Crumbl and Traeger are actually tech companies
You’re scrolling on Instagram. Dance reels, pasta close-ups, tropical getaways you’re not on—it all flips by in nanoseconds until everything comes to a screeching halt. What is this decadence, this temptation? You can’t help but think, “Why am I pausing to watch…a cookie?”
If you know, you know. Those maddeningly seductive posts from Crumbl Cookies are pure culinary evil. Crumbl has turned something we could all technically bake in our kitchen into something we can’t resist grabbing before the next get-together.
The company even had the audacity to turn online ordering into a must-have experience. Think of the anticipation of the weekly cookie flavor reveal and the UX that tells us when our very own cookies will be toasty-melty and ready for pick-up at the store.
Crumbl has grown from its flagship store in Logan, Utah, to more than 420 stores in over 40 states in just five years—and the company credits its success to being more than a bakery.
“Right from the very beginning, we realized Crumbl needed to be a technology company and not just a cookie company,” says Jason McGowan, Crumbl co-founder and CEO. “We decided we were going to make technology a part of everything.”
Crumbl and like-minded companies like Traeger Pellet Grills are onto something: consumer goods that are elevated, orchestrated, and optimized by tech. They’re non-tech companies behaving an awful lot like tech companies, and they’re developing recipes worth repeating.
For McGowan and his co-founders, tech was so important to Crumbl’s early development that their first corporate hire was Bryce Redd as CTO, formerly a Facebook software engineer. His first task was to build a loyalty program, and his to-do list quickly grew from there.
“Usually in bigger brand, multimillion-dollar companies, they have the ability to have these loyalty programs,” McGowan says, who started his career in tech. “When you go from one store, you can redeem the points in another store. Technology doesn’t have that solved for smaller businesses, so when we got going, we decided we really needed to do this.”
The Crumbl team wanted to provide a loyalty point system that customers could accrue through orders on their mobile phones, desktops, and Crumbl POS systems. “In order for that to happen, we felt like we had to make the whole system ourselves—which is really crazy,” McGowan says. “If you ask anyone, they say, ‘You’re going to build your own POS system, your own ticketing system, and your own mobile app?’”
But by doing just that, it allowed the Crumbl team to leverage their POS to be unique, McGowan says.
“When you tap on the cookies, they magically go into the box. And when you order those particular cookies, we can manage quality control because we also know what cookies were ordered and what they should look like,” he says.
“We decided we were going to make technology a part of everything.”
McGowan believes Crumbl really began to shine at the onset of Covid.
“Within a few weeks, no one was coming into our stores. It was a really rough time for a lot of people to figure out how to make it work because we had so many customers on our mobile apps and using our technology,” he says. “In two weeks, our engineers—who hardly slept at all—built a curbside ‘drive-thru’ at every location. They designed it so I could place the order and push the button for curbside. The technology could detect when I was close to the store, and then I can check when I’m in here.”
Another critical integration for Crumbl has been the back-end system for store owners. With hundreds of franchises popping up across the country, Crumbl has managed to do what is often difficult with rapid growth: maintain consistency of product and experience.
“We have a weekly rotating menu, which is crazy,” McGowan says. “If you think about it, no concept is like, ‘Let’s change our product every week.’ We had to build underlying technology that didn’t exist in the marketplace. Every time we update the recipes, our [Crew App] automatically updates all the recipes for all 20,000 bakers. Then we created our own internal tool where you can see a newsfeed, like on social media, where we give the bakers tips and tricks on making the best cookies.”
Crumbl’s Crew App also empowers owners to optimize operations. There’s a dashboard that tracks multiple data points, like how long it takes customers to get their cookies, how many cookies each baker produces, cookie quality, customer survey results, sales revenue, labor costs, and more. “They can compare their stats to other stores, too,” McGowan says. “We utilize technology to give the franchise partners the power to know where the tweaks and fixes are for each store.”
Since its inception, Crumbl has also used technology for product development. The evolution of its very first cookie—the chocolate chip beauty that’s still a part of each week’s offerings—was crowdsourced using A/B testing. That tech-driven approach to R&D continues today.
“When we launch a cookie, they assume we have R&D in the basement,” McGowan says. “But we put it out to 20 different stores with QR codes. They taste-test, ranking the appearance and the texture, telling us what they want us to do to improve the cookie, and all that comes into our tech platform. We reimagine the cookie and go through this iterative process. By the time a new cookie launches to the public, we’ve gone through and taste-tested our cookies in a very analytical way.”
Crumbl has also deployed digital marketing tactics, leveraging irresistible imagery, anticipation, and urgency to grow its reach. The weekly product reveal drops every Sunday evening while the stores are closed. The limited six-day product window lends a sense of “get-it-before-it’s-gone” buzz. Crumbl encourages online storytelling, engaging with social media fans as they share their experiences of buying cookies to cheer someone up or snagging a half-dozen for a girls’ night.
