Barbara Weniger shows off her best at Lakota Bakery. / Marjorie Howard photoBarbara Weniger shows off her best at Lakota Bakery. / Marjorie Howard photo

Almost everyone, says Barbara Weniger, enjoys a cookie now and then.

She's right. And that simple idea has made Lakota Bakery in Arlington Heights a success. Weniger is celebrating her 25th year in business this summer, and the bakery's popularity is not in question. 

Cookie lovers continue to file in faced with a happy conundrum: which kind should they buy?

Among our many-faceted residents

Named for a Native American tribe from Weniger's native South Dakota, Lakota-baked cookies exist in a different world from the store-bought, packaged kind. The emphasis here is on butter instead of sugar, making treats that are rich yet not too sweet.

Parents have been known to purchase a dozen as a gift for a lucky teacher; families present them as hostess gifts; kids and their parents walk out of the store munching away.

On a typical afternoon customers are greeted by the tantalizing aroma of cookie dough baking in a nearby oven. They stand in front of cases filled with Florentines, chocolate chip, macaroons, almond crescents and more; the bakery makes some 45 varieties. On the walls are portraits of cookies in all their glory painted by local artist Eileen Kenneally.

Obama blows out candles

One is a larger-than-life lemon sandwich; another is a cookie assortment. On another wall is a photograph of President Obama in 2008 blowing out the candles on a birthday cake made by Weniger, a Democrat whose activism goes back to 1972, when she worked for fellow South Dakotan George McGovern. She is still very much involved in politics, and the bakery offers a round shortbread with an "H" for Hillary stamped on top.

Quote bar, red "Bigger isn't always better. You can lose the heart and soul of the business if it becomes a chain or a franchise."    -- Barbara Weniger

Weniger came to Massachusetts in 1981 and for several years ran a wholesale bakery business for a couple whose main business was The Chocolate Box. In 1991 Weniger bought the bakery side of the business, figuring there was more potential there than in chocolates, which she thought was for special occasions while "people will eat cookies any time." The sale included seven recipes as well as wholesale accounts that still include the S&S DeliFormaggio's and Darwin's stores. In 1997, she opened the retail store.

One of the reasons for the business' success, she says, is that she likes to keep things simple. She still uses those same recipes, and there are no mail orders, no advertising, no Internet orders, no plans to expand and no offers of muffins or pastries. Just cookies. And if you want a cup of coffee, well, you’ll have to find it somewhere else.

Coffee's simplicity fades

Coffee used to be a simple thing, but that has changed, Weniger says. "Before, you'd buy an automatic burner and make a cup of coffee. Now you need eight different kinds with 25 variations: soy, nonfat milk latte with a shot of hazelnut syrup. There are a lot of components to it. I thought people can find a cup of coffee anywhere, so we'll just make cookies .... I say stay as simple as you can for as long as you can."

Lakota bakes about 10,000 cookies weekly, using several hundred pounds of butter a week. Helping are eight regular, year-round employees plus a few holiday and counter workers.

"Most of our cookies have two to three times butter than sugar. When people eat them, they’ll remark that the cookies aren't sweet but that they are rich and buttery. Butter melts below your body temperatures, so they melt in your mouth."

The most popular cookie, and Weniger's own favorite, is the Florentine, a lacy, crunch treat, coated in chocolate. There are sandwich cookies filled with raspberry or mocha and peanut butter, oatmeal and butterscotch. In the spring, butter cookies may be shaped into the large Boston Red Sox "B" or into colorful flowers or ladybugs.

Weniger is content to keep her shop small. She has a reliable staff, able to let her step back once in a while and also willing to put in the extra hours before the winter holidays.

"You have to decide what you want to be, what kind of business you want to be," she says. "Bigger isn't always better. You can lose the heart and soul of the business if it becomes a chain or a franchise."

'Good vibes'

And she's happy to be baking cookies. "To make a product that people love so much gives everyone at the bakery satisfaction," she says. "We get good vibes."

The way Weniger figured it, people will always want a cookie. So after working four years for a couple that ran a store that sold chocolate and cookies, when the cookie part of the business became available, she jumped at the chance.

Twenty five years later, she is still the owner of Lakota Cookies in Arlington Heights, a store that brings a dreamy look to those who have tasted its treats and the feeling that, well, gotta go have a cookie.

Or two.

Or three.

This profile by YourArlington contributing writer Marjorie Howard was published Thursday, May 19, 2016.