Kathleen King Discusses Selling Tate’s and Forging a Future

Kathleen King at Tate's Bake Shop
Kathleen King at Tate's Bake Shop, Photo: Brendan J. O'Reilly

“Someone once said to me at a dinner party, ‘So, what’s it like to be famous?’” Tate’s Bake Shop founder Kathleen King recalls. “I looked at him and I said, ‘I’m not famous, my cookies are.’ That’s the way I like it. The cookies are the star here, and they will remain so.”

Both King and those cookies are playing on a bigger stage now, since news broke that a majority stake in Tate’s has been sold to the Riverside Company, a private equity firm, for a reported $100 million. That’s a lot of dough, cookie or otherwise, yet “it doesn’t feel different,” King admits, sitting in her office above her iconic bakeshop on North Sea Road in Southampton. “Life is pretty much the same. I’m just not rushing.”

She’s been going at a fast clip since starting to sell cookies 44 years ago. For the countless Tate’s fans who’ve been around since then—or at least since King opened the Tate’s Bake Shop doors in 1980—and only heard of the deal once it was done, the news felt sudden. But a move of this magnitude is not an overnight affair.

“I’m 55 years old, and I had to have an exit strategy at one point in my life, so I planned one. So it’s not like anything that came out of left field,” she says. “I don’t have the luxury of walking into somebody’s office and saying I quit, or I want to retire, or I want to change my life. It took almost a year to get to this phase of exit, and I have a commitment to the new company for another five years.”

Yes, King and her cookies are still very much together. “I’m a minority shareholder in the new company,” she says. “I am the face of the brand and I am quality control and recipe developer. Every recipe in Tate’s, I have developed—with an occasional one my staff has done, so 95 percent, at least—and I’ll still be doing that. I’m still very much connected to Tate’s and still very much love the company, and I’m very excited as to where it will grow.”

Before the new deal was even inked, that growth recently included being carried by Costco, where early results have been impressive, selling in a week what had originally been expected to cover demand for a month. Under the new company such expansion will surely go to new levels, but Tate’s will also maintain ties right at home in the Southampton shop.

“The store will remain the store—the small-town bakeshop, and all the employees are still here,” King assures. “And this is an opportunity for all my employees, because it gives them more opportunity for growth. For me, the business had gotten large, and it was large enough for me.”

Over 14 years, it came to include overseeing not just the local shop but a 40,000-square-foot factory in East Moriches, a wholesale business, almost 200 employees, the shipping of cookies nationally and internationally, and developing new products. Handling all of that was on King. “I can handle a lot of stress, but I wanted to know what it was like to not have any—not that I don’t have any, no one ever has none, but it’s all relative. For me, it’s very freeing.”

Public reaction to the sale has been very supportive of King, a hometown girl made good. “Whatever’s come my way has been very warm and very happy, and it really touches my heart that people appear genuinely happy for me. They understand I had a very interesting journey, the cookie business has been my greatest teacher, and all great things have to come to an end. Not that this is the end,” she laughs.

Indeed, King sees a world of possibilities in her future, both in her position in the new company and in the world that lies beyond the bakeshop. “This is all I’ve ever done my whole life. I’m very excited to have a blank page in front of me. When kids graduate high school and then they graduate college, it seems exciting to me that they have this blank page. And one day I said to myself, you have a blank page! It’s a wonderful thing in life. I’m not afraid of change, of the unknown. I love change, so to me a blank page is awesome.”

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