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How Levain Bakery’s co-founders came up with their iconic super thick cookie

Friends Pam Weekes and Connie McDonald have been serving up their gigantic chocolate chip-walnut cookies since the late '90s.
/ Source: TODAY

Levain Bakery is a New York City staple, known for its decadent, buttery, super thick cookies. Each sweet treat oozes chocolate and weighs nearly half a pound. The first location for the bakery was opened in 1995, and ever since, business has been booming.

Pam Weekes, one of the co-founders of Levain, told TODAY's Jill Martin that she and Connie McDonald realized they had a common goal while training for an Iron Man triathlon.

McDonald and Weekes during their triathlon days.
McDonald and Weekes during their triathlon days.Courtesy Levain Bakery

"That training time … it gives you a lot of time to think about your life," Weekes said. "And we, in addition to becoming very good friends, discovered that we both had dreams of having our own businesses someday."

McDonald said their dream felt even more possible as they worked through the grueling training for the triathlon, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 26.2-mile run and a bike ride of more than 110 miles.

"The sense of empowerment that you have is really pretty incredible," McDonald told Martin. At the time, she was working in finance while Weekes worked in fashion. "I decided to kind of toss all that and I went to cooking school. On my first day, I discovered bread baking and absolutely fell in love with that. The rest is kind of history."

Weekes and McDonald during the early days of Levain.
Weekes and McDonald during the early days of Levain.Courtesy Levain Bakery

At first, Levain only sold bread: McDonald said she and Weekes sold bread both to customers and to restaurants as a wholesale business. However, while the pair were training for the triathlon, they had been playing with one recipe.

"All along … We were making this chocolate chip-walnut cookie," McDonald explained. "You can kind of put it in your bike shirt, you know, and go off on a 100-mile bike ride."

Now set up with their own bakery, McDonald decided to make a batch.

Levain's famous chocolate chip-walnut cookies.
Levain's famous chocolate chip-walnut cookies.Kate Previte / Levain Bakery

"I was at the bakery by myself and I thought, 'Maybe I'll just make, just for the fun of it, a batch of those cookies,'" McDonald said. "And they all sold."

Those cookies, plus general word of mouth, brought even more customers to their door. In 1997, a glowing review from The New York Times changed everything.

"I was mopping the floor, Pam was in the back on the computer and the phone rang. It was The New York Times, fact-checking for a story they were going to write about our chocolate chip-walnut cookies," McDonald recalled. "We actually thought they were calling to sell us a subscription."

Levain's cookies are famous for their thick and gooey center.
Levain's cookies are famous for their thick and gooey center. Kate Previte / Levain Bakery

Weekes said that brought them national attention and inquiries about having the cookies delivered nationwide.

"(It) was shocking and exciting and so much fun," she said. "People were like, 'How can I get these cookies?' Do you ship them?' And so that was kind of a lightbulb moment for us."

While plenty of restaurants and bakeries deliver nationwide now, Levain Bakery was ahead of the curve. By 1999, McDonald and Weekes were shipping fresh-baked goods to all corners of the United States.

"Our UPS guy was like 'Ugh,' because we'd be like, 'Please wait, please wait, we've got a couple more packages,'" Weekes said.

The sign outside the original Levain Bakery on 74th and Amsterdam.
The sign outside the original Levain Bakery on 74th and Amsterdam.Kate Previte / Levain Bakery

Since then, the brand has only continued to grow. Now it has 10 locations around New York City, and stores like Whole Foods carry frozen versions of the cookies, which can be reheated and eaten at home.

Weekes said she's loved getting to grow the business with McDonald.

"I think that working with your best friend and somebody that you can 100% trust takes a lot of pressure off," Weekes said. "We always say that our biggest achievement is that we're still really good friends."

Stores like Whole Foods now sell frozen versions of Levain's cookies, which can be reheated at home.
Stores like Whole Foods now sell frozen versions of Levain's cookies, which can be reheated at home.Heather Winters / Levain Bakery

While the pair were tight-lipped about any future plans, Weekes did advise that cookie fans keep an eye out.

"We're always playing with recipes," she said. "You never know when something new might pop up into the bakery."