Austrian Information introduces you to another successful Austrian in the U.S., Michael Radeczki. During his childhood years, he recognized his aptitude and love for baking while helping his mother make exceptional desserts. Some years later, he is the owner of Michael’s Cookies, an international company, which provides ready-to-bake frozen cookie dough to elite purveyors throughout the U.S. and abroad. For this issue of Austrian Information, we asked Mr. Radeczki a few questions about his work and life on the wonderful island of Hawaii.
Which part of Austria are you originally from and where did you grow up?
I was born in Hamburg to an Austrian father and a German mother but grew up in Vienna. We moved there when I was four years of age, in 1949.
When did you first discover your passion for pastries and why did you decide to become a pastry chef?
As a child, I really enjoyed helping my stepmother make her pastries; that is how I discovered my passion. She was an amazing cook as well as a highly-skilled baker. I learned many things from her. After the war, she had to be very creative to compensate for the lack of usual baking supplies. Although, originally I wanted to become an architect, my German was not good enough for me to pass the qualifying exam for the University.
When I was counseled at school concerning the direction I could go in life, my mother told them how much I liked to help her in the kitchen. My father was a waiter and he convinced me to become a pastry chef rather than a waiter so that I would have a more normal life. His life had been one of foreign travels as a merchant marine and later working evenings in restaurants in Vienna. He thought that I could do better than he had.
The apprenticeship programs offered by the Austrian government were so good that I really felt prepared for the life I was about to lead. My first working experience following graduation was with Zauner in Bad Ischl. After three seasons in Gastein and later at the London Hilton, I accepted a position with the Tourist Hotel Corporation of New Zealand for two years. While there, I made pastries for Prince Phillip when he visited New Zealand to open a hydroelectric scheme.
During this time, I also met my wife Lyndall, an Australian who was on a working holiday in that country. We married in 1970 in Australia and then went to Vienna for three months. From there we returned to London where I was offered my old position as the pastry chef of the London Hilton hotel. I also had the pleasure of making pastries for, among others, Lulu and the Beatles before leaving to work at the Tryall Beach Hotel and Resort in Jamaica for the winter season. Subsequently, I worked at the El Dorado Hilton in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Isle Hilton before returning to Australia.
How did you come to the U.S.?
While living in Australia in the early 1970s, there was a shortage of pastry chefs in the United States and I was recruited by the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas.
How did you end up in Hawaii?
After working for the Fairmont Hotel for a year, I was recruited by Harrah’s Hotel in Reno, where I worked for three years. I opened the Vienna Pastry Shop in Reno and successfully operated it for two years before relocating to San Diego in 1981. After opening the cookie company in 1987, I visited Hawaii in 1995 to meet the pastry chef at the Hyatt in Maui. Coincidentally, he was also a Viennese pastry chef, who, one year earlier, attended the same school I had in Vienna. He was so impressed with the quality of the cookie dough that he persuaded his major food distributor to bring the cookie dough to the islands for his hotel.After this humble beginning, I ended up selling the frozen cookie dough to the majority of large hotels in Hawaii.
How did the idea of frozen cookie dough come to be?
There was a limited number of trained pastry chefs in the U.S. at that time and because of my background in the hotel industry I could see that there was a need within the industry for products that were partially premade and only needed to be finished by the individual chefs themselves. This is now called a “bake-off concept” and is widely used throughout the hotel industry.
The chefs were looking for products that they could have their staff bake without needing any special training. In order to be shipped nationwide, the product had to be frozen and precut, so it was easy to use.
What challenges did you face starting up your company in the U.S.?
The biggest challenge was the lack of funds to pay for the national food distributors such as Sysco and U.S. Foodservice to agree to include our products in their distribution system. So we took the difficult route and went to the customers first and asked them to request their distributor to stock the item for their use.
There was a lot of resistance from the food distributors to that particular way of selling goods but that was the only way for us to break into the market. The superior gourmet frozen cookie dough we made helped us to become a successful company, driven by the demands of our customers.
Tell us a little bit about your company.
We started the company in 1987 as a direct result of the demand for the cookies. My wife had another food company where she sold the cookies I had developed and sales continued to grow. We knew that we would be limited in our growth if we stayed in one retail location. We also realized that as a manufacturer we could ship our goods anywhere in the U.S. and around the world.
Originally, we only sold the cookie dough in San Diego, but we were forced to expand when the first Gulf War caused the number of residents in the area of the Camp Pendleton Marine base to decline rapidly. We expanded into the Los Angeles area but soon realized that we needed to go even further. I concentrated on establishing sales contacts with various hotel chains and by 1992, we got our first national hotel chain account.
From that point on, we started to ship our cookie dough nationally and continued to enhance the business for the next several years. Today, we are an international company with sales in the USA, Hong Kong, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, South America and Europe. The cookies have even been served on Air Force One as well as in the Senate and Congressional cafeterias. We were named the official cookie provider for the Marriott and Hyatt chains as well as the Fairmont and Ritz Carlton Hotels in the late 1990s. To this day, we are still their number one supplier.
Additionally, we sell to major universities, retirement homes, convention centers and supermarkets. We use a network of approximately 120 food distributors globally to get our cookie dough to our customers. We were awarded three silver medals and one gold medal by the prestigious National Association of Specialty Food Trade for our outstanding food quality. Their international Fancy Food Show brings together clients and exhibitors from all over the world.
What kind of cookies do you offer?
Currently, we offer a variety of over 200 sizes and flavors of cookies, including our Gourmet Line, our Wheat Free/Gluten Free plus Sugar Free and now our latest creation, the Vegan line. Naturally, the most frequently sold cookie seems to be the Chocolate Chip but of the top ten flavors we offer such delights as Cappuccino Chocolate Chunk, Maple Pecan, White Chocolate Macadamia Nut and Fudge Nut Brownie - just to name a few.
The cookies come in more than six different sizes, and we tailor the dough to meet the differing regional and international tastes and customs. As an example, for the Middle East areas I developed a line of cookies using dates. They are a popular local fruit. More salty cookies were developed for the Eastern Asian markets such as Hong Kong and China.
Are you still keeping in touch with Austria? Do you occasionally go back and visit the country?
Although, unfortunately, my parents are no longer alive, I still have siblings, nephews, and nieces living in Austria. We try to go there on a regular basis to visit relatives, enjoy a great cup of coffee with pastries and a good glass of some famous Austrian wine.
What do you miss most about Austria?
I miss the culture I grew up with, the music, the people, the language, and the spirit of Vienna’s “wine, women and song.”
What are your plans for the future?
Eventually, we would love to divide our time between Austria, Australia, and Hawaii. We feel so blessed to have been able to experience such wonderful countries and have had the opportunity to work and live in those countries during our 40+ years of marriage.