Baked goods seem to be on a first-name basis with customers at Weavers Way, judging from a quick survey of labels on the shelves. Among them is Noreen’s, a line of bars, cookies and loaf cakes that have been part of the Co-op almost since it began.
There really is a Noreen, too — Noreen Attman, a Glenside resident who does the baking herself, with two assistants. She used to have more helpers, “but I cut back the business when I hit 75,” she said, adding, “I’m going to be 77 New Year’s Eve.”
About that name — “Noreen’s Kitchen” was what Noreen and her late husband, Seymour, came up with, but Weavers Way simply labels the products Noreen’s. Said the woman behind the name, “I feel like, they sell them, they can do what they want.”
And sell them the Co-op does.
On a recent Saturday morning, Noreen and employee Lynda Huggett of Abington planned to bake three batches — around 50 pounds — to fill a Co-op order of Noreen’s most popular item “by far,” her Chocolate Chunk Cookies. The commercial kitchen is at the back of Noreen’s split-level home, but the fragrance of baking cookies wafts out to the sidewalk, guiding a visitor by the nose to the door.
Noreen first went to Weavers Way as a customer in 1973. Her husband had read an article about the little startup in the Philadelphia Bulletin and thought it might be a cheaper source for ingredients than the supermarket. Noreen and a friend had started a baking business earlier that year, though after a few months, the friend dropped out and Noreen, a self-taught baker, continued on.
She can’t remember what she first made for Co-op customers — loaf cakes, maybe cookies. She was a member, too, for a while, but “I just got too busy.”
Back then she also sold to local specialty shops and farm markets. Her biggest customer was a New Jersey orchard farm market that once sent in an order for 300 each of her pumpkin, apple and zucchini loaf cakes. The owner at one point wanted to buy her cake recipes. Fine, Noreen said, but she made the baker come to her house and see how she made them. She’s a friendly, chatty lady but exacting when it comes to her baking.
“I wouldn’t give the recipes without the training. I wanted to make sure they did it right,” she recalled. “If your mixing’s a bit off, if you don’t level your spoons,” the product suffers.
Noreen’s currently sells eight types of cookies, several bars and a variety of loaf cakes at Weavers Way Mt. Airy, said Grocery Manager Matt Hart. Chocolate Chunk is indeed the best seller there — 30 to 45 pounds a week on average.
Typically the Chestnut Hill store sells even more, Noreen said. And days before its grand opening, Noreen already had delivered 58 pounds of cookies and seven loaf cakes to the new Ambler location. “That Co-op! I was dumbfounded,” she said of her first sight of the new space. “I heard it was large. It’s supermarket-sized!”
Bagging Noreen’s bulk deliveries and weighing the bags for sale is already a sought-after cooperator job at the Ambler store, as it is at Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill.
Hart was the Mt. Airy bakery buyer for several years. “Every call to place an order with Noreen was a little more than a call to a vendor,” he said. “Every call would begin with her shooing her cat from her chair so she could sit to write out the order, followed by a brief check-in on how the week was going. Not in a professional sense but personally. Her product will be irreplaceable when she decides to hang up her oven mitts.”
Asked about her niche in the crowded world of sweet treats, Noreen responded, “Just that it’s homemade. And I thought people shopping at Weavers Way were looking for fresh food,” without preservatives.
When the business began, the Attmans lived in an Ambler Cape Cod. The larger Glenside home, needed for the couple’s growing family, is literally the house that baking built. “It was a hole in the ground when we bought it,” Noreen said. Her commercial kitchen has two massive ovens, lots of counter space and three sinks. Where’s the commercial dishwasher? Lynda raised her hands and the two women smiled.
Noreen does dishes, too, and she always measures and mixes the ingredients herself. She has a baking schedule but it’s flexible to respond to orders. Besides Weavers Way, Noreen’s still sells to a few specialty shops. She doesn’t do holiday-themed items the way she used to, but she’s still coming up with new products like Cranberry Cream Cheese Cookies, created six months ago. (“I don’t like cream cheese, but I thought, ‘I bet it would taste good in a cookie.’ ”) Cakes are baked in well-seasoned, paper-lined loaf pans. Cookies are made in multi-pound batches on large, heavy-duty cookie sheets. One December she sold 1,980 pounds of cookies; it’s her personal record.
Will she consider retirement at some point? “Yeah. You drop dead when you retire. You’re so bored.”
We’ll take that as a no.
Noreen Attman has been keeping the Co-op in cookies for more than four decades now, but Weavers Way gave her something pretty sweet, too.
When her now 45-year-old daughter was a baby, Noreen stopped by the Mt. Airy store with a delivery. An extra cashier was needed, so — as wasn’t uncommon in those days — Noreen volunteered, parking the 9-month-old close by. She looked up at one point to discover an orange tabby cat in the portacrib, purring away even as the baby grabbed at its fur. Unable to separate them, she put up signs, took the pair home and waited for somebody to claim Kitty Cat, as they called it.
Nobody did, and Kitty Cat would remain a beloved family member for 19 years.
— Laurie T. Conroy, Weavers Way Working Member, for the Shuttle