On a sunny Sunday afternoon, dozens of cookie lovers descended on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They crowded into a small Crumbl storefront, which looked like an Apple store but smelled of Funfetti. They placed their orders on white tablets and snapped photos of their millennial-pink boxes of cookies.
Down the street at the original location of Levain Bakery, arguably the most famous cookie purveyor in New York, there was, astonishingly, no sign of the line that normally stretches half a block.
Connor Coleman, an artist who lives in the area, said he had tried cookies at many bakeries in New York, but Crumbl is his favorite. “Unless I am making them myself, this is the only cookie place I go to,” he said.
He bought four cookies, including a Nutter Butter-flavored model. Like most of Crumbl’s offerings, it was plump, doughy, intensely sweet and topped with a thick clod of frosting. Each cookie, baked on site, costs between $4 and $5 and can easily serve four people (you can even buy a cookie slicer). And each week brings new roster of flavors, like caramel popcorn, cotton candy, Key lime pie and everything bagel.
Not everyone shares Mr. Coleman’s enthusiasm.
“They were so disappointing,” said Kiwanna Norwood, a career coach in Little Rock, Ark., who picked up a batch from a store there. “I just couldn’t get over them tasting like cookie dough.”
So are the cookies good or not? When you’ve got millions of people debating the question, the answer doesn’t really matter.
Crumbl is the fastest-growing chain of dessert shops in the United States, and the fourth-fastest growing food chain of any sort in the country, according to a 2022 report from Datassential, a food and beverage analytics company. In the last six years, Crumbl has opened more than 750 stores from coast to coast. The company says that last year it sold, on average, nearly a million cookies a day.
It’s the kind of success that’s often traced to social media, but Crumbl is no ordinary internet sensation.
The company has manufactured its own hype and turbocharged it by announcing weekly cookie flavors on TikTok as if they were limited-edition sneaker drops, with vaguely sensual, slow-motion videos reminiscent of Burger King commercials. The company has amassed 6.7 million followers on the platform, more than Taco Bell and Starbucks combined.
“It actually put us on a different trajectory as a company very, very quickly,” said Jason McGowan, 43, who founded the company in Logan, Utah, with his cousin Sawyer Hemsley, 30, in 2017.
Breanna Brooks is just one of the thousands of people who visit a Crumbl store weekly, and she reviews the rotating flavors on her TikTok account.
But whenever she posts a Crumbl review, “a lot of people get really mad,” said Ms. Brooks, who lives in Sacramento and works in marketing. They post laments that the cookies are terrible. “I just don’t understand,” she said. “It is just cookies.”
Shentel Meadows, a social worker in Richmond, Va., is among those bewildered by all the praise for the cookies. To her, they seem underbaked. “When you eat something raw and it makes your stomach hurt, it has that effect.”
She felt so disappointed that she complained on Twitter in February: “Just a daily reminder Crumbl cookies aren’t good,” she wrote.
Lauren Gillon, who runs Homegirl Kitchen, a pop-up bakery in Detroit, was tempted by TikTok to try Crumbl. But the cookies tasted artificial, she said. “I just don’t get the impression that they are home-baked.”
Before starting Crumbl, neither Mr. McGowan nor Mr. Hemsley had any baking training. But Mr. McGowan, who had created and sold a web company, figured that those knowledge gaps could be filled through technology and user research.
“We thought, ‘How hard could this be?’” he said.
Instead of hiring a chef, the two searched for cookie recipes online, testing their way through dozens of versions and asking people in grocery stores and parking lots for feedback. Mr. McGowan said he invested a few hundred thousand dollars to open the first store in Logan, Utah, and the company still hasn’t sought investors.
The partners were convinced that TikTok — which, in 2017, was still new in the United States — was the next big social media platform and worth focusing on.
After seeing a few reviews of Crumbl cookies on TikTok, the social media team began reposting them on the company’s TikTok account with the hashtag #TasteWeekly, and even broadcast the videos in stores. “We doubled down on the content already getting produced,” Mr. McGowan said.
When the company introduced the rotating flavor menu in 2018, there were suddenly new cookies for people to review each week — and a sense of scarcity. Customers piled onto the #TasteWeekly hashtag, whether they loved or loathed the cookies. The hashtag has 461.5 million views.
Crumbl has become a highly sought-after tenant for developers, said Payton Kelly, a senior adviser at SVN, a commercial real estate brokerage in Santa Rosa, Calif. “Anyone who owns a shopping center that doesn’t have a Crumbl in a certain radius is reaching out to them right now.”
Many customers said they judge Crumbl against Insomnia Cookies, a dessert chain known for its late-night cookie delivery. But Seth Berkowitz, the founder and chief executive of Insomnia, doesn’t feel threatened by Crumbl’s success.
“A 1,000-calorie cookie,” he said. (Last week’s menu averaged 766 calories and 62.5 grams of sugar per cookie.) “Hard to imagine eating that daily. It is certainly a unique model.”
The Crumbl founders, who just opened Crumbl’s first international location in Edmonton, Alberta, have heard the criticisms of their cookies. But the sales numbers don’t lie, Mr. McGowan said. “We have the world’s best cookies.”