“Moon Rocks” Land On York Street
New Haven has long laid claim to the oldest meteoric moon rocks in the country. With the addition of a new business downtown, it can add the freshest, most chip-studded to that list too.
That’s the story for Moon Rocks Gourmet Cookies, a recent addition to York Street’s calorie-dense block of donut, ice cream, pizza and coffee shops between Grove Street and Broadway. Sandwiched between Ashley’s Ice Cream and York Street Pizza, the business landed quietly earlier this year, with an official ribbon cutting on Monday afternoon. It is owned by Yale Properties.
“Literally, we are living the American dream,” said Moon Rocks Co-founder and CEO Marni Rae-Esposito at the opening.
The new, 971 square foot shop signals an expansion into New Haven after a starter storefront in Hamden, and years of economic liftoff.
In 2014, Moon Rocks began as Rae-Esposito and her mom Cynthia Rae decided to embark on a cookie-making venture as a team, after decades of eating Rae’s signature maple chocolate chip cookies.
It was small at first: one signature flavor and one alternate, with a few more recipes turning in Rae’s brain. There was a Moon Rocks’ pop-up tent at farmers’ markets and craft fairs, as flavors grew from one to five, five to ten. Then the business expanded to a food truck, with new employees brought on to help run it at festivals and catered events.
For a while, baker Kathy Riegelmann allowed them to use her space at Katalina’s Bakery during her off hours, giving them the incubator kitchen they needed to launch into a far-flung cookie stratosphere. In 2015, the two opened a neatly painted brick-and-mortar storefront on Dixwell Avenue. By the time they had reached that step, they were well on their way to over 80 cookie recipes, with nut-free and vegan options.
Then eight months ago, Rae-Esposito said that Yale Properties approached her with an offer, saying it was interested in placing an “upscale cookie store” in their Broadway district, and liked that Moon Rocks offered shipping to any location in the U.S.. Both she and her mother accepted almost immediately, and started planning for the expansion. The business now employs 11 people between New Haven, Hamden, and the traveling food truck.
Because “we’re a small business that supports small businesses,” Rae-Esposito said that everything in the shop is local. Tea is sourced from Savvy Teas in Madison. Coffee comes from a family in Woodbridge, who own a coffee farm in Colombia. Milk and lemonade travels in from The Happy Cow in Lebanon, Conn.
In the district during a Congressional recess, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said that kind of support may be small, but it translates significantly in terms of economic development.
“Eleven employees may not seem like a lot, but that’s where job growth is happening,” he said.”It’s small businesses. Compared to the big corporations in this country, the biggest increases in employment are coming from exactly these kinds of places … They are done by the risk takers in our society. They’re putting their hearts, souls, and their financial necks on the line.”
“I understand that all of these cookies are calorie-free,” he added, laughter filling the room. “If you eat these cookies you lose weight. But I know they are all really nutritious. There is a statement about these ingredients … it is buy local, and consume locally, and invest locally.”
But the young business has a sweet and winding history that goes decades back, to a Brooklyn apartment in the 1970s. There, Rae was a single mom, working three jobs to put herself through the culinary institute at New York City Community College.
Inspired by her grandmother Mary—a Russian immigrant who cooked and cleaned her way through citizenship—Rae dove into a specialty in baking and pastry making, bringing home breads, croissants and cookies that they could share in the borough they called home. When she mentioned to a professor that the cookies they made didn’t taste right, he suggested she come up with her own. So she did.
Rae was in cooking school for years, perfecting flaky, golden outer edges, crusty breads, and her signature maple chocolate chip cookie. But when she graduated at 34 as the only woman in her class, she found that nobody would hire her.
“I walked my feet off in Brooklyn, going to all the bakeries,” she recalled.”Every kitchen in Brooklyn. No bakery would hire me, because in those days, women were not pastry chefs.”
She was 34 and out of a job; Marni was eight by then. So Rae returned to bookkeeping, which she had done before attending culinary school. The dream of working in a bakery, much less owning one, went onto a back burner. It stayed there for 50 years.
Then three and a half years ago, when Rae-Esposito was 50 and Rae was 75, the two committed to trying a bakery.
“She turned and she said to me—if we don’t do this now, when are we going to do it?” Rae recalled. “And we did! We just said: Look. We’re running out of lifetime. Why don’t we try it? If we don’t try it, we’ll never know whether we could have done it or not.”
From that moment, Rae estimated that she and her daughter have been working almost seven days a week, sometimes more than eight or ten hours a day. But she said it keeps her on her toes and alert.
“When you have a dream and you have something that you’re passionate about, it doesn’t matter your age,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter your background. If you’re willing to put in the hard work and you’re passionate about what you do, you really can make a difference.”
“My mom … she’s a 78-year-old beast,” Rae-Esposito added. “It’s incredible. And it’s her dream come true!”
It also has a double resonance in New Haven. In 1825, Yale Professor Benjamin Silliman acquired a large chunk of meteor—a moon rock—for Yale University, after it fell in Weston, Conn. a decade earlier. It is still in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History today.
But it does not taste like maple. Or chocolate.