Sweet lady was hardly a cookie-cutter baker
Beloved Kuehn, who enriched the lives and bellies of many, has died
T he ovens will fire up one last time inside the Santa Fe Cookie Company’s tiny Republic Plaza storefront Monday, but The Cookie Lady, Debbie Kuehn, won’t be the one pulling out the trays of fragrant, delicious cookies as jazz plays in the background.
Kuehn’s niece Alexis McLean, who worked at Santa Fe on and off for years, will be doing the baking to celebrate the life of one of Denver’s most beloved bakers.
Kuehn died June 28. She was 57. “Debbie always said, ‘I’m changing the world one cookie at a time,’ ” Kuehn’s sister Bambi Forbes said. “She built her own life one cookie at a time, and she was really proud of that. We’re baking up the rest of the cookies and giving them away in the tradition of Debbie. She would’ve wanted to honor all of her longtime customers and friends downtown.”
To many, Kuehn was an institution. She was a fixture on the 16th Street Mall, baking three-for-a-dollar cookies that could turn your day around. Just wander down the stairs, drop your dollar into the plastic jug and take a tiny white bag of Debbie’s treasures.
She was so good at her craft that you’d think she had been baking her whole life, but Forbes said her sister was more of an entrepreneur than a baker. She made her own opportunities at every turn, whether it was selling vegetables out of her parents’ Boulder garden at age 11 or buying into a cookie business in 1986, when she opened the Santa Fe Cookie Company inside the then-new Tivoli Mall on the Auraria campus.
“More than anything, she was a business person,” Forbes said. “When she was a little kid, she saved every penny. She was always industrious and hard-working.”
Kuehn graduated from Boulder High School in 1977 and from Western State Colorado University before falling in love with traveling during the program Semester at Sea. Later, it would be her cookie income that funded her travels, taking her all over the world. She especially loved Rome — and might have moved there one day, but her love for the cookie business and her customers kept her in Denver.
When the Tivoli Mall closed in the early 1990s, Kuehn took her recipes downtown — to the Duffy’s building at 1635 Court Place — and switched to wholesale. From a tiny kitchen in the back of the now-gone Duffy’s Shamrock bar, she’d crank out enough dough to feed skiers in Vail, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Keystone and Winter Park, packing her old truck with boxes of frozen dough and driving it up to the resorts.
But word soon got out that this amazing cookie lady was baking downtown. And city folk were cookiehungry, too.
Then, like the mounds of dough rising up and turning golden in her oven, the idea for the honor-system cookie sales came to life. Too busy mixing and baking to put out a register or interact with customers, Kuehn set out an old plastic jug to collect a customer’s dollar in exchange for three freshly baked cookies.
No one monitored whether people actually paid. Kuehn just trusted that people would do the right thing.
Soon it was fairly wellknown that the best cookies in town were being baked down this sketchy, cramped hallway in the Duffy’s building. The smell of freshbaked creations wafted over cubicle walls and through high-rise hallways.
The speakeasy of cookies became the worst-kept secret in Denver.
Kuehn moved Santa Fe to its current spot in the Republic Plaza’s lower courtyard in May 2008. There she had more space, but she kept the honor system running, relying on the goodness of people to pay for the goodness of her cookies.
“This whole time, it was just Debbie,” Forbes said. “She had employees here and there, but nobody could do it like Debbie did. It was a one-woman show.”
In February, customers began noticing that Kuehn wasn’t herself. She became unresponsive and disoriented, and it was clear something was wrong.
“She worked and worked, and suddenly she was in the hospital and they were taking a tumor out of her brain,” Forbes said.
Kuehn underwent surgery to have the tumor removed and spent a month at the Spalding Rehabilitation Hospital relearning basic activities and speech. When she went home to recover more fully, all she wanted to do was return to baking. She missed the interaction with all her people downtown.
Kuehn reopened the Santa Fe Cookie Company on May 1, once again feeding her customers the cookies they craved. She was healing — and she believed the cancer was gone, but the baking didn’t last. The tumors came back, invading her brain and making it impossible for her to continue her life’s work. Three weeks later, she closed up shop again.
Kuehn died at home a month later.
On Wednesday afternoon, customers rambled down the stairs looking for a cookie fix, but they found instead a note posted on the bakery door letting them know Kuehn had died.
“She was so sweet, so happy to be here,” said Parker Nolan, 18, who had been coming to Santa Fe Cookie Company with her parents for years. “She knew our names, she would ask about us. I’m totally shocked.”
Nolan’s dad used to own a deli at 16th and Blake streets, where he sold Kuehn’s cookies.
“I don’t know who is going to fill the void,” said Kamal Gala, who works in Republic Plaza and regularly stopped in. “I don’t know if you can.”
Someone left a pink PostIt note next to the announcement of her death. “Debbie gave us so much,” it said. “A place to take a break during a stressful workday. Comfort and warm cookies. And above all, friendship. We will miss you terribly.”
The ovens below Republic Plaza haven’t been on since Kuehn died, but customers and friends will get one last chance to taste her unforgettable cookies and say goodbye at 10 a.m. Monday, when her niece bakes her recipes for the last time.
Donations — dropped into the plastic jug, of course — will be taken for two of Kuehn’s favorite organizations: Colorado Public Radio and the Rocky Mountain Feline Rescue.
It’s a fitting send-off for the woman who satisfied Denver’s collective sweet tooth for so many decades.
“She brought love to the world,” Forbes said, “one cookie at a time.”
Debbie Kuehn, pictured at her Santa Fe Cookie Company in Republic Plaza in 2009, “built her own life one cookie at a time, and she was really proud of that,” said Kuehn’s sister Bambi Flores. Kuehn died June 28 at age 57.