Not your imagination: N.H. Girl Scout cookies taste different
One Cambridge woman is torn between Boston and New Hampshire, but the differences are pronounced. An Arlington family pines for New York and Utah. One fan boycotted New Jersey after relocating to Massachusetts, and another mourns a move from Virginia.
I’m not talking about sports teams. I refer to an even bigger rivalry: Girl Scout cookies.
Delivery season is upon us. And for those who think all Thin Mints are created equal, let me confirm: Your opinion is half-baked.
Historically, two bakeries have manufactured Girl Scout cookies. There’s ABC Bakers, a division of Interbake Foods based in Richmond, Va., and Little Brownie Bakers, owned by the Kellogg Co., based in Battle Creek, Mich. The Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts work with ABC. Scouts in Central and Western Massachusetts, and in Southern New Hampshire, sell cookies from Little Brownie Bakers.
There is a RFP process every three years wherein leaders from each region, or council, compare metrics like pricing, ordering software, delivery management, and so on.
But let’s be honest. It really comes down to taste. The Girl Scouts can’t switch bakeries willy-nilly: There could be a revolt.
“There’s a huge allegiance to one product over another because it’s what we’ve known. If we were going to switch bakers, we can’t do it just to keep the prices down. We have to take into account the loyalty that has built up,” said Barbara Fortier, chief operations officer for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, which has used ABC throughout her 17-year tenure.
ABC sells Caramel deLites, Girl Scout S’mores, Lemonades, Peanut Butter Patties, Peanut Butter Sandwiches, Shortbreads, Thanks-A-Lots, Thin Mints, and Trios. Little Brownie Bakers sells Do-si-dos, Girl Scout S’mores, Samoas, Savannah Smiles, Tagalongs, Thin Mints, Toffee-tastics, and Trefoils.
Calling each bakery to learn about recipes was instructive. Little Brownie Bakers initially declined to participate in this story via a Kellogg’s spokesperson. At ABC, I was routed through a charmingly quaint phone tree where I could press “2” to learn about the bakery’s pension plan. Finally, I chatted vivaciously with an operator who felt just awful that their public relations manager was out of the office. She took down my name and number.
Nobody called me back. But sometimes that’s how the cookie crumbles.
Other experts were more forthcoming. There are structural cookie differences, said Marc Johnson, president of Texture Technologies Corp. in Hamilton. His company analyzes firmness, brittleness, stickiness, springiness, and other key qualities for companies like Domino’s Pizza and Stonyfield Farm.
In 2016, Johnson tested both types of Thin Mints for “hardness and crunchiness.”
“The ABC Bakers’ Thin Mints were statistically much harder than the Little Brownie Thin Mints” and “slightly less crunchy,” he concluded. In general, ABC cookies were harder than their Little Brownie counterparts.
“You would think someone in Tennessee would expect the same thing as what you get in Georgia. You don’t expect a California Oreo and a Boston Oreo,” said Johnson.
As such, customers are willing to go to certain lengths to procure their preferred treat.
“It’s not hard to go over a council line and find what you like,” said Suzanne Smiley, chief operations officer for the Girl Scouts of Central & Western Massachusetts, which uses Little Brownie Bakers. Smiley longs for a discontinued shortbread cookie called the Scot-Tea, so she understands the desperation.
In fact, while researching this story, word spread that I harbored cookies from both bakeries. Which is how it came to be that I placed a Tupperware container full of Samoas onto my front stoop for a pregnant neighbor who simply can’t abide our local equivalent, Caramel deLites.
Getting the cookies wasn’t easy, either. One batch was wrongly delivered to my neighbor down the block, our addresses inverted. I hustled down the street and knocked on his door — a Girl Scout cookie avenger.
“I was wondering about this delivery,” he said sheepishly, reluctantly forking over the bag.
