On this January morning in Billings, darkness hung heavy in the snowy coldness. But on 17th Street West in Billings, light emerged through the windows of Caramel Cookie Waffles. At 5:00 a.m., Jan Boogman began the day making the caramel cookie stroopwafels he and his wife, Judy have been selling for the last 30 years.
The ubiquitous Carmel Cookie Waffles, thin wafers sandwiching rich caramel, are the staple of this bakery and cafe. To this day, the Boogmans still make the caramel cookie waffles in the same massive stroopwafel oven they purchased when they started the business. The oven came over from Gouda, Holland on a boat through the Panama Canal to Long Beach, California, from which it was trucked overland to Montana. To fit it into the store they took out the storefront window, “leaving the window with a quarter inch on each side to spare.” Judy attributes the fit to pure luck. Then with some luck and lots of hard work, they have managed to keep the machine running all these years.
The building Caramel Cookie Waffles is housed in has its own history. It was once the bike shop for Scheels, the sporting goods store when it was located in West Park Plaza. When Scheels moved out to the mall on 24th Street, the space became a laundry mat, and then a pizza shop before Jan and Judy came along.
In the beginning, Jan’s brother Han was also part of the business. Han relocated to Portland about 4 years ago to “give his kids a soccer experience” at the semi-professional level according to Jan. Early on, the threesome sold their caramel cookie waffles through their concession trailer, which Judy believes would be called a food truck these days. During summers they traveled around Montana dressed in Dutch costumes to sell their cookies.
“We would have a little hand iron and people would line up. The line would start snaking around and we would charge 25 cents a cookie and people would be amazed at how we could split the cookie so fast with a knife and put the caramel in,” Judy told.
The large oven Jan named “Jimbo”quickly replaced the hand iron once they moved into a brick and mortar place. He admitted, “We control Jimbo,” as he stood by the gas oven, which operated eight rotating grills. Over the years, the oven has required some tender loving care, but without high level electronics, Jan and local repairman have kept “Jimbo” operating.
Dough making was always the first order of business. The mixer churned shortening and sugar with the addition of eggs and flour to make a mixture that was portioned in a dough extractor or hopper, a machine much like a pasta maker. The pieces are placed on a tray ready for Jan to place into the oven.
The oven towers over Jan’s 6-foot plus frame. Standing in front of the oven door, one sees eight metal grill plates with a top and bottom lid rotating over gas flames, much like every day waffle irons. Jan places four dough pieces on a grill. The top plate comes down and smashes it thin. The cookie cooks over the flame in the grill and is then flipped to cook the other side. When done, the plate flicks up and Jan removes the cookie. With each stage, the grill moves one step clockwise. With each move, a click resounds in the room as a metronome moving the activity to the next step.
Jan removes the cookie and slides it onto the conveyer that moves the cookie down through a thin piano wire to slice it, forming two wafers. Then, one of three people, Jonathan, Michelle or Sam quickly spread the caramel on the cookie. It takes finesse from years of practice to spread just enough caramel on each cookie. Judy said of her employee’s skills, “It takes a while to learn how to put the caramel on the cookie just right. Too much and it squeezes out, too little, and the customers complain.”
The cookies are placed on a tray and later packaged for local delivery or for shipping afar. In the process of cooking making, invariably some wafers crack or crumble. These do not go to waste as they are added to desserts that call for graham crackers, in cheesecakes crusts, Nainaimo bars and peanut butter bars, and are even found in Big Dipper ice cream as a crunchy surprise.
Jan admitted that he never expanded the business and moved because he enjoyed having customer contact. He was not interested in running a cookie factory. “We really feel grounded in this community and I feel like we have a good handle on the quality and service so we can give customers a good value.” It is word of mouth that has brought most of their success. “Not actively advertising allowed us to grow organically and slowly,” Judy added.
Employees know customers’ names and what they like to order in the 50-seat establishment. Regular customers have made new friends in the years they have come in. The space is intimate, and yet, people are willing to wait for a seat to open up after ordering their food. It is not unusual to have the line out the door during the lunch hour.
Judy confessed that they can only make a “finite number” of cookies. Over the holidays, they cranked out nearly 500 packages for 28 days straight. Luckily for all involved they closed the week between Christmas and the New Year.
Though Jan and Judy are considering retiring, they have not committed to leaving the business. Currently they have hired two young chefs to slowly take over their tasks.
Chef Rich Boggs joined the team four years ago while Chef Christine Burley came to work just before Christmas. Judy confessed of Christine’s arrival, “It was a very happy thing and I don’t think I could have made it through this Christmas without her.”
Christine left the Northern Hotel to pursue her “passion for pastry”. Raised in Plentywood, she attended culinary school in Oregon, spent time in New York and back to Portland. There she met her husband who brought her to Billings. At age 13, Christine worked in a restaurant in Plentywood and discovered her love of cooking. At Caramel Cookie Waffles, she has spent the last months learning how to bake from both Judy and Jan. Recipes for the tarts and almond cookies are being passed down to her.
Chef Rich Boggs came on board when Han was considering leaving. Rich also entered the kitchen at age 13. Starting as a dishwasher, he moved up, and then went elsewhere to gain bartending experience, and then fine dining experience at the Northern Hotel. Without formal culinary training, he learned from the people he worked with. The food network and cookbooks also inspires his cooking. He specifically credits Jacques Pepin and Sean Broch inspiring his journey into the culinary world.
Christine credit her culinary contemporaries for her inspiration. She lauded a mentor from culinary school, Tina Powers, for providing her with much of her knowledge. Daniel Boulud’s book, Letters to a Young Chef gave her much needed inspiration as a chef.
Following Han’s lead, Chef Rich continues the tradition of making homemade chicken stock for soups. At 6:30 each morning, a chicken goes into the pot to create the base for his soups. Rich shared that he had adjusted some of the old recipes and added sandwich options to the menu now totaling 40 options, but his pride and joy has been his Saturday fine dining breakfasts. At 7:00 a.m. each Saturday he cooks up specialty items such as shrimp and grits, Bananas Foster French toast, smoked salmon omelettes and eggs benedict. The special items are served until they run out, which, according to Rich, is getting earlier and earlier each Saturday.
Christine will be offering wedding cakes, a business she viewed as a growth opportunity. She will purse making traditional cakes with buttercream frosting or adorned with fondant.
Jan and Judy remain at the helm of Caramel Cookie Waffles, but with the help of Chefs Rich Boggs and Christine Burley, the tradition they have established may remain another 30 years.