Sweet lady was hardly a cookie-cut­ter baker

Beloved Kuehn, who en­riched the lives and bel­lies of many, has died

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Allyson Reedy and Libby Rainey The Denver Post

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.”

Denver Post file

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.

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