Of course, these are merely cookies. They are almost uniformly delicious, and they go toward a good cause: Proceeds benefit the Girl Scouts, and each troop keeps 90 cents of each box sold for troop-wide trips and activities. (In our area, boxes go for $5.) Each council invests the remaining proceeds in programs like camps. Girls learn skills like goal-setting, decision-making, money management, people skills, and business ethics — lessons emblazoned on each box, regardless of manufacturer.
“Both [bakeries] have excellent cookies. Girl Scouts of the USA makes sure the cookies are all high-quality. With either one, you’re getting a good product and a good program from the girls,” said Smiley.
Fair enough. And there are universal truths. Thin Mints always sell well, said troop leaders and scouts. So do Samoas (Little Brownie Bakers) and Caramel deLites (ABC’s equivalent). But nobody seems to like the gluten-free choices very much.
Meghan Elledge is a cookie manager in Arlington. She doesn’t have a child in the Girl Scouts — she has a son, not a daughter — and she’s a wealth of cookie history. S’mores, a newer cookie, have been a surprise hit.
“S’mores this year sold remarkably well. I’m told they’re the best-selling new cookie in recent memory,” she said.
Meanwhile, gluten-free cookies have proved problematic.
“We’ve had them for four or five years. The first one was a chocolate-chip shortbread — no, maybe an all-butter recipe, with chocolate chips. They were really good, but they crumbled fast. We switched to a peanut butter oatmeal chocolate chip [Trios], and my girls are still sad. They’re good, but not as good as that first batch,” she said.
“The gluten-frees aren’t going anywhere, but those are hard to sell,” agreed Rebecca Wise-Bono, a troop leader from Saugus.
Thin Mints always go fast, though.
“They’re definitely the most popular. My info might be old, but they’re one of the most popular cookies in the country just on their own. They’re right behind Oreos, and they’re only sold three to four months per year,” Elledge said.
In Central and Western Massachusetts, “Thin Mints are a third of our sales,” said Charlotte Valle, 11, whose troop comprises Greenfield and Turners Falls. “I’ve never tried the other bakery. My cousin lives in Walpole, and she used to sell for ABC Bakery. I heard that [her] Lemonades are good. We have Savannah Smiles, but they aren’t really sold. People who like them don’t buy five boxes of them. They don’t like the lemon.”
But fans said that the lessons that come from selling are as important as the taste — well, almost.
“The [girls] talk to people, answer questions, make change. I have 5-year-olds who know their times tables. They’re respectful. They always answer with, ‘Thank you. Have a nice day,’ even if someone says no. It’s a huge growth experience for the kids,” said Wise-Bono.
That said, troop leaders are only human.
“I cheat and get Savannah Smiles. I go to the dark side and get some of theirs, and I like their S’mores as well. An old boss of mine is a leader. We trade cookies. I give her Lemonades and Thanks-A-Lots, and she gives me Savannah Smiles and S’mores. It’s a nice way to get the other ones,” admitted Wayland leader Zuania Wood.
A tale of two bakers
So who has the best cookies? I bought packages from both regions for testing. And test I did, once I wrangled the shipment from my neighbor. I compared four popular types: Thin Mints (same name from both bakeries); Caramel deLites (ABC) and Samoas (Little Brownie); Peanut Butter Patties (ABC) and Tagalongs (Little Brownie); and Girl Scout S’mores (same name).
ABC Thin Mints v. Little Brownie Thin Mints
Motto: “Crispy chocolate wafers dipped in a mint chocolaty coating” (ABC); “Crisp wafers covered in chocolaty coating made with natural oil of peppermint” (Little Brownie).
Appearance: ABC’s cookies are matte and dense. Little Brownie cookies have a shiny, thick coat and a wafer-like consistency.
Calories per serving: 160.
Habitat: Identical green boxes on the outside. ABC uses a shiny silver sleeve. Little Brownie uses a clear one.
Nutritional notes: ABC’s cookies contain high-fructose corn syrup. Little Brownie advertises no high-fructose corn syrup.
