Rico Unzueta doesn’t normally eat spreads like Nutella, but recently, he has been munching on a spoonful of cookie butter every night after dinner.
The Las Vegas property manager has bought almost 40 jars of Speculoos Cookie Butter from Trader Joe’s, going three times a week for the past three weeks to stock up. He has kept only two jars for himself, though.
The rest are for his family in Hawaii, where a cookie butter craze and gift-giving culture are causing spillover effects in Southern Nevada.
People line up practically every morning at the valley’s four Trader Joe’s locations before the stores open to get jars of cookie butter. The shops unlock their doors at 8 a.m. and often sell out their daily stockpile in minutes.
Customers have to get the jars from a manager’s booth up front. That's to prevent people rushing the aisles and jostling — if not brawling — for the $3.69 spread.
Made with crushed cookies known as speculoos — a Belgian, Dutch and French treat — the cookie butter tastes like spreadable gingerbread cookies. Local Trader Joe’s stores get two or three cases a day, with 12 jars per case. Managers frequently ration out one jar at a time.
Most of the buyers are from Hawaii, local employees said, but they aren't hoarding the spread to fill their kitchen cabinets. Rather, they’re loading up on gifts for family, friends, coworkers and neighbors on the islands.
It’s all part of the Hawaiian gift-giving tradition, known by the Japanese word “omiyage,” which compels out-of-town Hawaiians to come home with presents. Las Vegas is a popular tourist spot for Hawaiians, who don’t have a Trader Joe’s at home. The valley often is referred to as the "Ninth Island."
And since cookie butter is one of the grocery chain’s most popular items nationally, Hawaiians are stocking up in Nevada.
Cookie Butter Crunches
• 1 cup brown sugar
• 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
• 1/4 cup cookie butter
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
• 1 1/2 cup flour
• 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
• 3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Makes about 2 1/2 dozen cookies.
-- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
-- Whisk together flour, baking soda and cream of tartar. Set aside.
-- Using a stand mixer or handheld electric beaters, combine the brown sugar, shortening and cookie butter until well blended.
-- Add the egg and vanilla and continue mixing until combined.
-- Add the dry ingredients and mix long enough to blend it all together.
-- Roll a tablespoon of the dough into a ball. Use the heel of your hand (or get a little fancy and use a drinking glass with a decorative bottom) to flatten the balls of dough and place them a couple of inches apart on a parchment-lined cookie sheet.
-- Bake for 10-12 minutes, just until the edges start to get brown.
-- Store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks. These cookies can go in the freezer.
-- For an extra touch of decadence, frost the cookies with a dab of hazelnut spread, such as Nutella.
At the Trader Joe’s on Washington Avenue at Buffalo Drive, at least five to 10 people line up each morning for cookie butter. On Decatur Boulevard at Obannon Drive, the jars are gone 30 minutes after the store opens.
On Green Valley Parkway at Sunset Road, more than a dozen people a day stand outside Trader Joe’s before its 8 a.m. opening, waiting for cookie butter. The store sells out by 8:05 a.m., “maybe even 8:03 a.m.,” Manager Julio Chavez said.
“The people are going crazy,” he said.
Chavez sells to people like Unzueta, who grew up in Hawaii and moved to Las Vegas seven years ago. On Friday morning, the 40-year-old arrived at the Green Valley store at about 7:30 a.m. Within a minute or two of the doors opening, he had bought nine jars.
He initially learned about cookie butter from his grandfather, who sent Unzueta a picture of the spread and asked for two jars. Unzueta has bought 38 within the past month. He already has sent 11 to the islands but is keeping most in reserve.
“I have them in my room,” he said. “When people ask for more, I can send them.”
Then there’s 46-year-old Rochelle Jiminez, who grew up in Hawaii and moved to Las Vegas 15 years ago. Her cousin recently visited from the islands and wanted to bring back cookie butter.
Jiminez, who had never heard of the spread, stood in line Friday morning at the Green Valley Trader Joe's with a friend to get some for her cousin. Jiminez also wanted a jar for herself to see what the craze was about.
At the same time, her Hawaiian cousin and his father waited outside Trader Joe’s on Decatur for more cookie butter.
“(My cousin) posted on Facebook that his wife said, ‘You don’t have to win jackpots, I just want cookie butter from Trader Joe’s,’” Jiminez said.
The treat is selling rapidly at Trader Joe’s stores around the country, as are similar products at other stores. Belgium-based Lotus Bakeries, for instance, said it achieved “significant growth” last year in the United States, booking “strong sales” of speculoos and speculoos spread.
The brand people are lining up for is sold only at Trader Joe's.
The Trader Joe’s cookie butter, according to its jar, can be spread on pancakes or waffles, used in peanut butter and cookie sandwiches, served on ice cream or used as a dip for pretzels or celery.
“All you have to do is taste it to understand!” the jar reads.
“Sugary, smooth and spicy like a gingerbread cookie, the spread is a relatively new take on a classic European flavor that caused a stir in Belgium, stormed the European market and has become a ‘you have to try this!’ darling of the American foodie blogosphere,” the Chicago Tribune wrote last month.
When Hawaiians come to Las Vegas, they often set aside pots of money for gambling and presents. Besides Trader Joe’s, they also typically visit the Las Vegas Paiute Tribal Smoke Shop on Main Street and the Beef Jerky Store near the Fremont Street Experience. They used to frequent Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret until those stores opened in Hawaii.
Boyd Gaming Corp. spokeswoman Lynn Jax, whose company owns several Las Vegas resorts that cater to Hawaiian tourists, was born and raised in Hawaii. Her family still lives there. Her parents visit Las Vegas three or four times a year, and she has cousins in town all the time.
They have stopped at Trader Joe’s for years. Her parents bring extra luggage to haul back chocolate, nuts and other goods.
“They load up,” Jax said.
Trader Joe’s, based in Monrovia, Calif., started carrying Speculoos Cookie Butter at least a year ago. Local employees said it was popular but never sold out like it does now and never had to be rationed. They said the craze started a month or two ago after a roughly monthlong period when, for unknown reasons, Trader Joe’s stores around the country stopped getting cookie butter from their distributors.
Perhaps because of pent-up demand and retail hype, cookie butter has come back with a vengeance. Some people are buying it to taste what the buzz is about. Others are said to be shipping it in bulk to the Philippines. Some are trying to sell it for a hefty profit. Jars are for sale on eBay at heavily marked-up prices: 10 for $89.99, six for $47, two for $19.95.
Not everyone understands the craze.
Chavez, the Green Valley manager, said the cookie butter is good, but he could easily live without it.
“I don’t know what the big deal is,” he said.
Barbara Russo, an elderly Henderson woman, stood with the cookie butter crowd at the Trader Joe’s in Green Valley on a recent morning waiting for the store to open. But she wasn’t there for spreadable speculoos. Russo is diabetic and doesn’t like sweets.
But, when told of the cookie butter craze, she chuckled.
“Maybe I should buy some and sell it,” she said.