Crumbl’s tech-forward approach has proven invaluable from a franchise owner’s perspective. Dan Lawyer, a partner in a group that owns nine Crumbl stores, is also the chief product officer of Lucid. As a tech innovator, he has been impressed with many of Crumbl’s moves.
“As an operator of a store, they have built out all the essential stuff I need to know about how things are going in the app,” Lawyer says. “There’s a lot of stuff we used to have to do manually that is now highly automated.”
When the pandemic started, it was a good test for how companies were utilizing tech, Lawyer says. “Within two weeks, Crumbl added the curbside option to their infrastructure and apps. Most retail companies weren’t able to move that fast.”
“Within two weeks, Crumbl added the curbside option to their infrastructure and apps. Most retail companies weren’t able to move that fast.”
Salt Lake City-based Traeger Pellet Grills is another company that Lawyer nods to as a “non-tech” tech company. “If you think about it, how long have people been cooking meat over a flame? Probably longer than people have been making cookies, right? Most people probably never thought about integrating a smoker with a cell phone, but they’re doing that,” he says.
Before the wood pellet grill company added tech to its mix, Matt Czach, VP of design and product experience at Traeger, says the pellet grilling culture was pretty much “barbecue, barbecue, barbecue.”
With the arrival of Traeger’s first connected grill in 2017, users could use the “low and slow, set it and forget it” approach. They dared to step away from their grills to run errands or watch the game, checking meat temperature and cooking time from anywhere on their smartphones.
Traeger is now on its third generation of connected grills with the recent launch of its Timberline product, which sports an enhanced touchscreen display.
“You can name your grill, so when you turn it on, it says something like, ‘Sir Grills-A-Lot is ready to cook.’ Mine? I called it Meat Wad,” Czach says.
With Timberline, Traeger has added features like self-diagnostics to ensure all its systems are working, Czach says. As the advancements continue, Traeger is transitioning the archetype of outdoor cooking. Connectivity, personalized onboarding, and online recipes and tutorials are elevating the grilling experience.
“We use user-centered design in the development of our grills,” Czach says. “We’ve really evolved that language from ‘grills’ to ‘experiences.’ What is the cooking journey, from the inspiration of what you’re going to cook all the way to the cleanup? Where is there friction? Where can we help? What is that barrier to entry when you’re unfamiliar with pellet grilling?”
The Traeger team is using this tech to understand the cooking patterns of users. “[We want to] extrapolate what they’re cooking, when they’re cooking, and triangulate the data of the recipes they’re searching for. [We can then say], ‘Hey, we know you’re cooking a lot of steaks. Have you ever tried a reverse-sear?’ Or, ‘We see you do a lot of shorter cooks. Have you ever tried a brisket before?’ We’re evolving to be the sous-chef for someone who wants to use our product as a tool for culinary expression.”
Tech innovation in a non-tech world was also critical for Rob Murphy, an owner of multiple franchises of a leading international food chain.
“I had just spent about 14 years in high tech when I made the jump to the franchises for an improved quality of life,” Murphy says. “I saw massive opportunities for data. At the time, their daily process flow was incredibly time-consuming and pencil-driven. My original idea was just to create a solution that would allow a computer to do what was repetitive, so the people could do what people were good at—customer engagement.”
Murphy explains he and his team started by developing a business flow system, but it quickly evolved from there.
“As we got in and started doing the data, we realized we could get into predictive analysis with the amount of data we had,” he says. “The system could become part of the team—not just taking off workload, but helping the store operations to be better prepared for when business was going to come in.”
The company, which will remain undisclosed, partnered with Google early on, looking at a myriad of data analytics and web searches for correlations.
“Due to some limitations with the Google data, we ended up writing our own back-end analytics system that learned what the local consumer looked like,” Murphy says. “We analyzed things like time of the month, the weather, the temperature, what products we were selling—everything along those lines to be able to prompt stores on what to have available.”
"We’ve really evolved that language from ‘grills’ to ‘experiences.’"
By way of example, Murphy tells of a situation where the system was prompting one of the stores to add a product to the menu. The store manager resisted, insisting she wouldn’t be able to sell that product. She finally conceded one Thursday afternoon. Within five minutes, a customer came in and ordered the item. As predicted, this same individual came in and repeated the order every week at the same time.
Murphy explains the system was designed to look for patterns, allowing the stores to go from a broad shotgun approach to very specific, narrow strategies. “We were able to increase ticket value and improve customer satisfaction,” he says. “The integrated in-store supply management allowed us to make what everybody else calls a custom product, but actually, we were just predicting and modeling what to have in the store.”
Murphy’s stores became such an example of efficiency and optimization that the company approached him to partner on further development of his system, ultimately buying the enterprise solution for use throughout its entire international operations.
Interestingly, Murphy recently sold his last franchise with that company to start his next venture. He’s opening three Crumbl stores in Georgia.
“I’ve loved it. They’re very aligned with where I was, using tech to do what it’s better suited to do, letting the humans be great at what they do,” Murphy says of Crumbl’s tech-based approach.