Secrets of the Promega Cookie Elf

Working at a manufacturing company like Promega means quite a few people here spend their days obsessing (rightly so) over things like bulk production, product finishing and quality assurance. As the holiday season approaches, however, many Promega Madison employees also begin obsessing (rightly so) over some extremely important manufacturing going on in Elaine York’s Wisconsin kitchen.

Elaine is married to Chuck York, Vice President of Manufacturing Operations at Promega. Each Christmas, she bakes thousands (yes, thousand with an “s”) of made-from-scratch Christmas cookies of every variety, artfully arranged on around 50 platters, which Chuck then brings to work to share with his lucky coworkers.

Today was that wonderful day at Promega!

“I enjoy doing it and he enjoys giving them,” says Elaine, an avid baker who has been creating delectable treats for over 40 years.

High-throughput manufacturing

Elaine estimates she makes around 4000 cookies each Christmas, and says Chuck is always part of the process. Chuck and two of the four York children, Ogden and Cassidy, spent a couple of hours last weekend cutting and wrapping 380 caramels and a recent afternoon forming and filling Chuck’s favorite holiday cookie, Pecan Cups.

But Elaine is in charge of this operation, applying her acute production planning skills. She hits the sales to buy the pounds and pounds of butter, flour and sugar she’ll need. She begins baking cookies four to five weeks before Christmas, freezing batches as she bakes them or mixing dough to freeze and then bake closer to the holidays. She works in stages, spending a few hours here mixing fillings, a few hours there rolling dough, not to mention the time required to assemble, bake, decorate, package, and store all the cookies. Adding up all those hours, Elaine guesses it would be about ten full days of work.

Sugar cookies (including a special white velvet version – one of Elaine’s favorites), Buckeyes (heavenly peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate), snowballs, cherry cookies, and many more types of treats converge on plates to become unique holiday masterpieces. Elaine makes about 25 varieties of cookies each holiday season, from traditional Christmas must-haves to at least one new kind that she tries each year. Her recipes are those she’s collected over time. Some are favorites from family members, others from a 4-H cookbook, and of course there’s Pinterest, though she says she usually tweaks those recipes to add her own twist. (Yes, besides heading up Manufacturing, Elaine also conducts her own Research & Development.)

Best of all, Elaine is open to sharing any of her yummy cookie recipes. “Just ask me!” (I did. Her recipe for Pecan Cups, which she received from Chuck’s mom, is below!)

Logistical support and on-time delivery

“It started years ago with Chuck taking cookies to a few people at work,” says Elaine. “As he worked with more groups, we sent more cookies and it just kept growing from there.”

Chuck is in charge of delivering all the goodies the week or so before Christmas to the various Promega departments he works with, which can be a feat in itself. Loading up the trays in the back of his truck, he goes from building to building on the Promega Madison campus and off campus buildings distributing the holiday goodness. It can take quite a while. Thankfully, he now has a few elves who meet him around campus to make distribution run smoother. Longtime friend and colleague Jennifer Romanin, Director of IVD Operations, helped recruit the elves starting last year. This year she also helped improve the process, moving from hand-written lists to printed-out labels to make sure each tray arrives at its rightful destination.  

The actual day of the delivery is cloaked in secrecy, with one Promega department even creating an office pool to guess when the cookies will arrive.

“The winner gets to pick the first cookie,” says Production Scientist Jeri Culp who won the pool one year, but is quick to point out that everyone is a winner when it comes to Elaine’s cookies. “They are just awesome. And it’s not just the amount but the variety too… cookies, candies, bars. It’s just amazing.”

Teamwork and customer satisfaction

Many at Promega marvel at the massive yet meaningful feat that Elaine and Chuck are able to pull off each year.

“As much as the company has grown, it is amazing they still do it. It’s just so personal,” says Sandy Hagen, a supervisor in the Molecular Cellular Biology Reporters group. Her favorite is the Seven Layer Bar, but Sandy is quick to add, “There’s not a bad cookie on that tray!”

The York Christmas cookies have been woven into the fabric of Promega holiday tradition, with some employees referring to the arrival of the cookie trays as ‘Elaine Day.’

“It’s our favorite day of the year!” says Manufacturing Operations Senior Manager Kris Pearson.

Chuck explains that the gesture resonates with him on several levels.

“It is giving back to people I and my teams work with and providing a smile in their day. It also represents the teamwork that has always been there between Elaine and me. I would not be where I am in my career without her supporting me and the cookies are just one more way she supports me.”

It’s important to show appreciation to all of those who touch his life, says Chuck.

“The relationships I have built are important to me. I truly feel I have a Promega family. My family also understands what it means to be a team and go above and beyond whether it is a sports team I am coaching, a team one of us are on, a teacher, a farmer who allows us to hunt, a friend, or neighbor.”

It would come as no surprise, therefore, to find out that Promega employees aren’t the only lucky recipients of Elaine’s cookies. She also bakes for her family, neighbors, friends, her kids’ friends, and of course, her kids’ teachers.

“I always bake for the teachers. If my kids think enough of a teacher that they want to give some Christmas cookies, then I’m going to be sure to do that. I also have a neighbor who is always doing so much extra to help us out. She says that I pay her in cookies!” says Elaine.

Once all that baking is done, you’d think Elaine would just want to collapse. She admits she gets tired, but adds that she still finds much joy in the process.

“It does take me a while to get all the sugar out of the crevices of my kitchen floor, but it’s worth it.”

 

Pecan Cups

Crust

6oz Cream Cheese
1 cup butter
2 cups flour

Cream butter and cream cheese, add flour and mix

Form into balls approximately 48 and place in mini muffin pan. Use your fingers or tart tamper to press into formed crust.

Filling

2 eggs
1 ½ cups brown sugar
2 T melted butter
2 tsp vanilla
½ tsp salt
1 1/3 cup of chopped pecans

Mix all ingredients together adding pecans last. Fill the mini crusts about ¾ full.

 

Bake 350⁰ until light brown usually 20-25 minutes

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Karen is a Communication Specialist who has the privilege of helping to tell the Promega story in a multitude of ways. A former reporter, producer and teacher, Karen holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. She is the mom of teenage twins and one very spoiled (yet deserving) rescue dog.

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