It’s still game night in the Gill household, but the star player is now Krista Gill, wife of former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Todd Gill. And the game is now her gourmet cookies, which are scoring big points with residents of Eastern Ontario.
“I have customers that drive an hour on Thursdays to get their box of cookies,” says Janet Campbell, proprietor of Mrs. McGarrigle’s in Merrickville, which carries the treats. “They sell out every week and people are waiting to come to the store on delivery day and sometimes they’re still warm when people come to pick them up.”
Krista chose the moniker 23 & Co. for her business in honour of Todd’s jersey number with the Leafs, the team with which he played from 1984 to 1996. Then, on the advice of her daughters, she kept the hockey theme going.
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“We call my cookies pucks and penalties,” explains Krista with a joie de vivre that oozes from every pore. “So pucks are singles when I sell them because, in hockey, one is a puck; penalties are a two-pack, because penalties typically are two minutes and a half; a dozen cookies is a starting line-up; a CCM cookie is a chocolate chip cookie with a melted peppermint patty on top.”
It’s Krista’s infectious joy and eagerness to listen and learn, as much as the product itself, that’s carrying her business forward.
“She is a great people person and collaborator. Above all a great baker! A strength she has is to ask for help — businesspeople don’t have to be wearing all the hats at once — and asking for help is not a sign of weakness. She loved the mentoring,” says Cindy James, manager with the small business advisory centre for Smiths Falls, Lanark County, Leeds Grenville, where Krista went to seek help with her fledgling operation.
Krista’s story started at age 15, when she met Todd in high school. They spent a few years apart at the start of his hockey career and, in the meantime, Krista completed a business degree at Brock University. They married in 1989 and moved to Toronto, where Todd needed to be with the team. While owning a bakery was always at the back of her mind, the cookie-making happened naturally as part of her husband’s life as a hockey player.
“On a game day, typically the player sleeps in the afternoon,” Krista explains. “He has a big lunch, sleeps and then gets up and heads down to the arena. Todd had started drinking coffee then and on his way to the arena he would have a cup of coffee and was looking for a treat.”
This was in 1990, before the internet, so Krista started collecting cookbooks and says that initiated her hunt for the perfect cookie.
“Todd kept trying all these cookies and he’d be, ‘Hmm, it’s okay,’ and then one day he said, ‘This is the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever eaten!’ So that was the end of me test-trying cookies,” chuckles Krista.
From then on, Krista baked that chocolate chip cookie for Todd every game day and, if he was carpooling with other players, she’d pack extra cookies for the guys. By the time Todd was traded to the San Jose Sharks in 1996 and became team captain, Krista’s cookie-baking had become her signature dish.
“When teams would get together for parties or get-togethers for fundraising events, I was in charge of bringing cookies, it became my thing. Some people took deviled eggs or chicken wings, I took chocolate chip cookies,” says Krista.
Parlaying that perfect cookie into a business would take a lot longer. At the start of their lives together, Todd and Krista figured he would play for about seven years and then retire and she’d start her own business.
“But Todd played for 19 years and, by the time he retired, our children were youths, so we were busy with four kids — two boys, two girls — and then he started coaching,” Krista recalls. “So he was continuing to work and chasing the coaching dream and, as a good partner, I was supportive and I waited until I thought it was an opportune time for me.”
Even when Todd finally retired in 2019 and the family moved to Opinicon Lake in Rideau Lakes, it took a nudge from her daughters to set Krista on the path toward her dream.
“The whole cookie thing was always floating in the back of my mind and I kept bothering my children with it. Until one night our daughters (both adults now) said, ‘You know mom, you gotta dance, you just have to do it. The song is not going to stop playing, you have nothing to lose, right?’ I’m assuming they all just thought I’d have fun for a little while and then I’d get bored,” says Krista, laughter sparkling in her eyes.
That’s when she turned to the small business advisory centre and jumped into the starter company plus program. She was awarded a $5,000 non-refundable grant through the program following a successful pitch to the review committee.
“The small business program was extremely helpful. Yeah, I have a business degree, but it’s 30 years old, so marketing looks completely different now,” says Krista.
She put the money toward a convection oven that she installed at the Forfar Cheese Factory and Bakery and now sells her cookies at markets and retail stores all over Eastern Ontario. Her goal is a storefront of her own — maybe.
She’s actually working on a website that she says may end up being her storefront.
“I’m a really good ambassador for my brand because it’s mine and it’s my passion but schlepping to markets for the rest of my life is not really what I want to do,” laughs Krista.