How does a plumber from Boxford, making biscotti in Haverhill from an old family recipe, get approval from food giant Hershey's Co. to use its name on his label?

"Quality control. We are synonymous with quality," said Ernie Cioto, 44, who owns and operates both Extreme Plumbing and Gianna's Gourmet Inc. out of the same building on Haverhill's Railroad Street.

The Salem News recently asked Cioto how, 22 years after founding his plumbing company, a childhood passion for Italian cookies took his career on a sweet detour into the food industry.

When did you start making cookies?

In 2007, I started a cookie company. We were doing Italian cookies using a 100-year-old recipe that was in the family for years. I made it bite-sized. We used to do all different flavors — orange, anise, amaretto, like muffin shapes, mini-muffins and soft-based. They were going over pretty big, but there's only so far you can go with an Italian cookie. You have to make something universal everyone can enjoy.

What kind of process did you have to go through to start the cookie business?

I got my permits to put the bakery in, I'm licensed by the state and city. Once I started, you find out real quick how hard it is to make it in the food industry: get your labeling correct, break down the allergens, calories, fat, trans fat. AIB (American institute of Bakers), we went with them — they do the breakdowns with you. Then kosher certification, to make sure everybody can enjoy them.

How do you organize the production?

It just evolved. When I first started, I was doing it with melon scoops. I did it by myself. Right now, I have 17 people down there. I bought all sorts of equipment. I started with one convection oven, ended up with five ovens. ... We went from being able to produce 1,000 cookies a day to a million cookies a week.

What got you started making the Italian cookies?

As kids growing up, they only made the Italian cookies on the holidays, so we'd have to wait for our aunts and family to come over. We'd tell ourselves, someday we've got to sell these. One day in 2007, I had (a vacancy in) my building. I didn't want to let it out to somebody. I thought, I'm going to make those cookies. I always liked to cook.

How did you start to change the recipe?

I took on a partner, Jack Streeter. He has 35 years of baking experience and had the wherewithal to run a very large, commissary-type kitchen. Teaming with him turned out to be great. We came up with sandwich cookies, two cookies with filling in the middle, a bite-sized cookie. No one had ever heard of a peanut butter and jelly cookie — that was my own invention, driving down to South Boston one day.

Why did you want to partner with Hershey's?

We wanted to go with somebody with a name brand, an American company that had been around forever, we wanted recognition. We are the only nationally trademarked and registered cookie company with them right now. It's kind of an honor. They've never done that before.

What was involved in getting trademarked with Hershey's?

We went through a very rigorous line of quality control with Hershey, panels with 20 people.

So you are using Hershey's ingredients in your new cookies?

Hershey's Cocoa and Hershey's Mini Chips in our chocolate and chocolate fudge sandwich cookie. We use the Reese's Mini Peanut Butter Chips in the peanut butter and jelly cookie and the peanut butter and chocolate fudge, which tastes just like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

How have retailers responded?

On May 16, we'll be in every Market Basket. On June 1, we'll be in every BJ's with the family pack. We're as far away as Florida right now. We're focusing on the peanut butter and jellies to start. Other flavors you can order online.

Who's the little girl in the photo on the label?

That's my daughter Gianna. She was 4 years old at the time. She loves baking, you can see by the outfit on her in that picture. She was making Italian biscottis with my mother-in-law. I blew it up and put it on my office wall. Our old name was Ernie's Biscotti Bites. That wasn't really working. For me, there's only so far you're going to go with a name like Ernie. So I decided I'm going to name this new company Gianna's.

Do you still work as a plumber?

I actually am working on a big project in South Boston. I'm in the middle of 80 units on East 1st and I streets. I had 45 trucks at one time. Now I only have six, and I've never been happier.

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