For Connie McDonald and Pam Weekes, eating mountainous cookies was simply part of a diet the two followed for their triathlon training. The two women—who would later go on to found Levain Bakery on New York City’s Upper West Side—were competitive swimmers, whose serendipitous meeting at a swimming pool in the ‘90s ultimately led them to chow down on chocolate chip walnut cookies after training for 140-mile events.
“At the time, there weren’t all the power bars and goos that there are now, and we were really hungry all the time,” Pam explains. “These cookies were really satisfying.”
Pam and Connie were burning hundreds of calories—between all the swimming, biking, and running they were doing—which meant they could pretty much eat whatever they wanted. These hulking chocolate chip cookies were six-ounces, studded with walnuts and wholesome ingredients. “There’s nothing bad in them,” Pam says, emphasizing that their big nature and caloric-heavy behemoths were plenty satiating after their workouts.
The pair’s love of baking ultimately led them to leave their jobs and open a bakery. They originally began as a wholesale bakery, churning out loaves of bread, before sliding into a subterranean space on West 74th Street. One day on a whim, the pair decided to make a dozen of their beloved cookies—just to see if customers would enjoy them as much as they did. Unsurprisingly, the first batch sold out.
“The next day, people were coming in asking for them,” Pam says.
And so Levain Bakery became an adored destination for soft, just-baked cookies—cookies so warm that the chocolate sprinkled throughout is bound to instantly melt on your fingers. These softball-sized cookies are towering, a thick-domed shell weighing in at six ounces. The chocolate chip walnut variety was the first flavor, followed shortly by oatmeal raisin, chocolate peanut butter, and double chocolate chip. And while the average consumer is invariably not on a triathlon diet, these cookies are decidedly some of the best you’ll find—and worth seeking out.
Since the release of the cookies, Levain has seen unpredicted success. Lines spill out of each of the six locations, peppered with cult-like customers itching to get their fingers on a cookie. Neither Pam nor Connie ever expected this would be the case; the pair hardly set out to create something fleetingly viral—after all, the initial introduction of the cookies was long before Instagram was a thing.
“We’re not trendy,” Pam says. “We’re classic.”
While trendiness has never been a word Pam or Connie would use to describe the cookies, they’ve fortuitously become trendy. Close shots of the cookies, broken in half to reveal gooey insides, are popular shares on Instagram, garnering hundreds of likes per photo. Plus, there is something undeniably classic about this humble chocolate chip cookie, this archetype of America. It’s an all-around American confection, a sweet that invariably invokes some wisp of nostalgia for yesterday, for a smidge of Americana.
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The success of the cookies has allowed Pam and Connie to open a sixth bakery—the first in downtown Manhattan.
“In a time when so many places around the country are closing and we’re opening another store with lines down the street, that’s really exciting for the brand,” Connie says.
With the opening of the new bakery comes an unexpected addition: a new cookie. For 25 years, the fab four cookies were the sole staples, a mix of classic and innovative. But the downtown bakery touts a new breed: the two chip cookie. Pam and Connie have swapped walnuts for a blending of semisweet and dark chocolates, something die-hard fans have been begging for years.
“We’ve had people asking us, ‘Please make a chocolate chip cookie without walnuts,’ for decades,” Connie says. “We just held true to our belief that the cookie is better with the walnut in it, but we also felt like it was time to cave and give them what they want.” The new two chip cookie is just as hefty and soft as the original—but with more chocolate and no nuts.
At the end of the day, Pam and Connie are donate whatever leftover cookies remain to local charities and food banks.
“It’s not easy to donate,” Connie says, underscoring that it’s worth the effort. “There’s work involved—as opposed to throwing it in the garbage. It’s really horrible that so many places do that.”
And while it’s inevitable that the bakery has evolved over the past 25 years, Pam and Connie aren’t looking to change the formula.
“We’ve stuck to our vision and been true to ourselves,” Pam explains. “We haven’t changed anything. We’ve stuck to what we do best.”
Header image by Kate Previte.