Although Ralph Rolle is the prolific drummer behind Aretha Franklin, Sting, Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige and Nile Rodgers, many fellow musicians know him as the “Cookie Man.”
Soul Snacks is the delicious black-owned cookie brand and passion project from the legendary rock and roll drummer who started the company in 1996 to honor his grandmother’s legacy of giving back to others and her lifelong love for baking.
Despite finding success in the music industry, Rolle says he’s always had a second dream in mind: baking. Spending time in the kitchen from an early age, he watched his mother and grandmother prepare family recipes that have survived generations. After his mother’s death, Ralph decided to make his dream of sharing his family’s recipes with the world a reality. He began baking cookies, one rack at a time and selling them after his shows and when word got out, everyone wanted a taste of the cookies that evoke an “Oh My Goodness” expression in customers’ faces after just the first bite.
The company offers a variety of delicious cookies such as Georgia Oatmeal Raisin, Peanut-Peanut Butter, Down Home Double Chocolate Chip, Ebony and Ivory Almond Cookie, Grampy’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie, French Cocoa Chocolate Chip, Miami Raisin Walnut, Chunked Up Chocolate Walnut, Cranberry Oatmeal Raisin, Joyful Gingerbread and the recently added novel and now the number one seller that is the rant and rave of all those who taste it – Sweet Potato Cookies.
Ralph’s famous cookies have been loved by celebrities, such as Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock, Steve Harvey, Robin Roberts, and Gladys Knight. For ESSENCE, Rolle chats how he successfully transferred his creativity behind drums to mixing bowls and baking pans.
How does one pivot from celebrity drummer to cookie chef?
I don’t see it as much as a pivot. It’s more like a simultaneous action with passion as the lead. I seriously love being both drummer and baker at the same time. Having the love of music and the love of baking in my heart, mind, and soul, they occupy the same level and the same amount of time in my day. I’ve been a bit of a multi-tasker my whole life. It’s a place that I feel the most comfortable. I skipped a year in school and almost got left back because I wasn’t getting enough work done and school started to bore me. The more tasks I put on myself, the better I seemed to function. My family worries about me but this is how I’ve been my entire life. When I started to become interested in drumming was just about the same time that I became interested in baking. Here’s a funny fact: I used my ability to bake as a way to meet girls. I never felt as if I had swag like my boys growing up so I would bake and give cookies to girls. Sounds corny but it worked. I called it the cookie icebreaker. Haha!
So how do you manage being a drummer in one of the world’s biggest bands whilst simultaneously running The Soul Snacks kitchen?
When I first started Soul Snacks, I started with my ex-girlfriend in our apartment. At that time, I was the drummer at The World-Famous Apollo Theater. That’s where we met. We were trying to save money for holiday gifts and realized having 36 friends and family was a lot to take on financially, so I suggested baking the cookies that I had baked in the past. We sent out the cookies to our friends and family and everyone got back to us saying that we should think about starting a business. That’s how it all began. As far as managing both careers, drumming and baking cookies…it’s a passion. Both passions come from the same area in the brain where creativity derives. The right side. When I’m drumming, my goal is to make people happy with my creativity. When I’m baking, I’m trying to make people happy with my creativity. It’s all about putting smiles on people’s faces, be it music or entertaining someone’s taste buds. That’s what I love to do most in life…make people happy.
After my girlfriend and I had broken up, I tried to run the cookie business on my own. I couldn’t continue because of the number of gigs I was getting called to do, so I put the cookies on hold for a few years with all intentions of starting again. Then, I met my amazing wife. We decided to start the cookies together and the same exact way I’d started the first time…in our apartment, one rack at a time. We have a daughter. Our daily schedule was to get up in the morning, take her to school, rush back to the house, and start baking cookies. I would take those cookies around to different stores to see if they wanted to carry them.
The first two stores that picked us up were Melba from Melba’s restaurant in Harlem and Doug E. Fresh, who also had a restaurant in Harlem. My wife and I have a partnership and understanding that allows me to continue drumming and still have the cookie business. She’s an incredible partner, mother, and my best friend. Without her, I wouldn’t be able to manage doing much of anything. I also have a great staff that believes in what we’re doing as far as helping the community and growing a small business. It would be totally inaccurate to say that I alone built this company. I depend on and trust people to do what’s needed. I’m very thankful to have them in my life.
What was the inspiration behind the flavors? What is your personal favorite?
My goal — our goal — is to create flavors that are delicious and unique. I seem to do my best thinking and get inspired when I’m driving so, as the ideas pop into my head, I’ll remember the name of a new cookie or a new flavor and record it into my phone. That’s how the Sweet Potato Cookie was created. Who doesn’t love a good sweet potato pie? I thought, “What would it taste like if it were a cookie?” I started working on a recipe. It took about 3 months of trial and error to get the Sweet Potato Cookie just right. My wife and I together work on new flavors and ideas.
Our daughter is the most critical food tester on the planet. We’ll create a new cookie, like the Ebony & Ivory Almond Cookie, and as we’re driving home to give the new cookie to her to taste, we can feel the anxiousness of giving it to our daughter. Mind you, she was about 10 years old when we created the Ebony & Ivory Almond Cookie. She’s now 19. We hand her the cookie and just stand there waiting for her to give us her unbiased opinion. She breaks it open…smells it…and then she takes a bite. Her critique is very straight-forward. Her answer on the first trial of the Ebony and Ivory is a softly spoken, “No”, and she just walks away. That means we have more work to do. When she continues eating the new cookie creations without talking at all, we know we have a hit. We truly trust her opinion.
My personal favorite is the Down Home Double Chocolate Chip. That’s one of my grandmother’s original recipes. It’s more than 100 years old.
What’s the biggest lesson that you learned from your grandmother that you still reflect on today?
Leola, or affectionately known as Gramps or Grampy, was a very wise woman. She read the Bible on a daily basis. Grampy didn’t yell much. She spoke softly and she whooped you if you needed one. The lessons I’ve learned from my grandmother are: love with truth and kindness, take care of those who are in need, family is everything, and God is love. She was taken from us by breast cancer. She lived to the age of 76. I loved making her laugh. Her body would start shaking before she let out this hooping sound. I miss that.
What’s next for Soul Snacks?
We’re always looking ahead and have some really exciting things in the works. We are currently in Walmart, Kroger and, soon we will launch on QVC. Soul Snacks is always looking to expand our mission to even more outlets to sell our product. Community, charity, and uplifting those in need are at the heart of what we do.We are also looking to release our gluten free/vegan line as well as other products under the Soul Snacks name.