Taste: Testers were split. Little Brownie fans praised the “flavor, texture, and color.” ABC fans hailed their cookie as “concentrated and dense” with a strong, minty punch. My 7-year-old declared ABC’s Thin Mints his favorite of any cookie sampled.
Conclusion: Thin Mints from ABC are heavier on the mint; Little Brownie has superior crunch.
ABC Peanut Butter Patties v. Little Brownie Tagalongs
Motto: “Crispy vanilla cookies layered with peanut butter and covered with a chocolaty coating” (ABC); “Crispy cookies layered with peanut butter and covered with a chocolaty coating” (Little Brownie).
Appearance: ABC’s cookies are smaller and darker on the outside; Little Brownie’s version is lighter and saucer-like.
Calories per serving: 130 (ABC); 140 (Little Brownie).
Habitat: Identical cherry-red boxes; different sleeves as noted above.
Nutritional notes: ABC’s first ingredient is sugar. Little Brownie leads with peanut butter.
Taste: Little Brownie has the superior chocolate-to-peanut-butter ratio, and it’s unencumbered by ABC’s vanilla. The peanut butter is creamier, and the cookie is slightly larger.
Conclusion: Tagalongs from Little Brownie are peanut butterier; ABC’s version has a whisper of vanilla and a more chocolaty coating.
ABC Caramel deLites v. Little Brownie Samoas
Motto: “Vanilla cookies topped with caramel, sprinkled with toasted coconut, and laced with chocolaty stripes” (ABC); “Crisp cookies coated in caramel, sprinkled with toasted coconut, and striped with dark chocolaty coating” (Little Brownie).
Appearance: Wildly different. Caramel deLites are lighter and flakier; Samoas have a darker, dewy coating.
Calories per serving: 130 (ABC); 150 (Little Brownie).
Habitat: Identical purple boxes; different sleeves as noted above.
Nutritional notes: Samoas contain slightly more total fat, sodium, and carbohydrates than their Caramel deLite sisters.
Taste: This breaks down by region. Tasters who grew up with Samoas adore them. So do newcomers. One taster praised its “deeper, richer caramel flavor” and “toasted coconut” essence. Caramel deLites, meanwhile, are slightly more chocolaty.
Conclusion: For a sweeter, caramel taste, go for a Samoa. If you prefer a lighter, more chocolaty version, opt for a Caramel deLite.
ABC Girl Scout S’mores v. Little Brownie Girl Scout S’mores
Motto: “Crispy graham cookie double dipped in yummy crème icing and finished with a scrumptious chocolatey [sic] coating” (ABC); “Crunchy graham sandwich cookies with creamy chocolate and marshmallowy filling” (Little Brownie). These Girl Scout bakeries play fast and loose with their adjectives.
Appearance: No similarities at all. ABC sells a bumpy, chocolate-encased wafer similar to what you might melt while camping. Little Brownie produces a small, oval sandwich with layers of chocolate and marshmallow within that calls to mind something cobbled by a Keebler elf. It probably wouldn’t do well if set aflame.
Calories per serving: 180 (ABC); 150 (Little Brownie).
Habitat: ABC arrives in a plastic container; Little Brownie uses a stout, square box.
Nutritional notes: The chocolate-enrobed ABC version is far higher in saturated fat (35 percent of daily value) than its Little Brownie counterpart (18 percent).
Taste: ABC is a textural purist’s delight. There’s the appropriate mix of chocolate sweetness and graham cracker crunch. Some fans even microwave them for additional goo, and one tester detected a “faint marshmallow essence, which was kind of neat.” Little Brownie gets points for actually including a true portion of marshmallow in its version — after all, that’s what S’mores are all about — but these taste more like vanilla than chocolate.
Conclusion: Those with fond memories of warming S’mores by a campfire should opt for ABC. Those who like taking apart a sandwich cookie Oreo-style will be happier with Little Brownie.