I have a secret vice. To partake in this habit I have to visit what looks to be a shop's back alley entrance. It is a hidden treasure in West Homestead less than a mile from the river banks where steel mills once stood. Behind a dented and scraped metal door and a panel of glass-block windows lies a place where life-changing chocolate chip cookies are born.
Given their size when they come out of the oven, I am guessing that the portion of raw dough placed on the baking sheet is akin to the circumference of a medium orange. Don't be alarmed if there are none in the display case; the bakers are constantly baking and will bring you one still warm from a cooling rack. One bite into this perfectly browned, dense, moist confection with rich gooey chocolate and you will forget all that came before. They are the world-famous, award-winning chocolate-chip cookies of Nancy B's Bakery.
Using stevia and fruit fillings, Nancy Runco first baked sugar-free cookies in her home kitchen for her father who had diabetes. After word got out of her delicious baked goods, she could not keep up with the demand, which led her to a year of learning all aspects of the baking business from Sgambati's Bakery in Braddock. She bought some machinery and began wholesale production of Nancy B's Diabetic Delights in the current location. Eventually the cookies found their way into 36 supermarkets and Sam's Club. They were expensive to produce and had a short shelf life as they used all natural ingredients and no preservatives. At that time there was not a large demand for sugar-free cookies and they were not moving out of the stores quickly enough. The business employed nine people, including Nancy's teen-age son Mike, and a decision was made to convert to a "sugar bakery" to stay afloat.
At first they baked pastries, pies, cakes and cookies, but no chocolate-chip ones -- Ms. Runco wanted to avoid the ubiquitous confection. But, the customer is always right and there was a demand. According to Mike Runco, now 41 and a partner with his mom, they researched and tested out eight versions and came up with the current bestseller. Pittsburgh Magazine awarded the cookie the best in Pittsburgh in 2010 with the caveat that fans consider it to be the "best in the world." The cookie won that contest by a write-in vote. This year WPXI-TV held an online contest and Mr. Runco recounts that they received more than 40,260 votes, including some from China, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. You see, they ship their product worldwide to Pittsburghers living overseas and to corporate customers such as ALCOA, based here and in Australia.
Approximately 10 years ago, a customer wanted to send cookies to a family member stationed in Iraq. The offering was so warmly received that the Runcos decided to send a box every month to military companies overseas. Customers supply them with names of their loved ones serving on foreign soil and the Runcos ship a box at their cost every month. Pictures adorn the retailer's walls of many of the companies that have delighted in this special taste of home. One gentleman from Michigan was so appreciative of the cookies that he drove to Pittsburgh expressly to thank the business owners.
The confections have quite a celebrity following. Most of their specialty cookies were featured within the movie "Love and Other Drugs," and in fact the production crew bought out the entire display case for the filming. Anne Hathaway, star of the movie, so enjoyed them that she had a limo pick up a supply when she returned to film "The Dark Knight Rises." Mr. Runco mentions current and former Steelers, the Rooney family and Snoop Dog as other famous fans.
"They're great people, it's great to see them, you get a little star struck. But some ... are just regular people. Sometimes you are taken aback by some of the stuff that they say. It's unbelievable their lives, their stories. It's sort of like reminiscent of a bar, being a bartender. There's a lot of people who come in with pretty good stories, pretty neat happenings, or they've visited some places that you want to go so you hear about it."
More than 150 dozen of the chocolate-chip cookies are produced Monday through Friday in the small bakery. So far this year, Nancy B's confections have graced the cookie tables of 120 weddings and the bakery supplied 20 pies (pumpkin, cherry, blueberry and apple) in lieu of a cake for a picnic wedding in Erie. A smaller party-size version of the giant chocolate-chip cookie is available for such occasions, but many customers want the regular size. It is sort of a sign of status to have these Pittsburgh originals.
So what other baked goods are available from the Runco family? There are myriad local cookie favorites from thumbprints to lady locks and everything in between, plus apple dumplings and pumpkin, apricot, poppy-seed and nut rolls. Sugar-free items are baked during various holiday seasons. During this second week of October, the store begins to accept holiday orders and stops taking them when the books are full, usually within a few weeks. At the holiday rush, Mr. Runco starts his morning at 7 a.m. and does not leave until 2 a.m. the following day.
In 2006 the chocolate-chip cookies had a test run in local Walgreen stores. It had to have been a success as the bakery and the drug-store chain are in the final stages of taking the cookie nationwide. As the small West Homestead bakery could not possibly handle that volume of giant cookies, they have contracted the recipe out to a larger facility.
Most new customers have heard of the business, as word gets out about their frequent awards and often through the blogosphere. The Runcos have not had to advertise in 18 years; if they did, "I'd have to sleep here," quips Mr. Runco. "It's about quality, not quantity. We have as much business as we can get. It's nice to know that everything goes out of here good and fresh. We make it right before you come in and you leave with a warm cookie. You really can't do anything like that anywhere else unless you go to grandma's house."
Beth Kurtz Taylor is a master's candidate in the food studies program at Chatham University: ETaylor2@chatham.edu. First Published October 9, 2013 8:00 PM