Willow Cole

One Smart Cookie

There are no elves at the Heritage Shortbread bakery. It's not hidden in a hollow tree, but tucked away in a warehouse on Hunter Rd., where Willow Cole is up to her elbows in cookie dough, making the most uncommonly delicious shortbread that ever melted in your mouth. Surprisingly, she says, "I am not a baker. This is the one thing I know how to bake."

The original recipe, passed down for over three generations, is as carefully guarded as the secret formula for Coca Cola, residing in only two places: a safety deposit box and Willow's memory. When her mother, Margaret McGrain, died in 2002 and Willow became sole custodian, she felt a nudge to take it a step further than personal gift-giving. "I had a vision," she said, as she contemplated a broader plan to honor her Scottish heritage.

Sharing a restaurant kitchen, Willow began offering the shortbread for sale in area gift shops, making her way into an Atlanta showroom and marketing to gourmet shops throughout the Southeast. Today, she has her own climate-controlled bakery where she produces anywhere from 1400-3,500 cookies, three days a week, distributing over 10,000 boxes per year. On non-baking days, she spends her time on paperwork and administrative duties. "It's really, really hard work. It's not like suddenly you're Mrs. Fields," said Willow, who insists on making every batch by hand and overseeing the entire operation, from assembling the raw ingredients to packaging and shipping.

Willow didn't set out to be famous for her shortbread. Like many of us, she simply followed life's path, listening to her heart along the way. She studied to be a speech pathologist but then married, moved to California and got a job in the garment industry. Working for Vanity Fair lingerie, her dad used to tease her: "Five years of college and you sell underwear?" But she loved it. She later transferred to New York and went on to work in dresses and coats.

Willow faced a life-changing challenge in 1988 when her car was struck head-on by a driver asleep at the wheel. Rushed to the ER along with her four-year-old son, Spencer, both had extensive injuries and neither was expected to survive. Today's reminders are: a miraculously healthy son, a painful limp, and a powerful resolve. "I hate giving up. The only reason I endured five years of agonizing surgeries and therapy was to set an example for my son," said Willow, explaining that Spencer required numerous surgeries as well.

As frequent visitors to Hilton Head Island, the Coles made their way here permanently in 1993. Still struggling with mobility, Willow retired and did not go back to work until 2000, when she and a friend began decorating people's houses for Christmas. The business morphed into a redesign service called House Calls. "I always liked to rearrange furniture," said Willow-a result of frequent moves growing up and the necessity to practice!

Although baking shortbread may seem very different from her previous careers, the creative process is her source of joy. "I love to see things come full circle, whether it's designing a coat, decorating a room or making cookies," said Willow. "Just to do something and have it end up where your vision was and to have people enjoy it. It doesn't have anything to do with money. It's fun."

Willow is quick to praise all those who have helped her along the way, especially her husband, Tom. In addition to his support and assistance, she has received business advice from S.C.O.R.E. and has engaged the services of Clemson University to develop a consistent product and reliable packaging solutions. "It has turned from a recipe in my head to a science," said Willow, who admits, "Growing is hard."

Up Close

Born in: Michigan; grew up in Chicago Describes herself as: creative, fun-loving and tenacious Life motto: "Just wing it!" Read more about the history of Heritage Shortbread and find out where you can buy it at: www.heritageshortbread.com. Shortbread recipe: Butter, sugar, flour.The secret ingredient: belief!