
Fischer mastered English, but when she was nine, her life took a tragic turn. Her father died suddenly during a business trip to Paris. Alexander, an engineer, was only 50 years old. Her mother carried on as a draftsman working for an architect. But Fischer still tears up when she speaks of her father's death.
When she graduated from Trinity High School, Fischer was planning a career in public relations and television. After earning a degree in TV Production at Columbia College, "I was hired to be a production assistant for the Jenny Jones Show. I was the worst assistant ever." This didn't discourage her as she moved up to project manager. "I planned hair and skin care events for Nordstrom's." When that job ended, Fischer asked herself where she was going professionally.
She noticed that high-end cupcakes were just hitting the market and that many of these companies had been founded by females.
"I loved to bake and always had the entrepreneurial spirit," Fischer said. "I wanted to do something different — take the cupcake concept and turn it into a cookie. I didn't know what I was getting into, but ignorance was bliss."
She started working out of her house. "I didn't have the funds to open a storefront," she explained. Her cookies, though, were a hit. "My first client was Nordstrom's." It was 2009 and Fischer found herself in the wholesale business. Her second client was the Buzz Café in Oak Park, and she still supplies them with baked goods.
"Then I hit up Whole Foods. It was very difficult to get into."
The chain has high standards for suppliers but Fischer's creations were sold at three locations, including River Forest.
"I started developing other products," she recalled, wondering, "what else can I do with a cookie?" She developed numerous variations.
"I turned pies into cookies. I started dipping and stuffing brownies. They became very popular. I also baked traditional items, like chocolate chip cookies."
It turned out a group of investors loved her products. They approached Fischer to finance her operation. In 2013, she signed the contract.
At the same time, she was approached by the producers of the reality show, Shark Tank. She could have gone on the show to pitch her products to the celebrity panel. But with a deal already in place, she chose not to compete with contestants for an investor.
"I didn't think I was ready for Shark Tank. Meanwhile, she disagreed with her investors about the direction of her business. "They wanted wholesale but my heart was in retail. I wanted a storefront. We parted amicably but I had to start over from scratch."
Fischer decided to pack up her products and sell them at craft shows.
"I re-launched myself," Fischer said, selling baked goods at weekend events but hungering for her own shop. Having grown up in River Forest, she was familiar with Forest Park. "I knew that Madison Street is a great street. I was driving down Madison one day and saw a 'For Lease' sign." The location had been occupied by Flavour Cooking School. All the cooking equipment was gone, though, except for the sinks.
"The space was raw," Fischer recalled. "We had to do a complete build-out." Fortunately, a new investor came aboard. "He believed in me and said, 'Let's take a shot at it.'" They formed a partnership and remain good friends to this day.
She needed all the support she could get. "I felt overwhelmed at first. No one had done this before, but I love taking risks." She figured if her baked goods looked and tasted good, the shop would be a success. She now offers a variety of brownies and cookies, as well as vanilla ice cream and a selection of hot and cold drinks. She has two bakers on her nine-person staff and they put in long hours seven days a week.
"I love the customers," she said. "We can tease and joke around. I've been invited for dinner and drinks." Fischer has also befriended fellow business owners on Madison Street, like Tim and Radana Shanahan.
"When she first moved in, we sent her flowers," Radana Shanahan recalled. "Her coffee and pastries remind me of Viennese cafes. I came to the shop for her products but later started coming for the person. She's one of the hardest-working women I know. She's there at 10 a.m. and still there at 10 p.m. She goes the extra distance for her customers."
The two friends have joined forces. Fischer has helped Shanahan with her candy designs, while Tim Shanahan showed Fischer how to make toffee for dipping cookies. The pair drop off cookies and candy at village hall and the police and fire departments. Although she's only known her a short time, Shanahan enjoys her professional and personal relationship with Fischer.
Fischer also has longtime friends, like Carol Chaiken, who has mentored her for 16 years.
"Jo is a great example for women who want to achieve professional success," Chaiken said. She is a very hard worker. But she has a gorgeous personality and people are drawn to her."
When Chaiken first met her, Fischer was working for a big cookie company. She watched as Fischer did the research to launch her own line.
"I saw a genuine winner," Chaiken said. "She's inventive and creative. She has persistence and a never-give-up attitude." Chaiken and Fischer belong to a group of like-minded women, who act on their dreams.
"We all root for each other. We believe in prayer and we're grateful for the opportunities we've had. Jo is so real and so kind. Forest Park is a perfect fit for her."